What The Heck is a Thoracic Spine?

The thoracic spine is not a dinosaur fossil. It has nothing to do with Jurassic Park. However the thoracic spine is an area that strength coaches will hear more and more about in the next few years. Last year I dubbed the thoracic spine the no-mans land of the spine, a neglected section of twelve vertebrae stuck between the much more talked about lumbar spine and the forever-painful cervical spine. The thoracic spine is poor Plain Jane stuck sitting between two high-maintenance supermodels. No one sees her, or pays attention to her.

By definition, the thoracic spine is the twelve vertebrae that connect with the rib cage and is located between the lumbar spine and the cervical spine. Because we rarely get thoracic pain we tend to overlook this critical area. Neck and low back pain are rampant so the thoracic spine is often completely overlooked. Unfortunately a big key to avoiding both lower back pain and neck pain may lie in the mobility of the forgotten thoracic spine. In the simplest terms, the body does what is easy, not what is best. As we age the thoracic spine stiffens. As a result we tend to turn the head at the neck ( cervical spine) or rotate at the lower back ( lumbar spine). A mobile thoracic spine can help to avoid or relieve both low back and neck pain by allowing rotation in this key area.

For years we have been warming up the wrong area with the wrong exercises. Lots of “experts” recommended exercises like hip crossovers and scorpions to “warm-up” the low back. A few years ago I wrote an article called Is Rotation Training Hurting Your Performance. The article questioned a number of exercises commonly recommended as “warm-ups”. www.strengthcoach.com/members/1107.cfm . In the article I recommended that athletes avoid most exercises that rotate the lumbar spine and instead focus on developing motion at the hips and thoracic spine. The truth is that good motion comes from turning the hips and the shoulders not from rotating the lumbar spine. The way to get good hip motion and good upper body motion is to focus on the hips and thoracic spine, not the low back.

Mobility at the thoracic spine is actually simpler to develop than you think. It doesn’t even involve rotation. The concept illustrated was shown to me by Sue Falsone of Athletes’ Performance in Tempe AZ. Check out the video below. What you are going to do to mobilize the thoracic spine is to perform a series of simple crunch-type exercises while lying on two tennis balls taped together. Place the tennis balls under your back with one ball on either side of the spine. Begin at just above bellybutton level. With the balls in position do five crunches. You should feel the balls pushing into your spinal erectors (the big muscles on either side of the spine). The balls are actually pushing the vertebrae slightly forward, in effect creating motion ( mobility) at the level of that segment. A series of these crunches can be done all the way to the top of the shoulder blades. The end result is often a large increase in shoulder turn. Another possibility is to foam roll the thoracic spine. Make sure the elbows are together as demonstrated to separate the shoulder blades and get pressure on the thoracic spine,

If you are bothered by low back pain, neck pain or want more shoulder turn try the exercises illustrated. Just remember, it’s not always where it hurts that needs the attention. Often times it’s the joint above or below.

9 Responses to “What The Heck is a Thoracic Spine?”

  1. […] It was followed by a short regular flexibility and stretching exercise – quad stretching, hip opening and thoracic spine mobility with tennis balls (https://strengthcoachblog.com/2008/11/30/what-the-heck-is-a-thoracic-spine/). […]

  2. mboyle1959 Says:

    Yes I did make it up.

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  3. Melanie Driscoll Says:

    * The thoracic spine is poor Plain Jane stuck sitting between two high-maintenance supermodels. No one sees her, or pays attention to her.*- did you make that up? That’s perfect and absolutely hilarious. I may have to vote for a repost here, solely based on that quote alone. That reminds me of being the middle child–stuck between the snobby older sister and the needy younger sister…I GET THIS.

  4. mboyle1959 Says:

    Jodie- Did you look at the video clip. That is what we call a thoracic crunch.

  5. what exactly is a thoracic crunch ? i know what the thoracic spine is, so is it just a standard ab crunch ? i have posture induced kyphosis. I need some exercises to pull my head back,stretch my sternocliedomastoid and pull my shoulders back. My pelvis tilts foreward so I know that needs to be broght back a bit. Any weights exercises to help all this ?

  6. Great post Mike. I can attest that with my clients and PT patients who have shoulder or back problems that if they fail the FMS shoulder mobility test the first thing I do is work on the thoracic spine and I see great results. Also worked really well with a football player who was having problems with stingers. Love the exercise with the crunches, I will definitely try that out today as I have usually just had the athlete/patient lie on the balls and breathe. I think the motion of the crunch is a terrific idea.

  7. Dewey Nielsen Says:

    Great post Mike!! I think this needs to be said more often.

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