In the fitness world there is a large emphasis on flexibility, but sometimes we leave out the important aspect of mobility. Flexibility refers to a muscle’s ability to move through a range of motion, whereas mobility is concerned with a joints motion and how easily it can move and glide in relation to surrounding joints.
The thoracic spine, or the mid back, is an area that often times lacks proper mobility. The is not a surprise considering that most people spend their day in a hunched forward position while working on a computer, driving in a car, or sitting in a classroom. This hunched position leads to tight pectoral muscles, fatigue in the paraspinal muscles (the postural muscles that line your spine), and a lack of extension in the thoracic spine.
So how could this be affecting you and your workouts and daily life?
The motion in our body is part of a kinetic chain. When one area of this chain is not moving properly, that motion will be compensated for in another area of the body. In this case, the two areas most commonly affected by a lack of thoracic mobility are the shoulders and the low back.
A lack of extension in the thoracic spine will make motions like deadlifts and squats more challenging and cause the low back to move more to achieve the same range of motion. Over time this increase in low back range of motion can lead to instability and increase risk of strains, sprains and chronic low back pain. Additionally, the shoulder blade and shoulder joint rely heavily on proper thoracic mobility. When this motion is compromised during exercises like an overhead press, you are putting your shoulder at a greater risk for problems like impingement, tendonitis and rotator cuff injuries.
How to Improve Thoracic Mobility:
An easy way to improve thoracic mobility is to use a foam roller and stability ball to achieve flexibility and mobility in the upper back. We encourage this to be done in two ways, actively and passively. Actively, you can foam roll along the upper back to increase flexibility in the muscles surrounding the thoracic spine. Passively, you can lay on a stability ball with relaxed shoulders for 60-90 seconds to stretch the shortened pectoral muscles and encourage extension in the joints of the thoracic spine.