Improving Thoracic Mobility

A key component to athletic performance is thoracic mobility. An immobile thoracic spine can interfere with proper respiration, the Back Force Transmission System (BFTS) and the Smart Sling Systems in the human body which are critical for storing and releasing energy during movement. In this article, we are going to address the connection between respiration, the Back Force Transmission System and the thoracic spine.

There are twelve thoracic vertebrae in the human body and each of these vertebrae are attached to each of our twelve ribs. The seven cervical vertebrae in our neck and the five lumbar vertebrae in our lower back are not attached to any ridged bony structures (ribs) like the thoracic vertebrae and therefore naturally have a greater Range of Motion (ROM) unlike the thoracic spine. Because of this decreased ROM, the thoracic spine cannot overcome the same level poor immobility like the cervical and lumbar spine and go unresolved.

During respiration the thoracic spine and ribs expand and contract allowing the lungs to completely fill up with air. If the thoracic vertebrae become immobile because of improper loading; i.e., poor posture with standing or during various movements, especially sitting and poorly designed exercise programs , they along with the ribs can become very rigid and affect proper respiration. The muscles that create movement in the thoracic spine and ribs become fixated and hard, forcing the athlete to rely on the accessory respiratory muscles to breath such as the primary movement muscles in the neck. Once an athlete develops improper respiratory patterns, they will see a decrease in their athletic performance or at the very least find it hard to make gains.

The Back Force Transmission System is the primary mechanism in attenuating force during human gait. When an athlete picks their foot off the ground, that extremity becomes filled with potential energy. Once the heel strikes the ground, that potential energy now becomes kinetic energy and must be absorbed by the body. This is accomplished via the BFTS. The kinetic energy is absorbed through the striking heel, up the lateral gastrocnemius (calf), up the lateral biceps fermoris (hamstring), through the glute, across the sacral iliac joint (SIJ) via the sacral tuberous ligament, up the thorco-lumbar fascia in the middle of the lower back, up the latissimus dorsi, up the lower, middle and upper trapezius through the skull and down the arm via the triceps brachii. Proper thoracic mobility is critical for the attenuation of energy and loads up and down the entire spine, upper extremities and head while the body is at rest and during dynamic activities. If the thoracic spine is immobile and rigid, the kinetic energy gets blocked at that point and it usually results in pain somewhere along the spine, hips or knees.

The following exercises are use to treat some of the most common thoracic spine dysfunctions. These exercises are divided into three categories: Joint Mobility, Corrective Exercises and Resistance Training.

Joint Mobility:

  • A/P Thoracic Glides
  • Thoracic Lateral Glides
  • Full Thoracic Circles
  • Thoracic Figures 8’s

Corrective Exercises:

  • Breathing Drills
  • Supine Scapular Depression with Retraction Drills
  • T’s and Y’s – used for strengthening middle and lower trapezius and correcting thoracic kyphosis.

Resistance Training:

  • Kneeling Lat Pulldowns
  • Seated Cable Rows
  • Pull-ups

These exercises should be done 2-3 times a week. Please see our video section for instructions on these exercises.