Four upper back stretches for a better posture

Your upper back, also known as your thoracic spine, is an area that often becomes tight due to a modern lifestyle and certain sports. Although this area may not be painful itself, it can lead to pain in other areas such as the lower back, neck, shoulders and even the elbows. Even your breathing can be affected.

The entire spine is connected and acts as a base of support for the rest of the body. When one area of the spine becomes stiff, other areas compensate to make up for the lack of movement which may lead to pain or injury in these areas. Think of looking at your blind spot when driving a car, if your upper back cannot twist because it is too tight, then more movement needs to come from your neck in order you to be able to look over your shoulder which could later lead to pain in the neck. The exact opposite in the same example can also be true, if you have a stiff neck then your upper back would need to be doing most of the twisting when looking at over your shoulder.

Not only does a tight upper back negatively affect your posture but it could contribute to injuries such as tennis elbow, a disc prolapse in the neck and lower back and shoulder impingement to name a few. Breathing is also directly related to thoracic mobility as the ribs attach to your thoracic vertebra. Consequently, when the thoracic spine is stiff, your ribs may not be able to expand as much when you breathe which may be difficult during cardiovascular intensive sports. With many sports, thoracic mobility is essential for performance as well as injury prevention such as weight lifter, rowers, tennis players, high jumpers etc.
For the office worker, improved thoracic mobility can help reduce headaches by improving your posture and help reduce the tension placed on your neck and shoulders. Thoracic mobility does not usually improve overnight, it takes time with regular stretching and then maintenance to see permanent results. Below are a few stretches to do to help with thoracic mobility, most of which can be done at your desk! Remember to consult your physiotherapist if you have any doubts whether these exercises will be suitable for you.

Thoracic extension

  • Sit in a chair with your back against the backrest
  • Imagine growing taller to lengthen the spine
  • Place your hands behind your head and open your elbows. If you already feel a deep stretch between the shoulder blades, then remain here. If not, then add the following step.
  • Keep the lower back against the backrest and bend the top of your back backwards.

Thoracic rotation

  • In the same position as above with the elbows behind the head and the spine lengthened
  • Twist the body to the side and reach the one arm towards the opposite knee

Thread the needle

  • On all fours with your hands underneath your shoulders and knees underneath your hips
  • Take one arm with palm facing up and slide it along the floor through the space between you opposite arm and leg. Try get your shoulder on the floor if you can.
  • Slide the arm back and now lift it up to the other side towards the ceiling. Keep your hips squared and following the movement of your hand with your head.

Foam roller

  • Sit with the foam roller placed behind the tight area of your upper back.
  • Place your hands behind your head and keep your neck long
  • Keep your lower back from arching too much as you bend backwards over the roller to feel the stretch in your upper back.
  • This should never be painful