Updated: Aug 14, 2019
All too often people walk into the doors of my gym and frequently talk about the neck/shoulder pain they have. Whats the cause of this? From what I've seen in my clients and evaluations performed on them, a large portion of this pain is a symptom of minimal thoracic mobility. What is thoracic mobility ? Thoracic mobility is the ability to create movement in your thoracic region (upper back). By movement I mean extension, flexion, depression, elevation, retraction, protraction, upward rotation and downward rotation.
Now the issue here is everything we do in
this world doesn't necessarily set us up for success in developing mobility in this area of our back. Looking down at our phones and computers all day creates a habit of those muscles being in a relaxed state. These are the same muscles we need to pull our shoulders back into proper positioning and the same muscles we need active to get proper movement in our upper back. When our upper back is relaxed, our shoulders slump forward and the muscle tissues in the front of our shoulder become shorter over time to "adapt" to the positioning that we put it through daily. Our bodies are very smart and will adapt to what we constantly put it through! With the muscles in the upper back being lazy and the tissues in the front being shorter, what do we get? We get what is shown in the picture below.
The technical term for this is thoracic kyphosis, but we can just call it having rounded shoulders for simplicity purposes. Now, when you're in this position on a regular basis, some things are going to happen. Your upper traps are going to freeze up because they are constantly flexed (this will cause those tension headaches). This will also immobilize your neck from properly moving as it should. With the traps over active, your scapulae will be in a constant state of being elevated (raised up towards your head). This makes it difficult to depress (pull down towards your lower back) them. Its important to be able to depress/retract the shoulder blades voluntarily when you want because this is an essential part of putting the shoulders into proper positioning for many exercises to avoid injuries and impingement. In addition to being able to elevate, retract and depress voluntarily, the shoulder blade should be able to protract and rotate voluntarily as well. When we are not able to perform these basic movements, it puts extra strain on muscles that are compensating to stabilize for the lack of movement/stability in the shoulder blades. These muscles eventually just lock up and essentially just stay as they are because they are never used and over time this creates back pain and other various painful issues including adhesions that prevent the muscles from being able to stretch and contract when they do decide they want to move. How in the hell do we fix this?! Why do we want to fix this?! You fix this by restoring the tissues in your back to a healthy state via rolling out with a lacrosse ball, massages, scraping, stretching, and banded mobilization techniques. As you help the tissues back to a healthy state working out the adhesions and restoring flexibility to the muscles, you need to be sure to put the shoulder blades through full range of motion as best you can. This might not be a great range of motion at first but you need to move! This means getting various movement in the upper back! All ranges of motion, depression (pulling down) elevation (raising) retraction (bringing together), protraction (pulling apart) upward rotation and downward rotation. Remember how our body reacts to the stresses we put on it and adapts? Well that still holds true now, if you are constantly working to make your upper back tissue healthy again and putting your shoulder blades through constant full range of motion, your body will remember that and just might cooperate if you're consistent enough with you're corrective exercises. We want to fix this issue because the upper back is a main staple of most exercises. If we cannot hold a stable and strong upper back while exercising, this leaves us vulnerable to a variety of shoulder issues due to the fact that the humerus (arm bone) tends to get pushed forward into the glenohumeral joint (shoulder socket), This leads to tissues becoming impinged as well as the grinding of the humerus on the front portion of the shoulder socket. If we have a strong and stable upper back while we exercise, those muscles in the back are going to hold the shoulders back and in a safe position. This is the part where a strong stable and mobile upper back alleviates shoulder pain! There are several exercises out there for thoracic mobility as well as thoracic stretches and mobility drills for the upper back. Take the time to really focus on your posture and work on it. You can correct it, no matter how long you've had bad posture or pain, there is a fix! If you need some guidance for exercises specific to your needs you can contact me personally and email me at firstname.lastname@example.org If you don't want to go that route, here is a short list of exercises that are great for improving thoracic mobility and strength in the upper back! Take your time and do them right!
-Thoracic Bench Stretch
-Open Book Thoracic Mobility Drill
-Barbell Opener Drill
-Reverse Snow Angels