Handbalancer: Zoe Jones, www.zoemjones.com, @handstandswithzoe
Thoracic mobility to physiotherapists is kind of like coconut oil to hippies…it fixes EVERYTHING. Low back pain? Shoulder pain? Bet your thoracic spine is stiff. Neck problems? Hands ripping? Fear of heights? Time to work on t-spine mobility.
If you’ve been keeping up with the circus shoulder posts, you’re probably noticing a theme. Even though you feel pain or discomfort in your shoulder, the actual PROBLEM is likely coming from elsewhere. We like to call this “regional interdependence;” it's an impressive, multisyllabic phrase that means “everything’s connected.” It’s always important to look beyond the region of pain, and see what the rest of the body is doing (or not doing). More often than not, the cause of the problem is NOT the same as the location of pain. This is why I REALLY want to stress the importance of seeing a physio if you have ANY lingering aches or pains...they can help you solve your #circusproblems, because the answer is not always obvious!
So far in this shoulder series, we’ve talked about the lats, the rotator cuff, and the pec minor. This week, I’ll be discussing the importance of the thoracic spine in preventing and addressing shoulder pain.
If you haven't read the earlier shoulder blogs in my series, you can read the series intro here. Post number one covers common misconceptions about your #circuslats. Post two covers how to properly attack tight lats by leveraging shoulder and back muscles. Finally, once you read this post on the pec minor, you'll be all caught up. And now, moving on...
Anatomy and Mechanics
Your thoracic spine consists of the 12 vertebrae between your neck and low back. This is also where your ribs connect to your spine, which means that by nature, your thoracic spine is much stiffer than your neck or low back- and therefore has less movement. Your shoulder blade is connected to your t-spine by several muscles, and also sits on top your ribcage. Because your thoracic spine directly affects ribcage position, it also plays a HUGE role in scapular position and shoulder mechanics. A “normal” person might be able to get away with having some thoracic stiffness, but for the circus artist (or anyone who plays a sport where your arms are overhead at ALL), the slightest bit of increased stiffness can cause some big problems.
In the properly functioning t-spine, each of the 12 vertebrae is able to move SLIGHTLY on the vertebrae above and below it. We call this “accessory” motion. It's too small to quantify, but very important nonetheless. Accessory motion at the thoracic vertebrae should move allow for forward, backward, and rotational movement. This is VERY small, more of a glide than a large scale motion. However, this little glide between all 12 vertebrae allows for a larger COMPOSITE motion from the thoracic spine as a whole. The thoracic spine should be able to flex, extend, rotate, and side bend. Here’s why we care as circus artists: when the arm goes up overhead, whether we’re in a handstand or doing beats on trapeze, the healthy thoracic spine should EXTEND slightly. This helps put our shoulder blades in the most optimal position to keep the rotator cuff from being impinged.
Where it goes wrong
There are a lot of possible causes for decreased thoracic mobility, the most common of which is probably SITTING. And texting. And working at the computer for extended periods of time. When we sit, especially with poor posture, we tend to hunch forward and slump into a more rounded back posture than normal. This causes our shoulders to move forward, and our heads to jut out, and it all goes downhill from there. Generally, I think I see the most issues with the circus artist who’s the “desk job by day, circus star by night” type. If you sit with bad posture for hours a day, years at a time for work, you’ll probably develop increased stiffness in your t-spine. If you take this increased stiffness and throw it on a trapeze, or in a contortion class without addressing it, you’ll probably end up with issues SOMEWHERE. If our thoracic spine can’t extend when our arms are overhead, we have issues.
What does "wrong" look like?
Photographer: Arielena Reed Photography
There are a lot of different circus skills that will be negatively affected (or especially difficult to attain) if you have a tight t-spine. Most commonly, the basic back bend or bridge. If you look at your back bend, and you have nice movement through your hips and low back, but it looks sub-par from the mid back up, it could be your thoracic mobility causing the problem. Additionally, here are some skills that require a VERY healthy dose of thoracic mobility:
There are SO many awesome ways to mobilize your thoracic spine and improve overall spinal flexibility. One problem I see with a lot of circus artists is that they only focus on the extension aspect of thoracic mobility, when you really need to work both extension AND rotation. If all you’re doing to warm up your upper back is rolling on a foam roller a few times, you’re missing out! Because of the architecture of the t-spine, the rotation and extension movements are coupled- this means that if you want to improve extension, you MUST also work on rotation..and vice versa. The following are my favorite exercises to get your upper back moving. These are great to add in as part of your warm up before class….especially if you know you’ll be doing a lot of back bending!
Peanut thoracic extension
What’s a peanut? If you train at the San Francisco Circus Center, you may know the “peanut” as the “sock and balls.” Whatever you want to call it, its my FAVORITE tool for improving thoracic mobility on your own. To create your very own peanut, take two tennis or racquetballs and either tape them together or put them in a sock and tie off the end with a hair tie. For this exercise, first place the peanut on either side of your spine, at mid-back level. Take a deep breath in, then as you breathe out, drop your butt and head to the ground at the same time, so you “hinge” over the peanut. Do this between 5-8 times at each level, between mid back to where your shoulders and neck meet. You can also do the same thing, but alternating arms overhead instead of hinging over the peanut.
For extra intensity, do the same movements with the peanut on top of a yoga block. This gives you extra neck extension, which will increase the intensity of the mobilization!
Resisted quadruped thoracic rotation/extension
For this exercise, you’ll need a theraband tied to stall bars, or something similarly fixed. Hold the theraband with the arm furthest from the stall bars while on all fours. Engage your ribs, and on the exhale, rotate up towards the ceiling. Try to initiate the movement by drawing your shoulder blade towards your spine. Hold at the end of the rotation for a complete inhale and exhale.
For bonus points and an AWESOME core exercise, do the same thing in a plank position. You're welcome.
Straddle thoracic flexion/rotation
This exercise is SUCH an awesome multitasker. You not only get thoracic mobility, but also lat flexibility on the opposite side, and obviously a bit of a leg stretch too. Start with a foam roller parallel to your thigh and the back of your forearm on top, palm up. On the exhale, roll forward and into the rotation, while reaching your chest through your arms and towards the ceiling. This is nice, because you get a different stretch in different degrees of straddle, so try a few out!
If you know you’re going to be doing a lot of back bends (or other aforementioned t-spine heavy tricks), throw a few of these exercises in to your warm up and see how you feel! For those of you with desk jobs, I HIGHLY suggest keeping a peanut or foam roll at work…a few stretch breaks throughout the work day will do wonders for your circus shoulder…and probably every other ailment you have! And hey, if thoracic mobility doesn’t solve the problem, maybe rub some coconut oil on it…or better yet, see a physio!!
Is your thoracic spine EXTRA stubborn? Check out my active flexibility program: The Science Behind the Art of Backbending: Upper Back and Shoulders. It has ALL the tips and tricks you'll need to coax that elusive upper back into [safely] bending!