Upper back mobility? Um yeah well most of the time smart and sophisticated fitness professionals use the term thoracic spine mobility, but I figure that probably means more to other fitness professionals then it does to the everyday gym-goer. The interchange of the terms though makes since if you take a look at a skeleton. The thoracic spine is the middle 12 vertebrae of the spine which run from approximately the base of your neck to the middle of your back.
Makes since now right? The T-spine is essentially what most people refer to as their upper back.
Anyways now you both terms and can appear smart when you want too and also communicate what your doing to not so anatomically inclined individuals. See reading this blog not only gets you in better shape, but it also helps level up your knowledge game. What more could you ask for?
This region of your spine has the greatest potential for mobility and should be somewhat more mobile (within reason) than the lumbar or cervical spine. However do to the growing trend that work for most people involves being seated and hunch over a computer (including me as I write this) a lot of people are losing parts of this mobility and in my opinion the most important aspects of upper back mobility.
The two biggest areas of deficit I see in most people's upper back mobility is in rotation and extension. And what sucks the most about this is that in order to perform a lot of exercises that will help you lose weight, gain strength, and grow muscle require that you have adequate thoracic spine extension and rotation.
So let me give you a quick three step process to attack your upper back mobility and restore good function.
1. Decrease neural tone
This involves helping the musculature surrounding and influencing the structure of your upper back to relax and carry less tension. This will make it easier for use to stretch and mobilize the upper back through it's proper range of motion with less resistance from the surrounding tissue. This will allow us to actually take the structure and musculature through it's true function.
This can be accomplished in a few different ways, but the two methods I like to use is proper diaphragmatic breathing followed by some light foam rolling. This might look something like the following:
90/90 Supine Breathing x 10 breaths
Foam Roll Lats x 20s - 30s each
Foam Roll Pec Minor/Major x 20s -30s each
Foam Roll Rhomboids x 20s - 30s
2. Mobilize the areas of restriction
Next after helping the musculature relax and release it's tension we want to move the upper back structure and musculature through the ranges of motion we'd like to improve. For this case we are focusing on extension and rotation of the thoracic spine. By doing this we are helping to restore normal function to the tissues and "teach" them their normal ranges of motion are okay and safe.
When do this we want to go slow and we want to search for areas where we meet resistance and breathe through this resistance as we meet it. Mobilizing the upper back for extension and rotation can be accomplished with drills like the following:
Foam Roll T-Spine Extension x 12 reps
Foam Roller Side Lying Extension Rotation x 10 reps each side
3. Integrate and strengthen the new ranges of motion
The final step in regaining normal thoracic spine function is to take the tissues that you have relaxed and taken through their normal range of motion in a safe and non-threatening manner and integrate and cement this new function by strengthening the tissue through the range of motion. This means using resistance exercises that incorporate the tissues we have just worked on. Making sure that we do these resistance exercises with extra care applied to the tempo the movement. We want to slow it down, breathe through it, and own every position of the movement.
For the upper back this could be accomplished by using the two following exercises:
Band Straight Arm Lat Pulldown x 15 reps with slow tempo
KB Windmill x 8 reps each side with slow tempo
(Video is property of Neghar Fonooni. Why isn't it of me? Well I didn't have a demo on hand and she probably does them better than I do)
Then you just repeat the steps with whatever exercises you would like to accomplish each step in a sort of circuit fashion. This kind of circuit can be done as warm-up, a cool down, or if you have some extra time to do some maintenance of your body. I think two to three rounds of a circuit like this is sufficient.
I hope this helps you recover from all that sitting and hunching and improve your performance in pursuit of your goals!
Happy moving and heavy lifting!
Practical, Purposeful, Effective Training