Top 5 exercises to improve your thoracic flexibility

Do you get stiffness in the upper back? Pain in your neck? Perhaps you are struggling with those upper body weights at the gym? It may be you need to improve your thoracic flexibility. I have five great exercises that can help you do just that.

What is thoracic flexibility?

Your thoracic spine is the middle section of your spine. It is made up of 12 vertebrae, and runs from the base of your neck to the top of your lower back. It is also the area where your ribs attach, which means it stiffens up more easily than the other areas of the spine. On top of this, our day to day lives mean we often don’t move this area as much as we should- for example, when were sat at our computer for work all day, or curled up on the sofa. This can lead to a rounding of the upper back that is often a sign of decreased thoracic flexibility. This can lead to stiffness, neck pain and headaches. It can also affect our ability to lift weights and puts at a risk of injury.

What reduces our thoracic flexibility?

Many of our day to day activities can stiffen up our thoracic spine, particularly those where we are hunched over a lot. This includes computer work, sitting on the sofa, playing computer games, and texting on our phone. Some people will also naturally have a stiffer upper back due to a larger upper back curve in their spine- called an increased kyphosis. This is something you are born with, but it tends to get more pronounced as we get older. If you are one of these people, thoracic flexibility exercises are even more important to keep you mobile as you get older.

Why is thoracic flexibility important?

1. Reduces pain

When the thoracic spine gets stiff, it can often get painful too. It may often feel like a tight band across your upper back and shoulders, or feel like it needs to “crack”. It can also cause pain elsewhere, as stiffness in the upper back means other body parts have to move more to compensate. Your neck and low back are more likely to be painful if your thoracic spine doesn’t move well. If you are getting low back pain, check out our post on the best exercises to help low back pain.

2. Better shoulder mobility

Raise your arms above your head. In order to do this, you need your upper back to move. If you don’t have good thoracic flexibility, you will struggle with activities or gym exercises above shoulder height, such as overhead squat. Improving your thoracic flexibility will help you improve your form, and reduce the chance of injury.

3. Reduces risk of injury

If you have a stiff upper back, you will use other areas to compensate. This can often lead to injuries such as shoulder impingement and rotator cuff tears.

Young woman practicing yoga at home
Image by senivpetro on Freepik

How can I test my thoracic flexibility?

We all sit too much in today’s world, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has poor thoracic mobility. In clinic, we use a simple test called Wall Angel to check how flexible your thoracic spine is. You can try this one at home:

  1. Put your back against the wall with your feet about 20cm away.
  2. Bring your arms up to 90 degrees and place your elbows and the backs of your hands against the wall.
  3. Try to flatten your low back into the wall so there is no space betwen the two.
  4. If you are able to do this, your thoracic flexibility is good. If you struggle to keep your arms against the wall, or are unable to flatten your back to the wall, this may mean your thoracic flexibility needs improving.

If you are unsure about the results, or would like more advice, it is best to book an appointment with a local chiropractor or osteopath to assess you.

How can I improve my thoracic flexibility?

Improving your thoracic flexibility isn’t hard but does require time and consistent regular exercise. I’ve picked three exercises that are easy to do at home and fit into your day. Find a regular time each day you can do the exercises so they become part of your daily routine.

1. Thread the needle

  • Kneel on all fours.
  • Reach across under your opposite arm to twist your upper body.
  • Feel a stretch along the upper back and arm.
  • Hold for 10 seconds, and repeat on the other side. 3 times.

2. Cat/camel

  • Start on all fours. Round you upper back as far as you can, then arch the lower back as far as you can.
  • Repeat 10 times.

3. Thoracic extension

  • Use a foam roller on the floor.
  • lie on the foam roller with it across the middle of your back.
  • Place your hands behind your head and arch you back up and over the foam roller.
  • hold for several seconds, then roll the roller slightly further down the spine and repeat.

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