For centuries, humans were able to maintain the perfect deep squat neutral position. We have lost this ability through our sedentary lifestyles. If you aren’t hunched over your steering wheel, you’re hunched over your desk at work, or sitting watching TV at home. Then, we go to the gym and expect a perfectly neutral spine during our heavy lifts. The mobility in your upper middle back could potentially be the underlying cause for your other aches and pains in your squats, overhead presses, and pull downs.
All of our lifestyle sitting leads to weak glutes, abs, tight hips, and an immobile T-spine. There are 12 T-spine vertebrae that go from the bottom of the neck to the top of the lower back. When the spine is functioning properly the lumbar vertebrae are relatively stationary while the T-spine remains mobile. Sitting and poor habitual movement patterns are the main culprits that cause kyphosis or rounding of the T-spine.
Why Is T-Spine Mobility Important?
This spinal dysfunction impacts your posture, upper limb movements, lower limb movements, and even your breathing. For example, your ability to elevate at the shoulder joint without hyperextending the back is decreased. This occurs because of a change in where the shoulder blade sits on the rib cage.
During a squat, poor T-spine mobility results in difficulty keeping the chest lifted without excessive lumbar extension (lordosis) and anterior pelvic tilt. This may be a common cause of the infamous ‘butt wink’ or posterior pelvic tilt that occurs at the bottom of the range of motion of a squat.
A tight upper spine negatively impacts your biomechanics is by constricting the extent that your lungs are able to extend up and out. This is particularly detrimental whenever higher breathing rates and volumes are required during exercise.
How Mobile Should Your T-Spine Be?
Ideally your T-spine should have 45 to 60 degrees of rotation to allow more stability in the lumbar spine. If you aren’t there quite yet, then keep reading to find out what you can do to help your back. If you find yourself struggling to reach your hands overhead, be sure to balance your flexion and extension muscles on your trunk. A common mistake is to stretch the shoulder because it could lead to hypermobility at the shoulder joint rather than fixing the real issue. Here are some better options:
✓ Wall Supported Squat with Reach
Standing 7-10 inches away from the wall, lean your torso up against the wall. Posteriorly tilt the pelvis, thus anchoring the lower back on the wall. The upper back is away from the wall. With your arms reaching forward, inhale through the nose, and as you exhale, reach forward.
While you exhale, your abs will be engaged, pulling the belly button up and into the spine, and drawing the shoulder blades away from one another while keeping them depressed. During the inhale the air should be filling up your T-spine resulting in a stretch from the inside out. The purpose of this exercise is to try to relax some of the muscles in the upper back that may be contributing to tightness.
✓ 90/90 Breathing
Lay with your feet up on a wall, with the knees bent to 90 degrees. Allow the neck to remain long. You may want to put a towel under your head. Breath in through your nose, then exhale completely, feeling your ribs ground into the floor. Then initiate your hips to lift off of the floor with your hamstrings. Your abs should be soft. Put something between the knees to keep the hips neutral. Continue to inhale and exhale deeply while maintaining this position. You can even try this with one or both arms overhead, to open up the lateral chest wall or even add an arm reach.
✓ Quadruped Rockback
While kneeling on all fours, find a neutral spine. Maintain a neutral spine as you inhale and draw your hips back towards your heels. This resembles the squatting motion. If you feel like you can maintain that neutral spine as you practice sitting back, you can start to add a reach forward with one arm at a time. Make sure that as you add this reach up and back with your arm, that you relax your upper traps by making sure that your shoulders do not float up towards your ears.
✓ Foam Roller Thoracic Extensions
Lay with your upper back over the foam roller and your arms extended out in front of you. Having your arms forward will allow for the foam roller to more effectively mobilize the T-spine by drawing the shoulder blades apart and exposing the T-spine. Then, using your hamstrings, lift the hips up slightly keeping the abs soft and the spine neutral. Maintaining this position, extend your upper spine over the foam roller. Slowly work the foam roller down the T-spine to mobilize each joint making sure not to hyperextend the low back.
✓ Open Book Exercise
Lie on your side, with your top knee on a medicine ball or other support to put the hip and knee in alignment. The bottom leg is straight. Reach both arms out in front of you. Keep the bottom arm on the floor, while reaching the other arm open. Make sure to keep your knee on the support to ensure that you are not twisting through your lower back.
✓ Shoulder Activation
Laying on your belly, interlace your fingers on the back of your head. Your forehead can rest on a rolled up towel. Draw your elbows up and out to the sides.
✓ Wall Slides
Stand with your heels about 2 inches away from a wall. Lean your torso against the wall, while bracing your abdomen and anchoring your lower back against the wall, draw the rib cage down and in. Bring your elbows up against the wall and bend your arm to about 90 degrees. Press your forearms and elbow into the wall and brace your abdomen. Slide your arms upwards only as far as your can without engaging the upper traps. Return back to the starting position while pressing into the wall and bracing the entire time.
Take Home Message
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of exercises that you can do in order to improve your T-spine mobility, but it is a good place to start. Complete these exercises for 8-10 repetitions for 2 sets to begin, and add on as tolerated. Stay consistent with these exercises while consciously making an effort to improve your lifestyle posture in order to prevent injuries and continue progressing in the gym. Remember, if we don’t have the proper mobility and stability, proper form is impossible to achieve.