As a yoga teacher and personal trainer, I love when I’m able to find ways to connect the dots between what I teach at the yoga studio and what happens at the gym. I get a little giddy when I hear a strength coach suggesting a mobility warm-up that’s essentially a yoga pose with a different name. It makes me feel like I have some sort of secret superpower when it comes to strength training. Except I don’t want to keep it a secret.
I want everyone to know about the joys of training mobility. As much as I’d love for everyone to make regular yoga classes a part of their routine, I know that it’s not always realistic.
The good news: I believe in mixing it up. In the same way I like to add the occasional non-traditional mobility drill to my yoga class, I also have no problem whipping out a variation of a yoga pose in the middle of the gym.
Adding a few short but strategic exercises or stretches to your warm-up or cool-down can contribute to achieving bigger goals in the gym and in life. One way to get a lot of bang for your mobility buck? Start with the thoracic spine and shoulders.
Why Improving Thoracic Spine and Shoulder Mobility Matters
Granted, this goal might not be top of mind for many people. However, if you’ve ever been interested in any of the following, you should keep reading:
- Finding relief from low back pain, neck pain, or headaches.
- Learning to do your first pull-up (or getting better at pull-ups in general).
- Learning how to do kettlebell movements like the Turkish get-up or snatch.
- Improving barbell movements like squats and overhead presses.
- Getting better at backbends so you can take a sweet photo on your next vacation (or is that just me?)
First things first: I’m sure you know where your shoulders are, but where exactly is the thoracic spine (or as it’s sometime nicknamed, the T-spine)?
Your thoracic spine includes the 12 middle vertebrae located between your lower back and neck, and connects to your ribcage. When it’s moving well, your back is happy and things are likely to go well at the gym and in life. When it’s not, it might be contributing to some aches, pains, and struggles at the gym in some very unexpected ways.
Let’s dive into the ways that improving your thoracic spine and shoulder mobility can help you accomplish some of your bigger goals. Then I’ll give you some corresponding exercises to add to your routine to help get you there!
1. Relief From Headaches & Neck Pain
Posture plays into our comfort more than we realize. When your thoracic spine is stiff, it’s harder to sit up straight and rotate your upper body. This can result in the head and neck sitting forward which might contribute to pain in the neck and even to headaches. But the good news: in many cases, working on the mobility of your mid-back can give you a surprising bit of relief.
(To be clear, there could be other reasons why you’re experiencing aches and pains, so definitely see a qualified medical professional to rule out any other potential causes.)
2. Less Low Back Pain
On the other end of the spectrum, when your T-spine isn’t very mobile, your lumbar spine can sometimes overcompensate. This puts your pelvis in an anterior (forward) tilt and can contribute to low back pain.
Sometimes we mistakenly blame low back pain on other things (like deadlifts, back squats, or backbends in yoga class) and become fearful of them. When you free up your thoracic spine, your pelvis and lumbar spine can naturally fall into good alignment and keep you doing more of what you love.
3. Stronger Pull-Ups
The optimal position for a pull-up is either a straight line from your head to your heels or a hollow body position. In either case, you’ll need your arms to be overhead, and tight shoulders and lats can make this position difficult to get into.
You may have heard that it’s important to use your lats to initiate a pull-up, or to try scapular pull-ups as a regression, but it can be hard to activate these muscles if they aren’t moving freely. By adding some strategic mobilizers to your warm-up, you’ll be a step closer to getting your first pull-up or getting even better at the ones you’re already doing.
4. Better Overhead Movements
Opening up your shoulders and thoracic spine can open up the door to working on all kinds of overhead movements. Things like Turkish get-ups, overhead presses, and snatches are some of my favorite skills to teach.
However, without good thoracic spine and shoulder mobility, you might find that your arm doesn’t want to go up or straighten all the way. Taking some time to work focus on mobility first can lead to optimal alignment, which means safety and strength!
5. More Efficient Squats
If you’re into Olympic lifting, the overhead squat might seem pretty obvious, especially after reading my last point. But did you know that a lack of thoracic spine mobility can also make it harder to get under a barbell for a back squat?
As a result, you might unknowingly place your hands too wide, making it harder to generate as much power from your legs. You might find it harder to open through your chest, which will push the weight forward and make the lift harder.
6. Smoother Breathing
Breathing — it’s something we all do every day whether we realize it or not. But whether you’re lifting weights, practicing yoga, or running a marathon, mastering your breath can be a game-changer.
When your thoracic spine is mobile, your ribcage can move well too, allowing you to use the your lungs and diaphragm to their fullest capacity. This can translate to better performance in whichever activity you choose!
Hopefully you’re now convinced to give your shoulders and thoracic spine a little more love.
Each of the suggested exercises can be used as they feel good for you, regardless of your reason for wanting to get more mobile. You might find that some of them work better in your body than others, so feel free to create your own variations too!
Try them on as a warm-up, cool-down, or as self-care after a long day of work or travel. You might be surprised at how much improving your thoracic spine and shoulder mobility makes you feel better — at the gym and in your day to day life.
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