Spinal vertebrae get smaller the closer they get to the head. As such, the spine is designed to be more mobile as it reaches upward toward the sensory inputs of the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. The tailbone is large and bulky, fused into a single, stationary unit. The neck can rotate, flex, extend, and bend laterally. Function follows anatomy.
photo credit: epainassist.com
As I mentioned in the “Hips – the Hinge” post, the lumbar spine should be relatively stable. The HIPS should drive movement, not the lower back. Because of this stability, the mid-back should be relatively mobile. It should be the main rotator and extender of the torso.
People huddled over computer desks all day tend to get a flexed, hunched-over look. In flexion, you get very little rotation. And since flexion is the opposite of extension, thoracic spine extension is typically the first to go.
Eric Cressey shows a simple t-spine exercise you can do on a roller or two tennis balls taped together:
Roller T-Spine Extension
Keep the butt on the ground and elbows TOGETHER. Try to get the top of your head to the floor. Find your spot anywhere between the ribs, and EXHALE as you extend up over the top. It might be helpful to slow it down and take a few breaths when you’re in that extended position.
Here’s a prone version (chest down… as most people work and move) that really tests mid-back separation between the shoulder blades:
Bench T-Spine Extension
Keep hands securely gripped on the stick. Don’t let the pinkies peel off.
Bicep curl over your head as you press your butt back.
Fixed Rib Roll:
Tall, long torso. Bottom hand hugs knees. Keep them above belly button to lock out low back… this is a MID-BACK mobility exercise, not a lower back stretch. Top hand grabs lower rib and “rips” it open with an exhale. Try to roll open an inch or two more with each breath.
Quadraped T-Spine Rotations:
Prone version of the rib roll, with hand on neck. If you find yourself leading too much with the elbow, place twisting side hand on opposite ribs and attempt to get holding shoulder to sky.
Side Lying Clappers
Ensure torso and long bottom leg is straight. Have up knee elevated to minimize torque on low back. ACTIVELY drive elevated knee up towards your face. PULL body open with moving hand SHOULDER, not hands. Neck should rotate as eyes follow moving hand. If your WRIST (not fingers, cheater) can’t hit the ground, hold and attempt to drive it an inch or two down with the next exhale. Success is getting the moving shoulder to the ground without lifting the stationary shoulder off the floor or dropping the knee. Own this position by being able to take a big belly breath without letting that moving hand or shoulder pop up.
Side Lying Windmill
This is an advanced version of the above, with Eric Cressey coaching you through.
You should not be moving through your lower back. This is a STABLE segment.
The mid back (thoracic spine) is designed to move the torso. It is a MOBILE segment.
Most issues with the mid back involve a lack of extension and rotation.