Here’s a thorough dissection on the mechanics of the upper-body and exercises you can include in your weekly routine to improve your mobility.

By Matt DeStefano, DPT

 

In order to climb pain-free at your highest level, you must have adequate mobility throughout your body. This article speaks specifically to mobility in the thoracic spine, which is the group of spinal segments below your neck and above your low back.

Thoracic spine mobility is important for overall health for three reasons:

1. Reduces neck stress
2. Reduces back stress
3. Reduces shoulder stress

 

By performing thoracic mobility exercises, you can reduce the stress on other areas of the body, and decrease your risk for injury.

 

The “Stiff Neck” Model

Imagine a chain curving naturally from point A to point B (Fig 1). When there’s adequate mobility in each link, a smooth curve results. Now, imagine that the links are stiff (Fig 2). When the chain bends from point A to point B, it’s unable to curve smoothly. Instead, the more mobile joints (the arrow in figure 2) have to compensate and work harder to make up for mobility deficits in other links.

Now, imagine that these chain links are segments of your spine. If one segment of your spine is stiff, then the mobility has to come from a different segment of the spine (the arrow in figure 2). This excessive motion can lead to wear and tear over time.

Here are some primary downfalls of inadequate thoracic spine mobility:

Belayer’s Neck and Low Back Discomfort

While belaying, your entire spine needs to be mobile so that you can comfortably look upward. If the thoracic spine is not mobile and it does not extend back enough, the neck and low back have to work harder to make up for it. This may lead to discomfort.

Shoulder Discomfort

When you raise arms overhead, the thoracic spine must extend back. If the thoracic spine is stiff or hunched forward, the stress on the shoulders increases when you reach for holds. Additionally, if your spine is stiff into rotation, when you reach behind to stem in a dihedral, your shoulder has to move more than it should to make up for the lack of spinal rotation. This may also lead to shoulder discomfort.

 

In this article, you will learn the dynamics of the thoracic spine and gain a general understanding of how to mobilize it. You’ll also learn several exercises (listed at the end of this article) that can improve your thoracic spine mobility. Try to perform the exercises two to three times per week to prevent injuries. They can also be used as warm-ups and/or cool-downs to your climbing sessions.

By investing in your health with these exercises, not only will you have fewer injuries but your climbing will also improve because you will have better mobility and stability. If you have difficulty integrating these exercises into your regular routine, try to attend weekly yoga classes. Yoga classes will usually cover most of the movements described in this article. Whatever your activities of choice (yoga, pilates, etc.), get out there, and keep moving!

“Motion is lotion”  // “Movement is medicine”

But before we get to the protocols, it’s helpful to understand the anatomy. If anatomy isn’t your thing, then simply scroll down for the exercises.

 

Anatomy

The thorax consists of a generally rigid segment of the spine, due to the rib cage. This rigidity is necessary for:

  1. A stable base for muscles to control head and neck movements
  2. Protection of the internal organs
  3. A mechanical structure for breathing


Naturally, there is decreased thoracic spine motion compared to the cervical (neck) and lumbar (low-back) spines.7 However, the available movement in the thoracic spine, although limited, must be maintained and optimized to live a healthy, pain-free, and active life.

Thoracic Spine

  • 12 vertebrae
    • Upper thoracic spine: less mobility
    • Lower thoracic spine: more mobility
  • 12 ribs
    • 7 true
    • 3 false
    • 2 floating

Movements of Thoracic Spine

  • Total range of motion*
    • Flexion (forward bend) – 30-40˚
    • Extension (back bend) – 20-25˚
    • Rotation – 30-35˚ to each side7

* The data in the literature is unreliable regarding the three-dimensional movement of the thoracic spine, so these values are based on visual observations.

Summary of Primary Muscles in the Thoracic Spine

  • Flexion (forward bend): Rectus abdominus
  • Extension (back bend): Erector spinae group, trapezius and rhomboids
  • Rotation: External oblique, internal oblique, trapezius and rhomboids

A Note on Synergistic Muscle Activation

A muscle synergy is when two or more muscles work together to create the same motion. When we rotate to the right, the left external oblique muscle contracts synergistically with the right internal oblique muscle. Because the muscles attach in the front of the body, this synergy creates trunk flexion (forward bend) as well as rotation.

This happens when you bring your left shoulder toward your right hip, for example. To then neutralize the flexion (forward bend) movement and create a pure rotational motion, the trunk extensors in the back of the body must also contract. The co-contraction of the rotational muscles in the front of the body (internal and external oblique) combined with the rotational muscles in the back of the body (latissimus dorsi and iliocostalis) allow the spine to rotate perfectly on an axis.5, 9

This is detailed information on muscle activation patterning, but this article is not intended to teach you how to isolate any one of these muscles when exercising. It’s purely to help you understand the underlying concepts of how we move.

With that said, the synergistic component of this section will come into play as you train your body for increased thoracic mobility.

When performing thoracic spinal twists, you aren’t going to work one muscle; you will work many. Some of these muscles will be secondary or even tertiary movers. An example would be the recruitment of the rhomboids (muscles that attach to the inner edge of the shoulder blade and the spine) and the trapezius (large diamond-shaped muscles of the upper back) muscles to deepen your trunk rotation. I mention this often throughout the exercise section. Personally, when I perform the rotational exercises in this article, I can feel my scapular muscles (middle trapezius, rhomboids, etc.) working to pull me into the deepest expression of the twist.

This type of muscle recruitment is hard to learn through reading text, but I hope this will be a good starting point for you to work from. With this information in hand, I recommend seeking out a local physical therapist, athletic trainer, personal trainer, etc. to help you fine tune the movements described. I will do my best to give you the most concise direction I can. Let’s get started!

If you experience any pain with movement—especially movements described in this article—please see a medical professional that understands movement. Physical therapists are movement specialists. In the last two years, the laws have changed to allow people to directly seek a physical therapist instead of via referral from their Primary Care Physician first. If you experience any discomfort with movement, schedule an appointment with a physical therapist to analyze how you move and create a treatment plan.

The Exercises

Flexion

Generally, as climbers, we tend to have rounded/forward shoulders, and a tendency for a thoracic flexion posture. As a result, I only included one exercise for flexion. This is to make sure that we treat every movement direction for optimal thoracic mobility.

 

Cat Pose (Cat/Cow poses are done together in cycle, but the cat pose is for flexion)

Start in the quadruped/table-top position. With straight elbows, push through your hands into the ground and arch your back toward the sky. Imagine a string is pulling you from the middle of your thoracic spine toward the sky. Fully protract your shoulder blades to ensure the full stretch (imagine punching from your shoulder blades). Cycle from cat to cow as one exercise (see next section for Cow).

– 10-20 reps, hold each position for 1-2 sec

Extension

Many people lack thoracic extension and climbers are no different. When performing all extension exercises, make sure to focus the extension in your upper back. Remember we only have about 20-25˚ of thoracic extension, so the movements are relatively small. If you feel like your low back extends also, reverse out of the pose to a neutral lumbar spine, and engage your core. Some of these exercises utilize tucked knees to “lock” the lumbar spine and help isolate the thoracic spine. For an optimal stretch, engage the muscles that squeeze your shoulder blades together, and pull them back and down toward your butt.

Cow Pose (Cat/Cow poses are done together in cycle, but the cow pose is for extension)

Start in the quadruped/table top position. With elbows straight, drop your chest down toward the ground and expand across your collarbones. Stick your chest out in front and bring your head toward the sky. Squeeze your shoulder blades together for a maximum stretch. Engage your glutes to keep your lumbar spine from extending. Continue cycle to cat pose.

– 10-20 reps, holding each position for 1-2 sec

Quadruped Arm Raises

Start in the quadruped position. Engage your core/glutes and raise one arm out in front of you as high as you can without rotating your spine. Keep your neck straight and gaze toward the ground. Return to quadruped. Alternate arms.

– 10-20 reps on each side, holding for 1-2 sec

Sphinx Pose to Baby Cobra (Start with Sphinx and progress to Baby Cobra)

Sphinx = passive mobility aka initiating a stretch

  • Start in the prone (face down) position, chest down on the mat.
  • Place palms and forearms down in front with elbows at 90˚ (elbows directly under shoulders).
  • Without extending into your low back, hold this position while pulling your shoulder blades together and down your back.

– Hold position for 30 sec, and then progress to Baby Cobra

Baby Cobra = active mobility

  • Stay in prone and place palms at shoulder/nipple level.
  • Extend your upper back by pulling your shoulder blades together and down your back, and engaging your other upper back muscles. Imagine you are dragging your palms toward your waist, focusing on your upper back muscles. This exercise comes from activating these muscles, not by pushing through your arms. Your arms are there for support in the pose.
  • Engage your core and glutes to focus the extension in your thoracic spine, and not your lumbar spine. Return chest to mat, and repeat.

– 10-20 reps, holding 1-2 sec each

Standing Cactus

  • Stand with feet shoulder width apart, and your glutes engaged (this helps stabilize your lumbar spine to isolate the thoracic spine).
  • Bring your arms out to the side like a cactus with shoulders and elbows at about 90˚.
  • Perform a small back bend, but only in the upper back. Imagine a string is attached to your sternum, and it is lifting you up toward the sky. Expand across your collarbones, and squeeze your shoulder blades together and down your back to deepen the stretch.
  • Return to neutral and repeat.

– 10-20 reps, holding 1-2 sec each

Thoracic Extension w Foam Roller: (If no foam roller, improvise with a rolled towel or coiled rope)

  • Start on the ground in a seated position with knees bent and feet flat.
  • Place a foam roller perpendicular under your thoracic spine (upper back). Keep your hips on the ground throughout.
  • Clasp your hands behind your neck, and bring your elbows toward each other (this isolates the movement to your spine).
  • With hips on the ground, extend through your upper back using the foam roller as the fulcrum.
  • Engage your upper back muscles to deepen the stretch.
  • Return to neutral and repeat.

Note: Be sure to mobilize your whole thoracic spine. In the photos you’ll notice that I move the foam roller higher up my back as I go. Do roughly 10 reps for each position.

– 10-20 reps per position, holding 1-2 sec each

Squats with Arms Overhead: (Stretch a band overhead, use a span of rope or use a dowel)

  • Stand in a comfortable squat position with arms overhead. Initially, hold the band wider than shoulder-width. This will be easier. As you progress, narrow your grip for more intense thoracic extension.
  • As you squat down, ensure that your arms stay overhead. If your arms creep forward, come out of your squat slightly to keep arms overhead. You may not have enough thoracic extension yet, but keep working on it!
  • Squat down as far as you can without your arms coming forward, and ensure your knees do not move past your toes. Return to standing, and repeat.

– 10-20 reps, holding 1-2 sec each

– Progress to narrow grip as your extension improves.

Rotation

Shoulder health requires optimal thoracic rotation. This decreases the demand on shoulder range of motion, and allows for more fluid movement (remember the “stiff link model” from part 1). As with many of the extension exercises, engage the muscles that squeeze your shoulder blades together when performing the rotation exercises. This will provide optimal rotation in the trunk. Try to avoid twisting from the lumbar spine, and isolate the twist in the upper back (most movements are subtle when done correctly). To help isolate the movement, many of these exercises flex the hip to “lock” the lumbar spine.

Seated Twists (This is a small movement when focused on the thoracic spine)

  • Kneel on your mat and sit on your heels (this helps to avoid twisting from the low back).
  • Place your hands behind your head and bring your elbows toward each other.
  • Twist to one side, focusing the movement in the upper back.
  • Engage your core to avoid twisting the low back.
  • On the side you are twisting toward, engage the muscles that squeeze your shoulder blades together. This will help deepen your stretch.
  • Return to neutral and repeat to the other side.

– 10-20 reps each direction, holding 1-2 sec each

Child’s Pose Twists

  • Kneel on your mat in child’s pose with knees and feet together.
  • Start with one hand behind your head and twist toward the sky, maintaining your stomach-to-thighs position.
  • On the side you are twisting toward, engage the muscles that squeeze your shoulder blades together to deepen your stretch. The motion comes from your upper back, not your arm. (To progress the exercise, reach your hand toward the sky to intensify the stretch.)
  • Return to neutral and repeat. Remember to twist both directions.

– 10-20 reps each direction, holding 1-2 sec each

Thread the Needle

  • Start in the quadruped position with a neutral spine.
  • Twisting from the upper back, reach a hand up toward the sky, and follow through the opposite direction to thread your hand through your other arm. If you’re able, you can rest your shoulder on the mat, but only if you can keep your hips/pelvis in line. If your pelvis and low back twist to achieve the shoulder on the ground, unwind slightly.
  • Return to neutral and repeat. Remember to twist both directions.

– 10-20 reps each direction, holding 1-2 sec each at end range of both movements

Note: When shoulder on the ground has been achieved, you can hold this position for 30 sec at a time for a passive mobility exercise.

Supine Twists

  • Lie on your side with your back and grounded leg straight in line. The top leg should be flexed to 90˚ at the hip and knee and resting on a foam roller (this helps to “lock” the lumbar spine, and isolate the twist to the thoracic spine).
  • Both arms are stretched out in front of you.
  • As you twist to open your arms like a book, ensure that your top leg stays in contact with the foam roller, and that the roller does not roll with you. It should remain stationary. Like other rotational movements, use your upper back muscles to deepen the twist.
  • Return your arms to touch and repeat. Remember to twist both directions.

– 10-20 reps each direction, holding 1-2 sec each

Isolated Trunk Rotation with Band (from ThePrehabGuys.com, @theprehabguys)

  • Anchor an elastic band (I recommend starting with a yellow TheraBand) at shoulder height, but if you’re in the desert, stomach height works too!
  • With arms stretched in front, stand at a distance so that there is barely tension on the band, but not drooping.
  • Wrap the band in each hand and rotate only from the trunk and shoulder to pull the band back (rotation should not come from the neck or low back/hips – if your low back/hips start twisting, engage your core and glutes to “lock” your lumbar spine and hips).
  • Keep your elbow straight throughout—we’re not starting a lawn mower.
  • Slowly and with control, unwind to allow the hands to meet. Repeat on the other side.

– 8-10 reps on each side (If you lose your form at rep 9, do sets of 8 – you always want form to be priority.)

Note: When the yellow TheraBand gets too easy (you can easily do 10 reps), progress to a red TheraBand

Yoga for Mobility

I’ve practiced yoga for about nine years, and have reaped the benefits in many aspects of my life: from stress relief and increased body awareness, all the way down to being able to high-step with greater mobility and keep my body close to the wall during delicate moves.

I believe that a regular yoga practice not only improves your well being, but can also make you a better climber. During my second clinical rotation in PT school, I had a clinic schedule that afforded me the time to practice yoga four times per week. I found that my increased flexibility and joint stability from consistent yoga allowed me to send my project, a 5.12c competition route at Ascent Studio in Fort Collins, CO. If you currently practice yoga, I’ve listed a few yoga poses for you that will increase your thoracic rotation based upon my own personal experiences. Everyone will have a different experience, but coupled with the exercises above, I think your overall climbing performance will improve.

For the most in-depth description and assistance with these poses, I recommend supporting your local yoga teacher and asking them for hands-on cueing.

Yoga Poses to Promote T-Spine Rotation