The thoracic spine is the longest portion of the spine and includes the vertebrae situated between the neck and the lower back.
While it’s primarily designed for stability and force absorption, the thoracic spine is capable of a wide range of movement and its mobility is vital to overall health and function (1).
Thoracic mobility plays a big role in posture, remaining upright, and the ability to breathe fully. Immobility in this area can result in stiffness, pain in the neck or lower back, difficulties with breathing, a decreased range of motion, and has a profound effect on the forces that impact the rest of the body (
For avid fitness enthusiasts lifting heavier loads, thoracic mobility is important for safety and enhancing overhead lifting.
Read on for more details about thoracic mobility and exercises to incorporate into your routine that will help your T-spine stay healthy, strong, and supple.
The thoracic spine is the upper and middle portion of your back. It consists of vertebrae T1-T12, below the cervical spine (the vertebrae in your neck) and above the lumbar spine (the vertebrae in your lower back).
It anchors the ribcage and, working together, the ribs and thoracic spine house vital organs such as the heart and lungs. Not to mention, this large portion of the spine protects a big portion of the spinal cord — your brain’s communication mainline.
The thoracic region also includes the front and sides of the upper body from underneath the collar bone to the end of the ribs. Thoracic mobility is affected by numerous factors such as rib mobility, breathing mechanics, and muscular stiffness.
The thoracic spine is capable of multiple movements in several planes. It can flex and round forward, extend, rotate, and laterally flex (side bend).
The primary movement of the thoracic spine is rotation. The other movements — flexion, extension, and side bending — are considerably smaller in range in comparison to the movement of the lower cervical (neck) and lumber (low back) areas.
The thoracic spine can move in more than one direction at once, such as side bend with rotation or a spinal twist with extension. These movements can be combined into a flowing and circular movement pattern that is the foundation for modalities such as Gyrotonic® exercise.
Adequate mobility of the thoracic spine is crucial for everyday life. After all, we aren’t robotic humans that move in a linear fashion. Being able to twist and reach into a cupboard, bend and move around in the garden, get out of a car or get out of bed are all movements made possible by the thoracic spine.
Mobility of the T-spine is important for maintaining optimal posture, which in turn allows for the optimal functioning of organs while reducing pressure on the lower back and joints of the legs (
Likewise, what happens above affects below. The relationship of the thoracic spine to the pelvis is vital in addressing abdominal and pelvic floor dysfunction — in part because the pelvic floor muscles are connected to the muscles of the thorax via connective tissue (6,
Poor alignment and mobility in the thoracic spine and pelvic region results in decreased function, limited breathing capacity, excess tension, and therefore more intra-abdominal pressure, which can contribute to or worsen conditions like diastasis recti, pelvic floor dysfunction, and prolapse (
Limited thoracic mobility reduces respiratory function (4, 14). And, in turn, limited respiratory function can also cause problems for the muscles of the pelvic floor (
Increasing thoracic mobility enhances dynamic alignment, functional movement, and execution of exercise —resulting in a better workout that adequately transfers load through the body while minimizing the risk of injury.
To put it simply: the thoracic spine is the link between your upper and lower body. It’s important for almost every move you make. Keeping it supple and strong is key to maintaining your function.
There are a few reasons for thoracic immobility.
Repetitive postures and movements that lead to rounding forward can lead to a stiff thoracic spine. This may include a sedentary lifestyle, working at a desk, and hunching over tech devices. Sports or activities that require you to bend forward often (think cycling) or keep an erect posture with little movement (like ballet) can also contribute (
Thoracic immobility is also prevalent in new parents or caregivers — a result of carrying and feeding babies (16). And, if your posture tends toward kyphosis, you will likely have limited mobility in your thoracic spine.
It’s important to note that many people bypass thoracic mobility by moving through their lumbar spine instead. For instance, have you ever tried the superman exercise, only to feel the work generated only from your lower back?
This is typical in spinal extension exercises, partly because the lumbar curvature is an extension curve, whereas the thoracic spine curves the opposite direction. So, when tasked with bending backward, often you’ll feel your lower back arches more readily, pulling the pelvis forward with it into an anterior tilt.
Therefore, to effectively mobilize the thoracic spine, you must work to keep the pelvis still. This, in turn, will keep the lumbar spine more stable in order to better move the T-spine. True thoracic mobility comes from a stable pelvis. Moving this way may feel awkward at first, but over time, your body will learn new muscle firing patterns.
To improve your thoracic mobility, the most important thing you can do is move more. Daily, consistent mobility exercises and stretching are essential for improving stiffness. Experiment with spreading exercises throughout the day or setting aside a specific time.
Thoracic mobility may also be improved through soft tissue treatments like massage therapy or modalities such as Yamuna® Body Rolling, The Melt© Method, or Yoga Tune Up© balls (16).
Paying attention to form is critical. Do your best to avoid compensating with excess movement from the lower back and pelvis. Engage your core to stabilize those areas when attempting to mobilize the thoracic spine.
There are modifications to help stabilize the pelvis if you need them, and it may be worth hiring a personal trainer, physical therapist, or Pilates instructor for a few initial sessions to ensure you’re movement is coming from the right place.
Furthermore, taking full, deep, diaphragmatic breaths can help maintain the respiratory function of your thoracic spine and rib cage. Aim for inhaling a full breath that expands your ribs outward 360 degrees.
Finally, think about how you warmup before exercise. Starting with dynamic movements (like a bodyweight lunge with a twist, for example) before going into static stretching is a beneficial way to increase mobility.
Cat and Cow
This is a common and effective foundational movement that originated in yoga and is used by many different modalities.
- Start on all fours, with your hands lined up with your shoulders and your knees lined up with your hips. Start with your spine in a neutral position.
- Exhale to push your hands into the floor and curve your mid-back up to the ceiling, allowing the head to hang.
- Inhale to return to neutral spine and then continue into extension, allowing your chin to lift and look upwards. Maintain some strength in your abdominals, and lift your chest and tailbone up toward the sky.
- Aim to keep this movement smooth and repeat 5–8 times.
If kneeling isn’t an option, you can do the same movement standing with your hands on a desk or counter. The surface should be hip level or lower.
This movement can also be performed on the forearms if your wrists don’t like the pressure of a traditional quadruped posoition.
Tips: Take full, deep breaths throughout. When moving into extension, be mindful to avoid over-arching the lower back.
Thread the needle
This is a great exercise for thoracic rotation with a hint of extension. The added challenge of working against gravity and remaining on all fours makes it very effective and less likely to rotate the low back.
- Inhale to lift your right arm up to the sky, opening the chest and arm to the right side. Allow your gaze to follow your right arm.
- Exhale to bring your right arm down and slide it on the floor under your left arm, reaching across your body, along the floor.
- Take your gaze to the left. Allow your left elbow to bend to accommodate the stretch and your right ear to rest on the floor.
- Repeat 4–5 times and switch arms.
Tips: Move at a moderate pace, and keep breathing fully into the ribcage.
Used by strength coaches and Yogi’s alike, this is another effective mobility exercise for thoracic extension and opening up the front of the shoulders.
- Start in a plank position. Exhale to push your hips up, away from the floor and bend at the hips until you’re making an upside down V.
- Inhale to press your chest through your arms towards your legs.
- Exhale to shift your weight forward, returning to the plank position again.
- Repeat 5 times.
Tips: Move at a slow to moderate pace, taking a pause in Downward Dog to breathe deeply and feel your spine lengthen and extend. Keep your knees slightly bent if the stretch is too intense. Downward dog can always be modified by placing your arms on a counter, chair, or table to make this stretch more accessible.
This is a fantastic choice for many ability levels, since you’re lying on the floor.
- Lie on the floor on one side of your body with your knees bent and stacked in front of your hips. Your arms should be straight out in front of you at shoulder height, and also stacked.
- Keeping your legs together, reach your top arm up toward your ear, and continue to circle it up over your head, opening your shoulders and chest toward the ceiling, until your arm is reaching the opposite direction from where it started. Turn your gaze to follow your moving arm.
- Stay in this position and take 2–3 deep breaths, then slowing retrace your movements, moving the arm, head, chest and shoulders back to the starting position.
- Repeat 3 times, then do 4 reps on the other side.
Tips: Aim to keep your knees stacked directly on top of one another so your pelvis doesn’t shift. If tight shoulders prevent you from going all the way to the other side, rest your head on a small cushion and only move the arm as far as you can without pain.
Assisted thoracic extension on a foam roller
A favorite amongst strength coaches, you can use props such as a foam roller or rolling ball.
- Place the roller on the floor horizontally and sit in front of it, facing away from the roller. Lean against it so the bottom of your shoulder blades are resting on it. Place your hands behind your head to support your neck.
- Using your breath, open your chest and bend backwards over the roller, forming an arc in your upper back.
- If your neck feels supported, release your hands to reach your arms up and back as well. Stay here and breathe deep into all sides of your rib cage, allowing your body to soften towards the floor. Stay for a breath or two and then return your arms to your side.
- Repeat 3–4 times.
A more advanced version is to continue with the stretch and add holding onto a barbell when the arms are stretched overhead.
This stretches the chest while extending the thoracic spine.
Tips: Remember to continue breathing fully into the ribcage. If there is any strain in the neck from the arched position, place your hands, a block, or firm pillow under your head.
Child’s Pose with an exercise ball
This exercise will open your chest while maintaining support for the entire arm throughout the twist.
- Kneel on the floor facing an exercise ball. Sit back on your heels and open the knees wider than your hips.
- Place both hands on the exercise ball and roll it forward until you’re bending forward as if in a child’s pose. Bring your chest as low as you can toward your knees without pain in the shoulder.
- Breathe in this position for 2 deep breaths. Then, keeping your hands on the ball, roll the ball to the right so that your chest is opening to the ride side. Looking under your right arm, focus on breathing and lengthening the spine.
- Return to the center then repeat the twist to the left, looking under your left arm.
- Repeat to the center and then roll up to the starting position, one vertebra at a time.
- Complete 3–5 reps on each side.
Tips: If kneeling is not an option, try this sitting on a bench or low stool.
Pilates Spine Twist variation
For this variation you’ll sit on a chair with a block or firm pillow between the knees.
- Lengthen your spine, sensing your sit bones on the chair. Cross the arms over your chest.
- On the exhale, squeeze the pillow between your knees, imagine you’re getting taller, and rotate three times to one side, going a little further each time.
- Inhale to return to the center.
- Repeat the other way. Repeat the whole sequence 4-5 times.
Tips: Maintain the squeeze of your legs to keep your pelvis from shifting. Try to feel the spinal rotation coming from above your waist. Keep breathing and aim to grow taller with each repetition.
Side Angle Pose (Parsvakonasana)
This classic Yoga pose will be done sitting on a chair in order to focus on maximizing spinal rotation.
- Sit on the edge chair with your legs open wide. Straighten one leg to create a lunge-like position in the legs.
- Keeping your spine straight, lean over your bent leg, sliding the arm down your lower leg toward your ankle, reaching your arm towards the floor.
- On the inhale lift your opposite arm up and over head, reaching it to the ceiling or to the opposite. Keeping your lifted arm straight, focus on opening your arm and chest and look up toward the ceiling.
- Exhale to return to the starting position, lifting back up to a seated position with both legs bent.
- Repeat on the other side. Complete 4–5 reps on each side.
Tips: Aim to keep your spine long and keep the breathing into your ribcage.
Thoracic mobility is important for overall functional health and well being.
Adding thoracic mobility into your daily regime can help with optimal posture, deep core and pelvic floor strength, enhanced breathing, and safer, deeper workouts.
Working with a fitness professional is recommended to ensure proper recruitment and technique.
A consistent and mindful practice of thoracic mobility exercises will go a long way toward improving your everyday function. When in doubt, stand up and stretch — your spine will thank you!