The T-spine or Thoracic Spine is a very common place for people to be stiff when they start weightlifting, or after years of weightlifting without stretching. It is extremely common with athletes, and a good chunk of the hockey players I help train in the summer need a lot of attention here. The shape of some people’s shoulders will also influence this, but it is generally the result of muscular imbalances (pec/shoulder: scapular strength), and poor flexibility.
The T-spine is the upper- and middle-back. It joins the cervical spine and extends down about five inches past the bottom of the shoulder blades, where it connects with the lumbar spine. If you have trouble going overhead with a barbell, or your shoulders are rolled forward, it is likely the T-Spine is to blame. This can be problematic because it will not allow you to express your full strength in the press or any overhead movement. Furthermore when going overhead, to make up for a lack of mobility in the T-Spine, people will often go into hyper-extension in their lumbar spine which can cause its own set of problems.
There are lots of way to improve T-spine mobility, however the work is a bit tedious if I'm being honest. Improving your T-spine mobility should involve stretching, movement based drills, soft-tissue work, and strengthening exercises. Too often people approach T-spine with only stretches, or soft-tissue work, and I believe that movement based drills and strengthening exercises are grossly overlooked.
In this blog post I am going to give you examples of each that you can add in to your warmups and cool-downs. In my experience people will get better results from focusing on movement-based drills and strengthening exercises as opposed to only stretching or soft-tissue work.
There is nothing fancy about this. If you have poor T-spine mobility it is likely that part of your problem is that the muscles involved are really stiff. If you are okay with going into the pain cave, an option here is to get a lacrosse ball and smash all around your shoulder joint from the pec to the scap. You will also want to pay some attention to your traps, as they can also be part of the tightness problem. However, the research shows that foam rolling, although a great warmup, does not actually increase mobility. If you want rolling or smashing to actually improve your mobility in the long-term it has to be painful, and last awhile. So, if you are really stiff, and can afford it, getting regular deep-tissue massage on a weekly basis may be necessary to see improvement. It is possible to loosen up the muscles with a lacrosse ball, but realistically most people will not have the pain tolerance, attention-span, or will-power required to put themselves through a rolling session rigorous enough to mimic the work done by a massage therapist.
The T-spine is quite difficult to stretch in a traditional sense. It is not like a hamstring or quad in that only one or two major muscles are the cause of tightness . With the T-spine, there are a bunch of smaller muscles in the back that if tight will lead to limited mobility. Tightness in the T-spine can be caused by tight lats, triceps, teres major/minor, traps, and supraspinatus, to name a few. There are many stretches that can be done here, but I like to keep it simple with some stretches that hit most of the involved muscles. Here are three stretches that are a great starting point for opening up the shoulders and T-spine.
Banded Lunge Lat Stretch
-Hold for at-least 2:00/side (cumulative is ok here)
Banded Tricept/Lat Stretch
-Keep the blow nice and close to the ear and look to hold for at-least 2:00/side (Can be cumulative)
Banded + Quadruped T-Spine Twists (Movement/Stretch)
-It is important to keep hips square.
-Focus on rotating only through your T-spine, keep your lumbar locked down. Exhale as you rotate for a deeper stretch
-Chose a band which is going to give you a good stretch.
-3 sets of 6/side with hold in extended position.
Movement Based Drills
It is my opinion that movement based mobility exercises or drills are under utilized by a lot of people looking to improve their movement. Of course we need to stretch to lengthen muscles, and smash them to increase blood-flow and break down tissue, but by moving muscles we are training ourselves to become proficient through a range of motion and strengthening the muscles required to do so. You are training your body how to move how you want it to move.
-This is a great warmup drill. Aim for 3 sets of 6-8 reps/side.
-It is important not to rush this movement.
-Hips need to stay locked down, and all of the rotation must occur through the T-spine, not the lumbar spine. This awareness may be difficult at first, and you may need someone to watch and cue you to do this properly
Alphabet Series (I'S, Y's, T's, W's, A's)
-It is important to not go into over-extension in the lumbar spine, so engage (flex) your midline to keep your lower back locked down.
-Do not swing your arms to try to get more range of motion. Use your back muscles to PULL your arms higher and do not jerk into the position.
-Keep arms straight in the I, Y, T's.
-3 sets of 10/position.
Pronated & Supinated Squat Hold Arm Raises
-Important not to go into over-extension, so keep midline tight.
-Keep arms straight, close to ears, and maintain a solid squat position.
-3 sets of 10 lifts/position (may need to take a break)
Poor T-spine mobility can also be caused by muscular imbalances, and this is quite common for folks who have spent a lot of time ripping bench-press, but have ignored their upper-back muscles and scaps. Even someone with good proficiency in pull-ups can be deficient in scapular strength and have a case of forward shoulders. What is nice about strengthening muscles in the scapular area is that they do not require much load. Here are three exercises you can add in to your cool-downs to greatly improve your posture and t-spine mobility.
-It is important not to over-do this in terms of weight.
-Keep triceps parallel with ground during rotation and press.
-Slow and controlled, do not rush this movement
-Keep your chest OPEN, pulling shoulders back.
Dumbbell Powell Raise
-Keep your scaps pulled in during this movement
-Slow and controlled hitting a 3 second eccentric
-Goal is to be able to do with for 8 reps @ 3111 tempo with 10% of your Bench Press 1 Rm.
-3 sets of 8 reps/arm @ 3111 tempo is a good cool-down.
Seated Stoic Press
-This is a variation of the Arnold Press that I have named the "Stoic" Press because it is difficult, humbling, and one rep takes a long time so you need to accept it and power through.
-Like the cuban press, keep your chest wide-open here, and weight selection appropriate.
-3 sets of 8-10 reps @ slow and controlled tempo.
If you have restricted overhead mobility the first place you should look is your T-spine. The T-Spine is an area of your body with lots of different muscles and bones, so improving your t-spine mobility can be quite an involved process. I'd recommend utilizing a combination of movement based drills, strengthening exercises, traditional stretches, as well as soft-tissue work. To make meaningful progress it is going to take consistent effort over a long period of time. Too often people work on mobility for a week or two and lose interest, switch exercises, or move to another problem area. If you really want to change it may realistically take you working on this 3x/week for six months, and likely longer. If you have been stiff for 5 years, you can't expect to undo this is a few weeks. But, don't despair change is possible, and improving your T-spine will even improve your posture, as well as your performance with a barbell or any movement which involves going overhead.
If you enjoyed the detail of this article and want to bring that amount of detail and attention into your own training, shoot me a message when you are ready to step up and take your fitness to the next level.
Grit Human Performance