Thoracic spine mobility for improved overhead training


Posture and performance

The spine in general acts as a bridge between the lower ball and socket hip joints and the upper ball and socket shoulder joints. Therefore the transmission of power from one end out the other requires stability and stiffness through the spine. When the spine is able to assume a neutral to slight extension posture the ball and socket joints are said to have improved centration, allowing for efficient movement to occur. In other words, improved spinal posture and stability are what allow for the arms and legs to move about their respective ball and socket joints, with improved ease, safety, and power.

Why is it then that we hear so much about mobility?








Because we sit a lot throughout the day our spine spends more time in flexion than it does in extension. This forward flexed posture decreases normal scapular and shoulder mechanics, leading to decrease overhead performance and an increased risk of shoulder injury.

To get to any appreciable level of overhead performance and strength we need to ensure we have improved thoracic spine posture to allow for the scapula to move unhindered on the thoracic cage (ribs).








For a quick demonstration on posture and shoulder flexion range of motion. On the left the female lifter is demonstration shoulder elevation with a forward flexed posture (Note the forward head posture as well). This loss of shoulder elevation range of motion occurs as a result of the arm using all of the available range that it has which on average is 120 degrees. The additional 60 degrees (120+60=180) comes from movement of the scapula in synergy with the arm. In the orthopedic world we call this the scapulo-humeral rhythem. The rhythem or ratio is a 2:1. Hence for every 2 degrees of arm movement (glenohumeral joint) we have 1 degree of scapular movement (scapulo-thoracic joint).

Thus in the second image we can see that with improved thoracic extension or transient posture towards extension, the female lifter has improved scapulo-humeral motion, and the result is a clean 180 degree overhead elevated position.

Mobility drills

Moving on, we must first then address improving specifically the thoracic spine posture with mobility not flexibility. Use the following mobility drill progression to achieve improved pain free shoulder elevation.



Traditional Foam roller: Remember to collar up the hands around the cervical spine to protect it. Use breathing with the rocking movement as follows. When you begin to rock the roller down the spine breath in to take the slack out of the spinal structures (this will help it cavitate or pop and mobilize). Next, as the roller moves back up the spine take a breath in as you extension over.






Kneeling foam roller upper T-spine mobility: Get into a kneeling position with a foam roller in front of you. Place hands and roller and roll it forward. As you get into the position illustrated in the photo, rock the hips back and raise the head.



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Kneeling fixed bench upper T-spine mobility: Begin with elbow extended and gently begin to flex them, placing more stress on the long head of the tricep. Great position to improve the front squat rack position as well.



Cat camel



Cat to Camel: Get onto hands and knees ( NOTE: If wrist pain, grip a hexagonal dumbbell place on the floor, if knee pain use pads). Now Raise the spine up and look downward, gently take in a deep breath. Now exhale and arch the low back and look upward.







Open book: Starting with a knee bent position emphasize knees and hips 90/90, and maintain both shoulders on the mat. Begin by breathing in and taking the top hand reaching forward. Then exahle out and raise the arm up and over. Try to have the moving arm’s shoulder make contact with the ground. Breathe in again and return.




Open book with foam roller: Start by laying on your side with one leg draped over a foam roller. Ensure that the top leg’s hip is above the pelvis to lock out the pelvis and lumbar spine. First breathe in, and then press the leg on the foam roller firmly into the roller. Exhale and begin the rotation movement.Again ensure the shoulder attempts to contact the ground. A breath can be used at the end range to allow for adaptation into more compression to occur but be mindful and don’t over do it.





Bretzel: Start by laying on your side. Take the top leg and grasp or hook it with the bottom arm. Before rotation occurs bend the bottom leg and grasp the foot with the top hand. Take a breathe in and exhale before attempting to rotation the cervical spine toward the top hand. Again a breath can be taken at this end range.






Quadruped rotation: Start in quadruped hands and knee. Place one hand behind the neck. Sit back on your heels to lock out the pelvis and place the rotational torque on the T-spine. Take a breathe in and exhale to begin to rotation.




Lunge rotation variation: Similar to the quadruped but emphasizes a longer lever arm with more torque production and hip flexor stretch.







Supine overhead foam roller drill: While laying a barbell on the ground overhead, lay over a foam roller. Begin traditional rolling drills with increasing overhead arm elevation. When ready raise the hips reach overhead and grasp the barbell. Now slowly drop the hips. Once you reach where you feel is an area of restriction, use a contract relax method of breathing. Breath in, hold for 5 seconds, exhale and repeat.





Supine overhead foam roller drill: Same as above only bringing the cervical spine or head into flexion with a drop and breath.






Half-kneeling barbell warrior: (Made up that name). The emphasis here is to first get into the half kneeling position place arms high on the bar and slowly flex forward. Once you reach a point where you feel the lats and hip flexion being stretched, again take a breath in and hold for a count of 5.






Butterfly wall presses or angles: As the image shows perform the position with breathing and scapular retraction/protraction.






If the shoulder joint is still unable to perform a flat wall position, give it time. There are other shoulder specific mobility drills aimed at improving specific joint play or range of motion but that is for another article

Doc Novo out.


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