THORACIC MOBILITY: YOUR #CIRCUSSHOULDER’S KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOR
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
WHAT DOES “WRONG” LOOK LIKE?
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:
- reverse meathooks
- the “sweep” phase of your flying trapeze swing
- hollowback handstands
- beats on any aerial apparatus
- snake/chair bridge in contortion
- any trick involving a standing arabesque
PEANUT THORACIC EXTENSION
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
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!