Get Fit Tip! Maintaining Mobile Joints – Thoracic Spine

Get Fit Tip! Maintaining Mobile Joints – Thoracic Spine


Continuing the mobility series, this week’s fit tip moves up the chain to thoracic spine, the middle area of the spine, just below the neck and just above the lower back. To recap: the body is a series of mobile and stable joints, when one joint is not functioning as designed it shifts the force to a different area. Mobility is the ability to move a joint freely; this is different than flexibility. Mobility is the first area to consider, if something is not moving properly it cannot be controlled. For more detailed functional movement screening, I recommend talking with an exercise specialist or physical therapist.

About the Thoracic Spine
The spinal column is a sequence of five regions: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacrum, and coccyx. The thoracic spine has a kyphotic curve; meaning it curves posteriorly or toward the back. The lumbar and cervical spine segments naturally have a lordotic curve; they curve anteriorly or toward the front. The lumbar spine has the least amount of natural rotation, only about 11 degrees in each direction. However, the thoracic spine has the ability to move in all planes and has about 32 degrees of rotation in each direction.

Daily activities, such as sitting at computers or driving, reinforce bad posture habits and shallow breathing. These factors contribute to the average person not moving or paying much attention to the thoracic spine’s mobility. Similar to all the other joints, if the thoracic spine is not moving properly, this force must be counteracted elsewhere in the body. If the needed rotation is translated to the lumbar spine this could result in discomfort and larger problems.

Our bodies are extremely smart. Movement will happen, but we can help keep areas mobile so the movement happens in a constructive manner.

Test your Thoracic Mobility

  • Lie on the floor with knees bent and feet on the floor.
  • Engage the core muscles and press the low back towards the floor.
  • Maintain this supported back position throughout the remainder of the test.
  • Keeping your elbows locked, bring your arms directly overhead, attempting to touch your wrists to the ground.
  • Make sure to keep your low back on the floor throughout the drill. Stop immediately if you feel any pain.

Doing this with ease indicates good thoracic mobility. However anyone (with or without) adequate thoracic mobility may enjoy the drills below.

Improve Your Thoracic Mobility 

At Your Desk
Seated Lateral Rotation: Start with excellent posture. Move away from the backrest; lengthen your head toward the ceiling and think of balancing your head right about the hips while engaging the core. Bring your hands behind your head and elbows out to the side. Look toward your right elbow, lift the elbow toward the ceiling. Think of lifting upward, as opposed to bending to the side (you will bend sideways, but the action feels different). Repeat on left side.

Seated Posterior and Lateral Rotation: This is very similar to the exercise listed above. The one change is rotate slightly back before lifting up towards the ceiling. Keep the hips secure in the chair and rotate from the belly button and above.

At Home or In the Gym
Side Laying Rotation: Lay on your side, making sure to stack your hips and shoulders on top of each other. Bend your top knee and lay it on top of a foam roller, ball or other surface that is hip height. Extending the arms in from of you, inhale, and then exhale as you allow your top arm to open toward the floor. Let your head follow the arm. Breathe into this stretch and relax. Carefully return to the start and do the other side.

Floor Mobilizations (noodle, tennis balls, foam roller)
Lay over an object like a pool noodle, pair of tennis balls taped together or a foam roller. Start with it in your mid back. Bring your hands behind your head and bring your elbows forward, this motion opens the space between the shoulder blades. Lower your head toward the ground and then return it back up. Move the object slightly up your spine (toward the head) and repeat. Continue until the roller is near the shoulder blades.

Suggested Links

Cook, Gray. Movement: Functional Movement Systems. Aptos: On Target Publications. 2010.


About The Author

Valley Medical Center's Marketing and Community Outreach Office