Saturday, May 28, 2011

Step 7: Mobilize your Mid-Back

The Desk Warriors Guide To Building A Healthy Back 7/10

Now that we are working to stabilize our lower backs in an effort to limit the chances of lower back injury; we must in turn mobilize the joints immediately above and below. In the case of our lumbar spine which includes the bottom 5 lumbar vertebrae, we are talking about mobilizing the hip joint below and the 12 thoracic vertebrae above. Our body has this pattern of a mobile joint followed by a stable joint and so forth. Strength coach Mike Boyle describes this pattern and the joint-by-joint training approach in his great article here.

Joint-By-Joint Approach

Ankle needs Mobility

Knee needs Stability

Hip needs Mobility

Lumbar spine needs Stability

Thoracic spine needs Mobility

Scapulo-Thoracic needs Stability

Shoulder needs Mobility

Why do our bodies necessitate a mobile joint be followed by a stable joint? It’s because we don’t want to be a loose gumby-esque amorphis jello-creature as we would be if all our joints were hypermobile. Nor do we want to move like a 16th century iron clad English soldier, as we would if all our joints were overly stable.

Instead we compromise joint-by-joint and follow stable joints up the kinetic chain with mobile joints. When one joint sacrifices mobility for stability, the joints immediately above and below must pick up the movement slack with increased mobility. This allows for optimal movement and athletic performance and is precisely what we want out of the hips and thoracic spine as to allow for our stable low-backs.

So why train for a stable lumbar spine? Why mobilize the thoracic spine?

This comes down to the intended use of the joint. The lumbar vertebrae are thick and stable by nature. They are intended to act as a conduit from which our powerful lower limbs will move us about. The lumbar spine doesn't allow for a great deal of rotation or flexion/extension. The thoracic spine instead is where we are designed to get most of our rotation and flexion/extension from. See the lumbar spine has a huge job, supporting our the entire load that is yourself at the center of our gravity. It does this by being stable and needs to be trained for this task.

Poor thoracic posture or kyphosis coupled with poor mobility is an epidemic similar in magnitude to our nations obesity epidemic. Look around you. Notice all the bent spines? Notice that forward head posture with the turtle shell back? This posture predicts poor thoracic mobility & increases risk of injuring the joints directly above and below. Namely the lower back, the shoulders and neck. Let me tell you what is likely to happen to these folks.

Low Back Injury

So if we are supposed to perform a squat and get decent depth. If we can't maintain a neutral spine because of our hunched posture, we will lose our lumbar curve at the worst time, under full flexion. This is how we herniate discs apply a load to a fully-flexed spine and WHAM-O, PAIN CITY.

If we can't get full rotation as in throwing, or other twisting movements because of sub-par thoracic mobility, our lumbar spines will pick up this slack as well. Twisting motions have been found by McGill to have up to 6x the compressive load as simple flexion/extension exercises. This increased compressive load will more quickly lead to injury in the dysfunctional spine.

Shoulder Injury

When it comes to any overhead lifts, poor thoracic extension makes these very difficult. Kyphosis prevents your shoulder blades from tilting backwards when your arms are raised. This leads to decreased subacromial space and increased risk of shoulder impingement. Over time you may tear a rotator cuff in this manner. Know anyone with a rotator cuff tear that hasn't done a thing to earn it? As Borat would put it, I'd bet the eyes of my first born that they have bad posture.

Tangent. Think of a creep. The most vile and foul of all creeps. Take a moment to picture them creeping about as they slither through their creepy day. Now tell me that creep you painted in your mind did NOT have a rounded out back? ALL creeps have a degree of kyphosis, perhaps earned from hours of facebook creeping or perhaps by nature. Regardless, don't allow yourself to fall into this category simply because you've plugged too many hours in at the job.

Not only is this kyphotic posture unnattractive & creepy, it is unproductive and injurious. So what can you do about it? Well for one, start with purchasing a high density foam roller and using it daily. Here is a video on the simple foam rolling technique that will help you preserve or improve your thoracic mobility.

Not only is the foam roller effective, it feels DAMN good. When you relax onto the foam roller and slowly roll up and down, you’ll feel all these mini-cracks. This is just gas release from the ribs at the articulations with the vertebrae. This is nothing to worry about. The ribs provide stability to the thoracic spine protecting it from injury. The articulations with the ribs increase thoracic stability but predispose the cervical and lumbar spine to injury at the expense of the T-spine safety. Approximately only 5% of disc herniations occur in the T-spine. Most disc herniation occurs in the lumbar spine in the young and as we age disc herniation becomes more predominant in the cervical spine.

The foam roller is an effective tool. So effectively that a client of mine once gained ¾ of an inch in height via thoracic extension. This gain of height came with improved movement patterns in the joints above and below the thoracic spine. We were able to achieve better overhead positions (improved shoulder function) and able to avoid lumbar flexion due to the improved posture and thoracic mobility. Thus we were able to train harder without risking injury to the joint above and below the immobile thoracic spine. Are you getting this?

As for assessment and correction, I’ll point you to a great post by Mark Sisson’s. He tackles this topic well at his blog post on

Hopefully between Mark Sissons and I you now have a better understanding of the importance of thoracic mobility as it regards to building your healthy back. Now let's work on decreasing our creep-factor and improving our thoracic mobility. Not only may you melt away low-back and shoulder/neck pain. You'll feel better, move better, look better and lift more. I'm sold! Sign me up!

No comments:

Post a Comment