Rehabilitation & Recovery

5 Best Exercises For Thoracic Spine Mobility & Back Pain

exercises for thoracic spine

If you suffer from common complaints such as poor posture, low back pain or neck pain, exercises for the thoracic spine can help to alleviate these symptoms which are often associated with sedentary lifestyles.  

Your thoracic spine, sometimes called the thoracic region, is the longest part of your spine that runs from the base of your neck down the center of your upper back.  

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It sits in between your lumbar spine (the lower back) and your cervical spine (the neck).  

Incorporating thoracic spine mobility exercises into your workout routine can help to improve your range of motion, posture, and functional movement patterns to your mid back. 

Understanding the Thoracic Spine

Your thoracic spine is an essential part of your body that plays a crucial role in supporting your upper body and protecting your vital organs.  

It provides stability so that you can maintain proper posture, whilst being flexible to allow for movements such as bending, twisting and rotating.  

It’s made up of 12 vertebrae, labelled from T1 through to T12.  

Spinal Antomy

These numbers represent different nerves. Each vertebra is connected to a pair of ribs.

The ribs attach to the sternum which form the rib cage, this protects your heart and lungs. 

The thoracic spine is different from the cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower back) regions of the spine in several ways.

The vertebrae in the thoracic spine are larger and stronger than those in the cervical spine, but not as large as those in the lumbar spine.

The thoracic spine also has less flexibility than the cervical and lumbar regions, but more than the sacrum and coccyx.

Importance of Thoracic Spine Mobility

Having good thoracic spine mobility is crucial for maintaining proper posture and performing every day functional movements.  

When mobility to your thoracic spine is poor, this can result in a limited range of motion, which in turn can affect functional movement patterns and may increase your risk of injury.  

For example, if you have limited thoracic mobility, you may compensate by overusing your lumbar spine, which can lead to lower back pain and other similar issues.

In addition to functional movement, thoracic mobility is also essential for overhead movements.

If you lack overhead mobility, you may compensate by arching your lower back, which can lead to poor form and potential injury.

There are three planes of motion that the thoracic spine can move in and each allow for different movements of the body, these are as follows:

Sagittal Plane: Flexion and Extension

  • Flexion: Bending forward, bringing the chest towards the pelvis.
  • Extension: Straightening or arching backward, increasing the concave curve of the thoracic spine.

Frontal Plane: Lateral Flexion

  • Lateral Flexion: Bending to the side, either left or right, creating a side bend of the thoracic spine.

Transverse Plane: Rotation

  • Rotation: Twisting motion, where the thoracic spine rotates around its axis, allowing you to turn your upper body to the left or right.

It’s important to note that the range of motion in these planes is more limited when compared to other regions of the spine (such as the lumbar or cervical spine).  

This is due to the thoracic spine’s connection to the rib cage, which provides stability and protection for vital organs.

Regular exercises and stretching can help you to maintain flexibility and function in this region of your spine.  

However, if you have specific concerns relating to the thoracic spine, it’s best to consult a healthcare professional or physical therapist for advice.  

The Impact of Sedentary Lifestyles 

Maintaining a sedentary lifestyle has become an undesirable hallmark of modern society, and many of us spend large parts of our day sitting at a desk, watching TV, or playing video games all whilst undertaking very limited exercise. 

Unfortunately, this has been linked to several health issues, including poor posture, and reduced thoracic mobility.

When you spend most of your day in a sedentary position, your muscles and joints become stiff.  

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This can reduce your range of motion and cause other muscles to overcompensate leading to pain and discomfort in the upper back, neck and shoulders.   

In fact, a study has shown that a sedentary lifestyle impacts a person’s life in other more serious ways.  

This includes increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.  

To combat the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle on your thoracic mobility, it’s essential to engage in regular physical activity.

Exercise can help improve your range of motion and reduce stiffness in your thoracic spine. 

In addition to exercise, it’s also important to pay attention to your posture when sitting.  

Poor Posture

Maintaining a good posture can help reduce the strain on your thoracic spine and prevent stiffness. 

When sitting, make sure your back is straight, your shoulders are relaxed, and your feet remain flat on the ground with hips, knees and ankles bent to 90 degrees.

You can also consider using something like a lumbar support cushion to help you maintain proper posture.

What Are Symptoms of Thoracic Spine Problems

If you are experiencing pain or discomfort in your thoracic spine, you are not alone.

Here are some common complaints and issues that people face with their thoracic spine:


A stiff thoracic spine can cause discomfort and limit your range of motion.

This can be caused by poor posture, lack of exercise, or injury.

Lack of Extension

Many people have difficulty extending their thoracic spine, this is the backward bending or arching motion in the sagittal plane.  

This can lead to compensations in other areas of the body. 

Neck Pain

Pain to the neck area can be caused by a variety of factors, including poor posture, injury, or overuse.  

If you have neck pain, it is important to address the underlying cause and work on improving your posture and mobility.

Lower Back Pain

Pain in the lower back is a very common complaint and can be caused by many different things.  

It’s important to differentiate between thoracic spine and low back pain, as they may have different underlying causes and require distinct treatment approaches. 

Lumbar Spine Issues

The lumbar spine, or lower back, is often affected by issues in the thoracic spine.

If you have lumbar spine issues, it is important to work on improving your thoracic spine mobility and posture to alleviate the pain.

Exercises for Thoracic Spine Mobility

If you’re looking to improve your thoracic spine mobility, you’ll want to incorporate extension exercises that involve dynamic movements, such as T-spine mobility.  

Here are a few great exercises to get you started:

Seated Thoracic Extension

This stretch is a form of static stretching that helps to promote extension in your thoracic spine, which counteracts the forward bending postures commonly adopted during activities like sitting at a desk or using when using electronic devices.  

It’s a great way of improving thoracic mobility, alleviate stiffness, and encourage better posture. 

YouTube video

How to do the thoracic extension stretch:

  1. Start by sitting on a stable chair with a low back, with feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Place your hands behind your head.  This is your starting position.  
  3. Take a few deep breaths and then slowly arch your upper back lowering yourself over the back of the chair. 
  4. Push your chest forward and gently squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  5. At the same time, tilt your head slightly backward, looking up toward the ceiling or the sky. Don’t strain your neck.  
  6. Hold the stretch for a few seconds while maintaining good posture.
  7. Exhale and return to the starting position.
  8. Repeat the stretch for several repetitions, focusing on controlled and gradual movement.

Side Lying Thoracic Rotation

The side-lying thoracic rotation is a great exercise that targets the mobility and flexibility of your thoracic spine while lying on your side.

It helps to improve rotation and extension in the upper back region. 

​It’s worth noting that the higher you bring your knees to your chest, the more you will feel the stretch.  

YouTube video

How to do the side lying thoracic rotation:

  1. Start by lying on one side of your body with your knees bent and stacked on top of each other. Your hips and knees should be at a 90-degree angle.
  2. Extend your arms straight out in front of you, placing one hand on top of the other, and keep your hands together.  This is your starting position. 
  3. From here, bring your top arm over and across your body opening up your chest as you go.  Keep your other arm resting on the ground. 
  4. Try and keep your eyes on the moving arm throughout so your head should also rotate at the same time. 
  5. Rotate all the way round as far as is comfortable.  
  6. Pause briefly then slowly return to the starting position.  
  7. Complete for a set number of reps and then perform the same again on the opposite side.  

Cat-Cow Stretch

The cat-cow stretch is a great yoga movement which can help increase flexibility and mobility to your spine, promoting healthy circulation to the spinal discs.  

Over time, it can relieve tension in your neck, shoulders, and back. It will also help to engage and strengthen the core muscles.

YouTube video

How to do the cat-cow stretch:

  1. Begin by getting on your hands and knees in a tabletop position. Your hands should be directly under your shoulders, and your knees under your hips. 
  2. Inhale deeply as you arch your back, lifting your head and tailbone towards the ceiling. Your belly should drop towards the floor, and your chest and shoulders should move forward. This creates a gentle extension of your spine.  
  3. Pause briefly then move slowly into the cat post.  Exhale and tuck your chin towards your chest and draw your tailbone down, engaging your abdominal muscles. You should create a rounded shape in your upper back.
  4. Continue this flowing movement, synchronizing your breath with the motion.  

Foam Roller Thoracic Extension

The foam roller thoracic extension can help to improve thoracic mobility, improve poor posture and alleviate muscle tension to your upper back and shoulders.  

YouTube video

How to do the foam roller thoracic extension:

  1. Start by placing a foam roller on the ground, horizontal to your body. Sit down in front of the foam roller with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  2. Lie back on the foam roller so that it rests just under your shoulder blades.  
  3. Interlock your fingers and place your hands behind your head to support your neck and keep your elbows pointing forwards. This is your start position. 
  4. Slowly lower yourself backwards over the foam roller so that your elbows begin to point towards the ceiling and your chest opens up. 
  5. Pause for a few seconds and then slowly roll back up to the starting position.  
  6. Perform this exercise for around 10 to 15 repetitions.  

Wall Angels

The Wall Angel exercise is a shoulder mobility and stability movement that can help to improve your posture and strengthen the upper back and shoulder muscles.  

It’s a great exercise if you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk or engaging in activities that can lead to rounding your shoulders.

YouTube video

How to perform wall angels:

  1. Stand with your back against a wall, maintain a slight bend to your knees and press your lower back into the wall.  
  2. From here, raise your arms up so that your elbows are at shoulder height.  
  3. Bend your arms to 90 degrees and press your upper arms against the wall with your palms facing forwards.  
  4. ​Keeping your arms against the wall, slowly slide them up as high as you can without raising your shoulders. 
  5. Pause, then reverse the movement by sliding them back down. 
  6. Slide them as low as possible and ensure the exercise remains comfortable.  
  7. The most important thing is to keep your back against the wall throughout this exercise.  
  8. Your range of motion will likely improve as your muscles begin to loosen up.  

Final Thoughts

Through a combination of stretching, strengthening, and mobilization exercises, you can enhance the flexibility and mobility of the thoracic spine. 

By regularly practicing recommended exercises, you can alleviate upper back stiffness, reduce the risk of injury, and enhance athletic performance. 

What’s more, a supple and mobile thoracic spine promotes better breathing mechanics, which can have a positive impact on your overall health and energy levels.

It’s important to listen to your body and consult with a healthcare professional or a certified fitness instructor, especially if you have any pre-existing back issues or concerns before starting a new exercise routine.

Remember to perform each exercise with proper form, and gradually increase the intensity as you progress.

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