These Thoracic Mobility Moves For Posture-Related Pain
Our bodies tend to adapt to the positions we hold the most often throughout the day. For cyclists, that often means a rounded upper back and shoulders. The more aggressive you ride, the more pronounced this posture gets. And if you sit over a computer all day, that certainly doesn’t help get you out of a hunched-over position.
With this rounded posture often comes tightness in the upper back, which likely means you lack thoracic mobility. (The thoracic spine is the upper part of your spine.) On the contrary, having solid thoracic mobility means you can stand up straight (and maintain that tall posture), as well as bend forward and backward, side to side, and rotate through the upper spine with ease and comfort.
Jay De Jesus, former pro-mountain bike racer, massage therapist, and physical therapy assistant at Robins Rehabilitation East says that the postural hallmarks of thoracic immobility are the head protruding out in front of the body and a forward rounding of the shoulders. This means a lack of thoracic mobility can also negative affect shoulder mobility, as well.
“This chronic forward lean can negate the shock absorbing function of the spine, and result in scapular [or shoulder] mobility issues and nerve impingements distally, worst case, as symptoms worsen,” De Jesus tells Bicycling.
Why Lack of Thoracic Mobility is Common
“Because cycling involves a relatively static position of the rib cage, along with constant contraction of the muscles around the rib cage to stabilize the posture, cycling commonly results in thoracic mobility issues,” says Christine Koth, author of Tight Hip, Twisted Core: The Key to Unresolved Pain. It comes as no surprise, then, that studies show cyclists are at higher risk of postural distortion compared to non-athletes. The excessively rounded upper back even earned the unofficial nickname of “cyclist’s hump.”
Lack of thoracic mobility isn’t just a common concern among those of us who love to ride, though. It also plagues individuals who work desk jobs day in and out, says De Jesus.
In serious cases, thoracic immobility, when left unaddressed, can lead to a condition called thoracic hyper-kyphosis—a more serious body misalignment that leads to a drastic hunched-over position. The good news: You can remedy thoracic immobility long before it gets to that point.
How Thoracic Immobility Can Affect Other Parts of the Body
Eventually, a tight upper back and a lack of thoracic mobility can lead to more serious issues on and off the bike that no rider wants to deal with, such as upper and lower back pain, neck pain, hand numbness, and limitations in shoulder function.
“Our spine is designed to move fluidly together,” explains Koth. “That means when your neck rotates to the side your thoracic spine should participate to some degree. Similarly, when you bend down and your low back is flexing, your thoracic spine should participate. When you develop thoracic mobility issues, the thoracic spine does not move and participate with the rest of the spine as much. This leaves the neck and the lower back to do more work, which can lead to the development of issues in the top and bottom of the spine.”
Beyond aches and pains, one of the surprising effects of thoracic immobility is how it impacts our ability to breathe deeply. “When your rib cage is mobile, your ability to fully inhale and exhale is improved mechanically,” Koth says. But when it’s not? It’s harder to take a full breath—and that’s a pretty important part of our cardio-heavy sport.
Another factor that hinders our ability to take a deep breath is the forward head posture that usually accompanies thoracic immobility. Research on 15 healthy males found that a forward head posture had a significantly negative effect on respiratory function.
How to Better Your Thoracic Mobility
Core strength and incorporating the right strength-training exercises are key to helping your upper spine stay mobile, but what if your upper back just feels…stuck?
Before you jump right into strength moves, it’s key to address the limitations in your upper back mobility to gain full range of motion, and then maintain that range of motion. “Even doing these exercises once a week can be enough to keep that region of your body mobile and optimized so that your entire body has its best chance to work as a unit and you can get that big breath when you need it,” says Koth.
To keep the body working as a unit—and make sure your thoracic spine moves well—De Jesus says you need a routine that includes cervical, thoracic, and lumber extension (those are three of the main sections of the spine), along with shoulder and chest stretching, hip flexor stretching, and deep core stabilization.
How to use this list: To hit those main points, practice the exercises below once a week (more if you want to gain the benefits sooner). Do the reps listed below for each exercise.
You can incorporate these moves into a warmup or cooldown prior to or after a ride or workout, or as their own workout when you need a break from your desk.
Natascha Grief, a certified personal trainer, demonstrates each exercise so you can learn the proper form. You will need a mobility ball, two massage balls, and a foam roller. An exercise mat is optional.
Myofascial Release for Thoracic Mobility
Ball Upper Back Release
Lie faceup with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place two myofascial release balls (like like Acumobility Ball) on either side of spine, right in between shoulder blades. Cross arms over chest, tuck chin to chest, and lift hips a few inches off the ground. Then, in a smooth, sweeping motion raise bent arms up overhead, lowering them to the floor behind you. Swipe the arms around and down sides, as though you’re making a snow angel. Bring them back across chest. Lower hips. Repeat. Do 3-5 reps. Move the balls about four inches higher, and repeat. Then, move the balls a third time to a spot about four inches higher and repeat again.
Ball Mid Back Release
Lie faceup with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place two myofascial release balls (like like Acumobility Ball) on either side of spine, at the bottom of ribcage. Extend arms up toward the ceiling with palms facing each other. Take a deep inhale, and as you exhale crunch up, lifting head, neck, and shoulders off the floor, as though you’re trying to touch the ceiling with finger tips. Slowly lower back down with control on an inhale. Repeat. Do 3-5 reps. Move the balls about three inches higher and repeat. Then, move the balls a third time to a spot near the bottom of shoulder blades and repeat again.
Double Lacrosse Ball Spinal Erector Release
Lie faceup with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place the two massage balls against back, so that the balls touch the muscles on either side of the spine but not the spine itself. Lift hips and head and gently roll along the length of the spine, pausing for at least 90 seconds on each tight spot you find. Take deep breaths as you move.
Child’s Pose With Shoulder Lifts on Foam Roller
Start on all fours with a foam roller placed horizontally in front of you. Place both forearms on foam roller and roll it away from you as you lower upper body toward the floor, keeping the knees hip-distance apart. Drop the hips back onto your heels into child’s pose, keeping both forearms on foam roller. Draw the shoulder blades down the back. Lift one arm off the foam roller. Pause, then place it back down. Repeat on other side. Continue alternating for 5-10 reps per side.
Thoracic Extension With Foam Roller
Lie faceup with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place a foam roller behind you, horizontal to torso. Lie back against the foam roller, with it placed just below shoulder blades. Let head and shoulders fall behind the foam roller, creating an arch in the upper spine. Lift arms and place them overhead, on floor. Hold here for 1-2 minutes, taking deep inhales and exhales.
Chest Opener on Foam Roller
Lie faceup on a 36-inch foam roller, placed vertically along the spine, so hips, back, and head are supported. Relax shoulders and pull shoulder blades down back. Make sure low back isn’t arched and is in light contact with the roller. From this position, open both arms out to the sides, keeping elbows bent at a 90-degree angle, with hands about in line with ears. Let gravity make arms deadweight as the stretch opens up the front of the shoulders and the chest. Gently roll left to right to deepen the stretch. Hold here for 1-2 minutes, taking deep inhales and exhales.
Thoracic Mobility Exercises
Start kneeling, knees hip-width apart, chest tall, and core engaged. Cross arms over chest. Rotate ribcage as though you were trying to hula hoop with upper body, drawing big imaginary circles with ribcage. Keep hips still and focus the movement entirely in upper back. Keep shoulders relaxed and move with breath. Do 10 circles in each direction.
Kneeling Chest Opener to Spinal Flexion
Start kneeling, knees hip-width apart. Arch the upper back and stick out chest, dropping head back, reaching chin up to ceiling, and bringing hands behind you and placing them on the floor behind feet. Pause for a moment and take a deep breath. Then gently sweep arms along sides until hands are on the floor in front of you, rounding the upper back forward. Circle arms back to return to the chest opener position. Repeat. Do 5-10 reps.
Quadruped Thoracic Rotation
Start on all fours, shoulders over wrists and knees under hips. Place right hand behind head, elbow out to the side. Maintain at long, neutral spine. Gently rotate ribcage to the right, as you rotate the upper body so elbow is pointing toward the ceiling. Then, slowly rotate the ribcage to left, bringing elbow toward left hand. Avoid pulling the shoulders up toward ears. Repeat. Do 5-10 reps. Then switch sides.
Seated Eagle Arms Dynamic Stretch
Start kneeling, hips resting on heels. Lift both elbows up in front of you, until the are a little below shoulder height. Wrap right arm under left arm until palms touch. Relax shoulders. Arch the upper back and lift elbows up toward the ceiling, feeling the stretch across the entire upper back. Then, slowly bring elbows down toward chest as you round upper spine and drop head in front of you. Repeat. Do 5-10 reps. Then switch arms so left arm is under right arm and repeat.
Start on all fours, knees under hips and forearms on the floor, shoulders over elbows. Keeping forearms flat on the floor, extend knees and lift hips, extending legs straight with soft knees. Drop head toward the floor. You should form an upside down V shape with body. Take a big inhale and exhale while you’re in the stretch, then slowly lower knees back to floor, gliding shoulder blades down the back. Repeat. Do 5-10 reps.