This is a guest post by my good friend and movement specialist David Wu.
You know that feeling…
The one you get after sitting on your ass all day.
Your brain is mush, tongue is dry and your body feels like it’s decomposing.
And after hours of desk dwelling you redeem your body by crushing some weights in the gym.
Chances are, however, those weights are crushing you too.
If your idea of keeping active is going from cubicle to Crossfit, let me unveil the most common postural dysfunction that is the holding you back from performing well in the gym.
And it’s everywhere.
Quickly look around where you work or study.
We all know what hunch back syndrome looks like (not a real technical term, I just made that up). It’s that exaggerated rounding of the upper (mid) back that you’ll see often on those who spend too much time sitting.
It’s called kyphosis.
Can’t keep your chest up or back straight?
Functionally, a kyphotic posture and locked up midback can have a debilitating impact on your health and your lifting performance. It can lead to:
- Shoulder pain (impingement, rotator cuff tears etc.),
- Decreased performance in overhead pressing,
- Inability to maintain good form or attain proper starting/ending positions (ex. deadlift),
- Excessive tension in the low back (ex. squats),
- Decreased aerobic performance,
- Breathing issues & head/neck aches,
- Lower back pain (spondylolysisthesis, disc herniation).
And the list goes on…
Enter the T-spine
Your thoracic spine is made up of 12 vertebrae in your upper back (T1 to T12 – see image below). Sandwiching the T-spine is the lumbar spine (lower back) and the cervical spine (neck). The T-spine vertebrae are the only ones that your ribs are attached to.
(Image source: spine anatomy)
Why T-spine mobility matters
Think of the thoracic spine as the youngest sibling in the family. When food spills or something breaks, it’s always the oldest sibling that gets the blame.
Likewise, the T-spine rarely gets the blame when it comes to pain and physiological dysfunctions throughout the body. To make matters worse, the T-spine is also the place where four other “things” branch out. Any problem with the T-spine and a rippling chain reaction of dysfunctions is sent out through the muscles and bones of the two arms, neck and lower back. It’s like fiddling around with the keystone in a wall and expecting all the other bricks around it to not be affected.
“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” – Bruce Lee
Take another look at the list of symptoms I mentioned earlier. See what I mean? Rarely do we ever get an injury to the thoracic spine. There’s a reason why you end up with a herniated lumbar disc and not a herniated thoracic disc.
The thoracic spine is where we are meant to get most of our upper body movement: our extension/flexion and rotation. However, when we can’t move through this area – i.e. when it gets tight and immobile – adjacent regions will compensate to achieve our necessary movement goals.
And this is a big problem.
Areas above and below a stiff T-spine will become unstable and move uncontrollably, particularly the shoulder blades and the lower back.
But these areas are NOT designed to move excessively. They are designed to function as stable platforms to transfer forces.
Why it gets tight
As we degenerate through the day with our butts on a chair, we slowly creep into fetal position. This usually begins with our noggin’ shifting into a forward head posture.
Hell breaks loose as this forces our spines into flexion and our shoulders into a rounded, internally rotated position.
And because our body likes to adapt to imposed demands as a means to decrease stress, it makes the necessary changes to accommodate this position by tightening up muscles and reinforcing kyphosis with layers of connective tissue (fascia).
Not good. Not good at all.
What to do about it
As a quick appraisal of your t-spine mobility, perform the self-test in the video below (shown at 6:19-7:19).
Note: if the video isn’t showing, simply refresh the page and it will appear.
If you failed the test, the solution is simple: use the test as the correction.
It’s important that you make sure that you keep a straight spine and dowel against your chest. If you suck, especially at one side, this is a red flag. Triple time the bad side to make sure you’re not driving around with a single flat tire.
As a supplement (or if you’re just finding it too difficult to do the seated rotation), try out the quadruped t-rotation mobility drill:
As an example, here’s how you can mobilize your thoracic spine with the foam roller:
Now do yourself a favor: get out of thoracic park and into thoracic mobility.
Your health and your lifts will thank you.