As an athlete, you likely know your body better than most. You know how to fuel it, how to push it to peak performance and how to recover. You’ve also probably had your share of injuries too, especially at the high school and college levels in Baltimore, where training is particularly intense.

When it comes to the spine, you might be familiar with aches and pains in your lower back or neck, but do you know where the thoracic spine is and why it’s important? Despite the general lack of focus on this region, taking care of and improving mobility in your thoracic spine can help you improve your sports performance.

Anatomy of the Spine

There are five parts of the spine, each with their own number of vertebrae which protect the spinal cord in that area. There are 33 vertebrae total in the spine.

  • Cervical: 7 vertebrae, located in the neck
  • Thoracic: 12 vertebrae, located in the upper back
  • Lumbar: 5 vertebrae, located in the lower back
  • Sacral: 5 vertebrae that fuse into 1 by adulthood, located in the sacrum in the pelvis
  • Coccygeal: 4 vertebrae that fuse into 1 by adulthood, located in the coccyx in the pelvis

These vertebrae along with the muscles and ligaments in your back are what allow you to move your torso to throw a ball, turn and catch a pass as you’re running towards the endzone, take a slap shot, reach for the ball while keeping your foot on base and more. While the lumbar spine is built to keep you stable, the thoracic spine is designed to help you rotate, flex and extend.

Why Thoracic Mobility is Important

Fortunately, injuries to the thoracic vertebrae are not common. Instead, problems in this area often come from a lack of mobility. Due to the sedentary nature of modern life, the thoracic region often loses mobility.

A lack of mobility in this region can cause pain:

  • In lower back or neck when doing twisting movements
  • In shoulders when lifting things high
  • In rotator cuffs

Stiffness may also cause your shoulders or spine to round forward and can limit your lung capacity.

You know it intuitively: when you have a greater range of motion, you can throw a ball stronger and faster. That’s your thoracic spine working properly.

Exercises to Help You Improve Thoracic Mobility

There are some exercises that can help improve your thoracic mobility. As with any new exercise, go slowly and listen to your body. Here are five to help you get started:

Foam Roller
Place a foam roller under your upper back. Keeping your ribs and hips in-line, slowly extend back over the foam roller. You can keep both knees bent and feet on the floor and cross your arms over your chest. At the fullest point of extension, breathe deeply three times and then return to an upright position. Repeat three times.

Thread the Needle
Start on your hands and knees. Lift your right arm and thread it between your left arm and left knee. Keep your hips over your knees and stabilize the core. Try to focus on the rotation coming from your upper back. Un-thread the right arm and repeat with the left arm. Repeat each set five times.

Lunge and Rotate
From a lunge position with the right foot forward (your back leg can be straight or knee can be on the ground), place both hands on the floor on either side of your right foot. Lift your right arm to the sky, keeping your hips level and only moving from the upper back. Hold for three counts return to the ground. Switch sides. Repeat each set five times.

Horizontal Chop
Tie an exercise band at shoulder height. Stand with your feet greater than hip width apart. Hold the band and raise it until it is at shoulder height. Keep your core engaged and hips stable and move the rope horizontally. Move only until lumbar spine or hips might want to move. Repeat on the other side for a total of ten sets.

Bench Extension
Kneel in front of a weight bench, about a torso’s length away from it. Clasp your hands and place your elbows on the bench. Gradually bend forward and sink your head between your elbows. Be careful not to collapse in the lower back. Hold for three breaths and then return upright. Repeat five times.

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