Restoring the T- Spine

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Okay Officer Hunchback, it’s time to address your thoracic issues. The bad news for you is that having a rounded upper back can be the gateway to back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, and more pain (and by the way you cant press as much weight overhead). The good news is that you can work on your thoracic spine, start relieving all that pain and be more awesome at pressing weight overhead.

Fun fact for all of the Keith Cushman  (the kid from Jerry Maguire) fans: The human head doesn’t weigh 8 lbs. Okay I’m sure some do but it’s usually estimated at 10-12 lbs according the googles. It’s widely quoted that for every inch your head of forward of center, the stress on your neck increases by another 10 lbs (I didn’t find the study but have seen the textbook  Physiology of Joints by A. I. Kapandjii cited as the source)  Is your head 3 inches forward of center? Well that’s like 42 lbs of stress on your neck so…. way to go you overachiever.

The vest/uniform shirt combined with sitting in a squad car is a powerful combination that will Quasimodo you in a hurry if you’re not cognizant of position and fail to take corrective measures.  If you’ve let this go on long enough your spine is probably stuck. It’s bad enough that trying to stand up straight like mama said won’t quite cut it. Even going through a solid bracing sequence wont quite get the T-spine where it needs to be.  You’ll need some amount of force to restore extension. Don’t have a chiropractor in your pocket that can adjust you before and after work? Give this a try.

Quick test: Can you keep your body in a braced position neutral spine position and put your arms overhead? If yes, check again make sure your rib cage is still down… cheater.

 

Not overhead. Try to load a kettlebell in this position and see how long you can hold it there.

Still not overhead. My hands are more vertical, but I’m cheating. Look extension load in the low back to get them there. Can you load this position? Yes you can. Do it enough and you’ll find out why missing thoracic extension can lead to low back pain.

Much better here. We have a flat back, the ribs are down and hands are vertical.  Not quite perfect, but this good enough to safely put some load on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOTE: The overhead position is a great test and retest to look at improvement in T-spine extension but there’s a lot more work that can be done to clean his position up including soft tissue work on the chest, triceps, lats, and serratus just to name a few. We’re just looking for improvement. This post isn’t the end all be all for perfect overhead position. 

Foam roller extension level 1

Roll your back from the base of your ribs to your neck over the foam roller 20-30sih passes or until you stop noticing change. Focus on getting as much extension out of your thoracic spine as you can. Put your hands over head to make it a little more awesome. Feel free to roll side to side as you roll up and down to get the ribs moving too. By the way if this makes you want to vomit, chances are your tissues are junky. But on a more serious note if this feels like it’s aggravating any injuries then bail. Go see your chiropractor, physical therapist or other qualified professional.

 

This my friends is flexion of the T-spine, you might start here to make some superficial passes but you need to work on getting that upper back as extended as you can to try to restore normal position. If you’re stuck here keep working and think about relaxing over the roller. Foam rollers are really big and soft so if just doing this is causing discomfort, you got some work to do kiddo.

 

 

Here we are looking better with a flattish back. Remember flattish is extension in comparison to today’s standard kyphotic rounding. Even when you get here, keep working to bias your t-spine into extension.

 

Here’s a good variation to get some snap, crackle, pop going. Hug yourself, hang your head back and slowly steamroll the foam roller toward your head.

 

Throwing the arms overhead really cranks up the extension tension. The function of the shoulder blades and the thoracic spine are so intertwined that they’re inseparable as a functional unit when it comes to putting your arms overhead (hence our earlier test) Hit this position before you even think about putting weight overhead in a military press, snatch, jerk or anything.

 

You can drop your hips and use that to bias a more globally extended spine. You can keep or leave  dropping the head back here. (my head looks like it’s gonna explode for a reason, and it’s not because this is without discomfort for myself).  If you’re actively dealing with some low back issues, keep your butt active and squeeze it a little to prevent too much low back extension.

 

You have a variety of options here Use what works for you in your current situation.

Foam roller extension level 100

Alright, now it’s time to turn it up a notch. Grab a weight, put it on your chest, hug it and start rolling out your back keeping the focus on thoracic extension. Use what you can of all the above mentioned techniques in combination with a huggy weight. The hands overhead variation is tough here but you can place the weight on the ground above your head. Grab the weight and use it to anchor your arm into a stable position as you bias extension.

I use a 40 lb medicine ball as my “huggy weight.” You can use about any weight you have accessible. kettlebell, bumper plate or even your two year old child…. yes I’ve done it, and it worked.

Work on extension joint by awful joint.

The foam roller is great for restoring multi segment extension but sometimes we need to be a little more precise and a little more severe. A couple of lacrosse balls taped into a peanut of death or a MWOD Gemini work great. Take a few light passes up and down the length of the t-spine first to get warmed up. Then settle in, let the shoulders and neck lay on the ground and lower your hips using the peanut as the fulcrum to work on each joint individually. Let as much as your trunk contact the ground as you can. Think about breathing through your back into the peanut, and work gently in and out of flexion and extension taking several reps at each segment. Work all the way up to your shoulders from the base of your t-spine/ribs. Add your huggy weight to really ratchet it up here.

  

 

I promise this feels good.

 

Do what you can with the foam roller and peanut variations. If it’s ever so much discomfort that you find that you can’t relax or, take a full breath in and out, readjust and/or back off a progression.

 

The squishy balls soft tissue smash.

When we need to unstick some junky fascia and reset muscle tension softer balls are clutch . The harder and larger implements work better for forcing your spine into extension and can get some of the soft tissue work done but inversely, a softer ball will do some of some of the extension work and seems to work much better on the soft tissues of your back. The reason they work so well is that they are a little more grippe and create a little more shear between tissues and they yield to bony prominence allowing them to get into some nooks and crannies that harder balls bypass.  I love pinky balls for this. The older harder version are my favorite but they’re becoming more difficult to find. The newer softer versions of the pinky ball work fine too but at they’re a little softer. Jill Millers Yoga tune-up balls are also fantastic. You know what Jill Miller also has that’s fantastic? This video on a ball sequence to work on the back and neck.

 

Think about restoring extension before/after work, and always make sure its there before you start putting weights over head. I highly recommend doing the softer ball work a little before you go to bed…. Aaaaaaannnnnnddddd you are welcome. I’m serious it’s money for turning on the “off switch.” When  I take the time to do this I need fewer pillows bolstering my head and neck and I sleep like a rock.

 

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