Fundamentals of the Thoracic Spine

The thoracic spine refers to the area of the spine where our ribs attach, and includes vertebrae T1 through T12. The thoracic spine is a common focal point for mobility training and for good reason. It is the area of the spine that is most suited for variable movement, as the vertebrae are shaped in a way that encourages not only flexion and extension, but also lateral flexion as well as rotation. We have freedom to move in all three planes of motion at the thoracic spine. However, while it is important to have adequate mobility throughout the thoracic spine, there are also a handful of just as important yet less talked about functional anatomy concepts when it comes to the thoracic spine.

Through personal and clinical experience, I have noticed that there are a couple other additional fundamental functions we want to restore and maintain when it comes to thoracic spine function. In addition to ensuring multi-planar mobility, the ability to both coil and store elastic energy through the connection in the thoracolumbar fascia, as well as the ability to stabilize the ribcage as a stable platform for the scapula in order to ensure optimal arm mechanics are also paramount. In this article, we will expand our understanding of each of these fundamental elements and some practical movement sequences to start working on improving them.

Fundamental 1 – Multiplanar Mobility

Understanding the basic anatomy of the thoracic spine is a great place to start when understanding why we need mobility in this area. Take a look below:

Vertebrae comparison.jpg

As you can see, there are a few distinguishing features that differentiate thoracic vertebrae from the lumbar vertebrae and even cervical vertebrae. Namely the size of the vertebral body and the orientation of the facet joints. Due to this anatomical structure, the thoracic spine is more well suited overall mobility, specifically lateral and rotational movements, and thus contributes greatly to rotational movements throughout the body.

One large issue that plagues our society today is just a general lack of movement, and the thoracic spine and ribcage are an area that can get really sticky really quickly. This has implications not only for traditional strength training, but more importantly it greatly impacts our breathing, and consequently our neck and hip health. I very seldom see clients with chronic neck/shoulder/low back pain who don’t also have mobility issues in their T-spines as well. The thoracic spine is meant to move, and when we don’t move well or often through the thoracic spine, our shoulders, necks, and low backs often pay the price.

When we utilize different exercises to improve mobility in the thoracic spine and ribcage, the best way is to mobilize it in a multidirectional fashion. This means that we need to move not only through the flexion-extension (front-to-back) continuum, but also add in lateral flexion and rotation into the mix. We also want to appreciate how the thoracic spine’s ability to move is affected by breath. You will get a lot more bang for your buck by incorporating intentional breath work with your mobility drills. Below are a few of my favorites.

Try performing this sequence of drills a couple of times through and notice how your upper back, neck, and breathing feel afterwards. Chances are good that everything will feel lighter, looser, and more connected.

Fundamental 2 – Elastic Energy and the Posterior Spiral Kinetic Chain

Another important function of the thoracic spine is the thoracolumbar fascia and its involvement in rotational movements. Gait is one, but we can also include things like throwing, punching, climbing, rowing, as well as hip focused movements like kicking, jumping, and other athletic maneuvers. Taking a closer look at the thoracolumbar fascia, we can see that it serves as a crossroads for many different kinetic chains and muscle groups.

Many muscles run through and feed into the thoracolumbar fascia.

By virtue of its orientation on the back side of the body and connection to these groups of muscles, we can see that the thoracolumbar fascia connects the upper torso to the hips, and helps to generate rotational power through our midline. Since we are talking specifically about the thoracic spine in this article, I want to illustrate how important the coiling/storing of elastic energy function is for upper body movements.

Loading of the thoracolumbar fascia is also super important for maintaining normal breathing mechanics, ribcage stability, and scapular control, which are all critical for pressing strength movements. The health of your shoulders over your training career also largely depends on how well can you can control rotational forces through your thoracolumbar fascia and thoracic spine. The ribcage is the foundation for your scapula (shoulder blades), and the scapula are the foundation for your humerus (ball-socket-arm articulation). It stands to reason that the TL fascia has the capacity to create issues in your shoulder, elbows, and wrists if not properly managed. Below are a few of my favorite drills that focus on the coiling and loading through the posterior spiral kinetic chain.

Tenet 3: The Ribcage as a Platform for the Shoulders

Some of you may have heard of the idea of “proximal stability for distal mobility.” What this basically means in a nutshell is that in order to express strength in the parts of your body further away from the center (arms and legs primarily), you need adequate stability from the centralized areas of the body. This is why core stability and function are so important. The limiting factor for strength in our arms and legs strength will almost always be the core. In the case of the thoracic spine, in order to fully express functional strength in our arms, we need the requisite stability in the ribcage. The thorax serves as the stable platform or foundation for the shoulders to work off of.

In the world of strength and conditioning, there is an idiom that goes something like, “You can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe.” This is in direct reference to the idea that you need a stable foundation in order to get most out of your extremities. If your midline and axial skeleton are not stable, you will have all kinds of energy leaks and have a hard time transferring strength from your lower body to your upper body and vice versa. This has huge implications from a performance standpoint, particularly with things like running, throwing, striking, etc.

Once we have mobility restored (flexion, extension, lateral flexion, AND rotation), and have learned how to get the thoracic spine participating in rotational movements, the final step in ensuring optimal shoulder health and function is learning how to load the shoulder. Smooth, well-articulating movement through the shoulder complex with significant load requires optimal function of the ribcage as a platform, upward rotation of the scapula on the ribcage, and rotational stability of the ball-and-socket joint via the rotator cuff. Because it requires all of these things integrating together, heavy pressing is a great litmus test for shoulder function.

So how do we learn how to brace and set the ribcage properly to facilitate better shoulder mechanics? Use drills that focus on ribcage-pelvis alignment, scapulo-thoracic joint articulation, and maintaining congruence of ball-in-socket alignment. Below I’ve outlined a simple example sequence that does each of these things.

Wrapping Up

The thoracic spine is one of the most important areas of the body when it comes to [re]establishing and maintaining overall movement quality. Thoracic spine function has huge carryover to other areas of the body. Lack of functional capacity in the thoracic spine is one of the most common limiting factors for most people.

When training to improve thoracic spine function, we want to focus on three key areas: multiplanar mobility, rotational coiling and storing of elastic energy through the connection in the thoracolumbar fascia, as well as the ability to stabilize the entire thorax as a stable platform for the scapula in order to ensure optimal arm mechanics, and proper bracing for upper body strength exercises. There are many exercises and protocols we can use to improve each of these. If you’re looking for a missing link to improving your overall movement capacity and athleticism, exploring additional ways to train the thoracic spine can be a great option.