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When the thoracic spine is well looked after, exercised and mobile, it is one of the strongest and most structurally important areas of the body. The thoracic spine attaches to the ribs, meaning the entire structure is reinforced on either side by bone. On top of this, there are very large, flat postural muscles including the trapezius, rhomboids, lats and serratus muscles which provide stability and strength in the upright position. This means that the thoracic spine is a terrific support to both the neck and the low back. If the postural muscles which support the neck get weak or lazy, the neck cranes forward which can cause neck and shoulder pain. If the lower stabilisers of the thoracic spine become weak or lazy, the upper section of the low back can straighten, losing its natural curve. This means that the low back’s curve will be concentrated at the base of the spine, which can also lead to pain.
When the thoracic spine becomes weak, usually the body slouches. This can create quite a few problems. Firstly, it doesn’t look great. When people talk about poor posture, usually what they are referring to are the classic signs of a weak thoracic spine. A great example is feeling like holding your shoulders back is too much effort, or like holding your neck back feels as though you’re jamming your joints together.
When the thoracic spine hunches forward, the rib cage cannot expand as much which can lead to shallower breathing. Deep, full breaths of air are an important part of maintaining cardiovascular fitness, among many other aspects of health. This also means the shoulders will be angled forward, placing more pressure on the neck and shoulders. When the neck and shoulders are forward, a muscle called levator scapulae may become very painful. This muscle can be felt at the back of the shoulders, attaching to the upper, inner corner of the shoulder blades and leading up to the sides of the neck.
The first step in strengthening the thoracic spine is to make sure you have the range of motion to perform exercises properly. This can be done using a foam roller or other home methods, however mobility in the thoracic spine is something Chiropractors work on very commonly. Once there is enough mobility in the thoracic spine, exercises can be performed.
Here are some great exercises to strengthen the thoracic spine:
Lat pull-downs are a great way to strengthen the lats, lower traps and other muscles used for the lower part of the thoracic spine. This exercise is especially great for improving your shoulder strength, and ability to brace when strengthening your low back.
A weighted seated row strengthens the rhomboids and middle traps. It is also a great way to start opening up the movement in the chest, since once the rhomboids are strong, the shoulder blades can be drawn back to increase the length of the pec muscles.
This exercise is a great way to strengthen the upper traps. Strong upper traps support the weight of the head much more effectively.
Strengthening the upper traps, deltoids, rhomboids and other upper back and shoulder muscles is a great way to strengthen and support the thoracic spine.
The rear delt fly strengthens not only the deltoids but the rhomboids and traps as well. This is a great way to support your upper back.
Planks or push ups are a great way to strengthen the core, however the thoracic spine is used to stabilise the entire way through each set. Even between repetitions of push ups, the thoracic spine must be stabilising your entire body.
In summary, the thoracic spine not only benefits your posture so you can look good in photos, but is an important part of maintaining good stability and strength throughout the entire spine. If you’d like to know more about strengthening your thoracic spine, speak to one of our Chiropractors or ask your personal trainer to help you with your goals.
By Dr. Beau Kenihan (Chiropractor)