We all have read plenty of blog posts and articles that are intended to improve thoracic spine extension in athletes. But what if you already have a significant amount of thoracic spine extension? Is it really worth doing all of those boring isolation exercises if you already possess a decent amount of strength and mobility? If your like me then you probably answered no. The goal of any rehabilitation program is not to become life dependent on rehabilitation exercises. It is eventually to incorporate the success of that program (in this case thoracic spine extension) into your current training regimen in order to maintain and further develop those weak areas. In this post we hope to do exactly that. We would like to present you with several thoracic spine exercises to improve extension and at the same time help improve your lifts as well.
The front squat is one hell of an exercise. Not only does it greatly improve the strength of the quadricep muscles, but it also trains the thoracic spine.
In a front squat the bar remains racked on the shoulders rather than the back. This forces the lifter to maintain a very upright torso when descending into the squat. If the torso does not remain upright, then the weight will fall off of the body, resulting in a missed lift.
Due to the extreme upright demands of the torso, the front squat also serves as an excellent assistance exercise to the deadlift. Too often than not, plenty of lifters possess more than optimal leg strength. Unfortunately, their upper back is not strong enough to support the weight. As a result, their spine collapses forward into flexion. Now the weak area can be either scapulae retraction and/or thoracic spine extension. Both of which are vitally important for achieving a big deadlift.
Since the spinal erectors do not have nearly the strength or endurance of the quadriceps muscles, they fatigue much quicker under heavy weight. Typically in the front squat, it is not the legs that are the problem, it is the thoracic spine.
Although good mornings usually are meant to train the hips and hamstrings, they are still an effective exercise for targeting the thoracic spine.
Good mornings involve loading the bar on the traps, just like the back squat, and folding at the hips while maintaining a neutral spine. In order to keep the spine neutral, the spinal erectors have to actively extend the spine.
Also, the abs have to work with the spinal erectors to help stabilize the spine as well. Otherwise without sufficient intra-abdominal pressure, the spine will collapse inward.
A good rule of thumb is to keep the weight light relative to your max back squat. Although this is not set in stone, I would recommend keeping the weight to about 30-50% of your 1RM back squat. Before your ego tells you this is pansy weight, remember, we are using good mornings to increase muscular endurance in the thoracic spine. 10-15 reps should suffice.
The L-sit is a very under-appreciated exercise. If you ask most lifters what the L-sit trains, they will say abs. Although they are correct, they are also incorrect. Let me explain.
If you look at a beginner trying an L-sit for the first time you will notice how rounded their upper back is, how their shoulders are “shrugged” up towards their ears and how their torso is leaning forward. This is why beginners should use paralletts.
This demonstrates that the abdominal strength is there, but the shoulders and latissimus dorsi strength is not. The more advanced version of the L-sit has the lifter with a perfectly straight spine, shoulders pushed down away from the ears and the hips in front of the shoulders. To be technical, you can call this scapular depression.
The thoracic spine cannot be flexed to obtain maximal strength in scapular depression. It has to be in extension. It is under these circumstances that I have chosen the L-sit.
Not only will this new found strength help you with front squats and deadlifts, but it will also help you with other bodyweight exercises such as pull-ups, handstands, hanging leg raises and of course the v-sit.
Work up to holding an advanced L-sit for 20-30 seconds to get the most benefits.
Bench Thoracic Spine Mobilization
I first learned about this exercise form watching videos of Eric Cressy on Youtube.
Truth be told this exercise is more of a mobility exercise rather than a strength exercise. Nevertheless, it still strengthens the thoracic spine. What this exercise does differently from the other exercises is how it also stretches the lats and triceps.
Typically when the body needs thoracic extension, the lats and triceps are always being contracted. If these muscles are either too tight or provide inadequate mobility during certain lifts, then the thoracic spine will have a hard time maintaining extension.
Snatches are a perfect example of this. If you perform a snatch with poor thoracic extension, then you body will try to compensate in other areas. Unfortunately these areas do not benefit the lifter in the long term.
The anterior shoulder is one of the areas affected. If improper thoracic mobility and/or extension is achieved, then the anterior capsule of the shoulder tries to pick up the slack. This can result in shoulder pain when doing snatches, or any other overhead work.
The lumbar spine is also affected as well. If the thoracic spine cannot get into extension, then the lumbar spine will try to compensate. You often see this in the bottom position of the snatch and during presses for most newbies.
I would recommend that you perform bench thoracic spine mobilizations for at least 2 minutes before every overhead workout session.
In a recent article, I delved into several benefits of handstands for athletes. If you recall, the increased amount of thoracic extension was one of the benefits of handstands.
Weather performing a handstand freestanding, or against a wall is it crucial for the spine to be in thoracic extension. In fact, it is downright impossible to hold a handstand without being in thoracic extension.
This is why people have a hard time learning handstand pushups if they possess poor thoracic extension. Although their shoulders and triceps may be strong, their poor mobility prevents them from carrying out the exercise.
To perform, kick up onto a wall, or the air, and press through your fingertips until you find your balancing point. Once here, hold from around 30 seconds to 1 minute.
The handstand not only looks cool, but it also works wonders for the thoracic spine.