T-Spine Mobility: Why You Need It, How to Test it and How to Improve It

Understand the role your thoracic spine plays in athletic performance and learn how to maximize your spinal health.

As our society has become increasingly inactive, our thoracic mobility has suffered as a result. Many of us sit at desks all day, be it in front of a computer or laptop or inside a classroom. We hunch over to use our smartphones and do the same while we drive our cars. The amount of time we spend in these positions is more than ever before.

As a result, our posture and ability to move through our thoracic spine has deteriorated. A stiff thoracic spine, or T1-T12 vertebrae, can spell trouble for both your shoulders and lower back.

Via Spinal Consultants

When your thoracic spine cannot extend and rotate properly, the need for mobility is often shifted into areas that require more stability.

A stiff thoracic spine can make it difficult for an athlete to get their arms overhead, which is a requirement for overhead athletes like baseball players, swimmers and quarterbacks. They may compensate for this with a rib flare and a forward head posture to help give the illusion of achieving full shoulder flexion.

In rotational movements like throwing and hitting, people will compensate for poor T-spine mobility in the lumbar spine to achieve the necessary rotation required for sport. For comparison, the thoracic spine is designed to rotate about 40 degrees in each direction, while the lumbar spine, according to physical therapist Shirley Sahrmann, should not rotate more than a total of 13 degrees. Some studies have found that as little as 3 degrees of rotation between individual lumbar vertebrae can be troublesome and put you at increased risk of injury. ,

So now that you know why thoracic spine mobility is important, let's talk about how to see if yours is up to snuff.

Assessing Your T-Spine Mobility

When implementing corrective exercise into your daily or workout routine, how do you know what you should be doing? Furthermore, how do you know if what you've added into your program is actually working? This is where assessment is absolutely critical.

The Seated Trunk Rotation Test from the Titleist Performance Institute (TPI) is a great assessment tool you can use both on yourself or with the athletes you work with. As the name of the test implies, it tests rotation of the thoracic spine, but it can also give you an idea of an athlete's ability to extend, as well. A degree of extension is required for the spine to rotate optimally.

This test locks the shoulder blades to make sure the movement is coming through the thoracic spine, while the seated position helps to limit movement through the lumbar spine.

The Seated Trunk Rotation Test

  • Cross two dowels (the TPI uses golf clubs) to create 90 degree angles and place them on the floor in front of the bench you will sit on. These dowels will be used to measure 45 degrees of motion later.
  • Sit on the bench so that you are in the middle of one of the 90 degree angles with feet and knees together.
  • Sit with an erect posture and place a dowel on your shoulders with arms in a "W" position to support the bar.
  • Attempt to rotate the upper body both to the right and to the left as far as possible.
  • The person should be able to rotate beyond the 45-degree angles your body makes with the dowels on the ground.

Drills to Improve Your T-Spine Mobility

Let's say you were not able to reach 45 degrees of rotation in one or both directions during the Seated Trunk Rotation Test. What can you do to improve your T-spine mobility? Here are a couple drills you can include in your workouts or your daily movement routine to address a lack of thoracic spine mobility. You can include these in your warm-up or as a superset with a strength movement.

Side-Lying Book Openers

Focus of Drill: T-spine Rotation

  • Lie on your side with a foam roller or pillow under the top knee. Your bottom knee should be straight and your top knee and hip bent to 90 degrees
  • Arms straight ahead and parallel to the ground with hands together.
  • Press down on foam roller with top knee to stabilize hips and lumbar spine.
  • Rotate along the thoracic spine until upper back and top arm are flat against the ground, or as close to flat as possible.
  • Breathe out as you rotate to help increase the available range of motion.

Bench T-Spine Extension Mobilization

Focus of Drill: T-Spine Extension

  • Assume quadruped position with knees on the ground and elbows on an elevated surface such as a bench.
  • Elbows should be shoulder-width apart.
  • While holding a dowel, rock your hips back and press your chest towards the ground.
  • Slowly bring the dowel over your head.
  • Breathe into the stretch then return back to starting position.

Quadruped Thoracic Rotations

Focus of Drill: T-spine Extension and Rotation

  • Get into quadruped position, or on hands and knees.
  • Put one hand behind your head/neck Rotate your torso so your elbow move towards the ground.
  • Rotate back up as far as possible without moving through your lumbar spine.
  • To ensure your lumbar spine is locked down, you can sit back into your heels.

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