Workout Tips

How to Keep Your Thoracic Spine Healthy and Relieve Back Pain

Your thoracic spine is the unsung hero in alleviating neck and lower-back pain. Here's how to take care of it.

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How to Keep Your Thoracic Spine Healthy and Relieve Back Pain
Per Bernal

Look at any lifter worth his weight in gym chalk and chances are he has a meaty midback. Those guys with extra bulk in that area aren’t only stronger—they’re less injury-prone. That’s because a strong midback means a strong and stable midspine—and a strong midspine that moves well won’t just help your performance, it can also stave off injuries.

The beauty in freeing up your midback is that it can fix a lot of issues up- and downstream. Neck pain? Check the T spine. Achy lower back? Check the T spine. Or maybe you have a problem sealing the deal with the gal you met at the bar last night. In that case, check the T spine. OK, that last one might be a stretch, but believe us—the midback is huge in enhancing performance, alleviating pain, and getting stronger. Here, we explain why you don’t want a T spine issue and outline how to both prevent and fix it.

The Problem

Your cervical spine (the neck) has seven vertebrae, your lumbar spine (lower back) has five, and your thoracic spine (midback) has a whopping 12. The sheer size of the thoracic spine means that it plays a major role in most movement patterns. A weak and immobile T spine results in other areas, both above and below, being forced to compensate. Then it’s only a matter of time before compensation patterns result in a strained neck, wonky shoulder, or tweaked lower back.

The Cause

The main culprit of T-spine issues is immobility. In other words: If you don’t use it, you just might lose it. A desk-driven, forward-flexed posture and sedentary lifestyle pack a hefty one-two punch on the movement and strength of your midback. Then trying to lift with a stiff and weak T spine makes the problem worse.

The Fix

Flex, extend, and twist isn’t a Chubby Checker remix—it’s how you can free up and strengthen the midback for peak performance. Try the two stretches shown below to free it up. Then, once your T spine is more mobile, integrate the three strength exercises that follow into your routine to add spine-saving muscle to your midback.

1. Kneeling Cat Camel

Get in a kneeling position with your butt on your ankles and your arms straight and under your shoulders. Round your back so that your stomach is tucked in, then extend, arching your back and extending your stomach to the floor. Perform 3 sets of 10 reps. To make it more challenging, place your hands on an elevated surface like yoga blocks, a low box, or a bench.

2. Kneeling Spine T Rotation

Sit your butt back onto your ankles and place one hand on the ground in front of you. Place the other hand behind your head. That elbow should be sticking out to the side. Rotate that elbow to the opposite elbow. You should feel a stretch in your shoulder and midback. Then bring that elbow back and attempt to point it toward the ceiling. Repeat for 10 rotations on both sides.

Strength Train for a Stronger Midback

Work these three moves into your routine to add muscle to your midback, which will help protect your thoracic spine. Do them at the end of your workouts or on your back day.

1. Dead-Stop Row

Rowing a dumbbell from a dead stop for each rep ensures maximum muscle recruitment for a stronger, thicker back.

How to Do It: Place a same-side knee and hand on a bench with a dumbbell on the floor. Grab it with your free arm and row it to your stomach, then lower it back down to the floor. Do 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps.

2. TRX Scarecrow

These target your midback by having you extend your arms laterally as you pull up your own body weight.

How to Do It: Set the TRX straps to midlength and grab a handle in each hand. Lean back and then extend your arms outward as you pull yourself up, until your body is in the shape of a T. The closer your feet are to the anchor point, the more difficult it will be. Do 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps.

3. Chest-Supported Incline Row

Lying facedown on a bench takes momentum out of the equation, placing all the emphasis on your midback muscles. Go slightly lighter than you would with standard dumbbell rows.

How to Do It: Lie facedown on an incline bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Row both weights up until your elbows pass your torso, then slowly lower them. Do 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps.

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