It is quite common for adults, including athletes, to develop tightness and a limited range of motion (ROM) in the spine. The spine can be tight in one area and have normal or even extra flexibility in another. For example, an adult can have a tight lumbar spine with limited flexion, while the thoracic portion flexes well. This is because of the structure of the vertebrae and the manner in which the spine is aligned. This article discusses spine mobility and an effective approach to increasing the range of motion in specific areas of the spine that can become tight.
The spinal column is comprised of seven cervical vertebrae at the top, which are the smallest bones, 12 thoracic vertebrae at chest level, and five large lumbar vertebrae at stomach level, attached to the sacrum, which is fused and has limited movement. Stacked on top of each other, with shock-absorbing discs between each joint, the vertebrae are aligned in a shallow S shape. The cervical spine has quite a large range of movement in all directions and the top two cervical vertebrae are unique in structure, allowing for the rotation of the skull. Otherwise all the vertebrae of the spine are of similar shape but increasing in size from top down to the base.
I will focus here on the movement and training the flexibility of the thoracic and lumbar regions.
The thoracic portion of the spine has a total ROM of 50-70 degrees of flexion to extension, extending 20 to 30 degrees and flexing 30 to 40 degrees. The difference is due to the limited space between the adjacent vertebrae, which narrows when the thoracic spine extends.
Flexion when upright is controlled by the rear thoracic muscles (erector spinae thoracic portion, latissimus and trapezius), flexion when supine is produced by the rectus abdominis. Extension upright is controlled by the rectus abdominis and in prone comes from the rear thoracic muscles (mostly erector spinae). The thoracic spine can laterally flex 20 to 25 degrees and is oriented to allow it to rotate 35 degrees – indeed, it is essential that this area of the spine is free to rotate. Lateral flexion and rotation movements are produced by the oblique muscles. Many sporting movements involve thoracic rotation: for instance, the golf swing and any throwing movement both require large rotational ROM. Walking and running also involve thoracic rotation, opposing the rotation of the hip as the leg swings back and forwards to keep the body in balance.
The lumbar portion of the spine has greater ROM through flexion to extension, thanks to the larger intervertebral disc space, despite the limits imposed – particularly on rotation – by the orientation of the vertebrae. The lumbar spine can flex freely up to 55 degrees and extends to around 30 degrees. Like the thoracic portion, flexion in the upright position is controlled by the rear lumbar muscles (erector spinae lumbar portion and multifidus); flexion when supine is produced by the rectus abdominis. Extension upright is controlled by the rectus abdominis and psoas major and in prone comes from erector spinae. Lateral flexion of the lumbar spine is around 30 degrees and is produced by the quadratus lumborum and oblique muscles. Rotation of the lumbar spine is very limited, giving the base of the spinal column greater stability.
These, then, are the normal adult ranges of movement for the thoracic and lumbar portions of the spine. In athletes, however, training habits and daily life postures can lead to restrictions in ROM. Thoracic extension and rotation and lumbar flexion are the most common restrictions. The following dynamic flexibility exercises and progressions are designed to promote the ROM of these specific movements.
Dynamic exercises are particularly beneficial because they promote the active range of movement of the spine that is produced and controlled by the muscles. This is very important for sports as any position or range of movement the athlete adopts must have active muscle stability to ensure quality technique and reduced injury risk.
This exercise promotes the flexion of the lumbar spine that is actively produced and controlled by the deep abdominals and gluteals. To get into the deep squat position requires full flexion of the hips and flexion of the lumbar spine together. Also the groin and the iliotibial band (ITB) need to relax and be flexible to allow for this full range of movement.
Start position: Stand up straight with your arms folded across your chest. Place your feet shoulder-width apart and toes pointing out slightly.
Movement down: Squat down as far as you can, keeping your heels on the floor. As you squat ensure your weight goes into your heels and not your toes. For a full range of movement, your bum should sit down by your heels and your head should be tall and looking forward. Perform the exercise slowly when lowering down, giving yourself time to keep control and lower all the way – or as far as your range of movement will allow.
Return movement: Pause for a count of two at the bottom of the squat, allowing your groin area to relax. Your knees should be directed slightly outwards in alignment with your feet. Keeping your knees out, squeeze your gluteals and stand up out of the squat.
Only go as far as you can without any pain. As you perform the exercise regularly you will slowly but surely be able to achieve greater flexibility.
Reps and sets: Perform two or three sets of 10 slow repetitions.
This exercise is one I have taken from yoga. The benefit is that it promotes active lumbar flexion and active thoracic extension range of motion. Lots of people use this exercise, but for it to be an effective way of increasing spinal mobility, you need to focus on using the right muscles at the right time and get your breathing correct. Follow the instructions carefully.
Start position: Begin on all fours, with knees below hips and hands below shoulders. Start with your back in neutral, neither arched nor rounded, and your eyes looking down.
Thoracic extension movement: Draw your shoulder blades down into your spine and expand your chest outwards. Breathe in smoothly through your nose as you do so. If you have done this correctly you will feel your shoulders have rotated outwards and your shoulder blades are pinched together. From this position, slowly lift your head to look upwards and arch your upper back. Your lumbar spine will also arch – but focus on the thoracic portion. Hold the extended position for a count of three and then relax.
Lumbar flexion movement: Drop your head so your neck is completely relaxed and you are looking between your knees. Then, contract your pelvic floor muscles and raise your naval up towards your spine. As you perform this muscle activation, simultaneously squeeze your gluteals and tilt your pelvis down at the back, breathing out as you do so. (If you were a cat, you would be tucking your tail between your legs.) The pelvic tilt manoeuvre curves your back and the deep abdominal and gluteal activity should focus this curve in the lumbar portion. Do not try to round your shoulders, as your thoracic spine will probably flex easily. Breathe out all the air from your lungs, pulling in your abdominal muscles as much as you can to push the lumbar spine into flexion. Hold the flexed position for a count of three and relax.
Reps and sets: perform 10 repetitions in each direction. Perform each movement slowly and concentrate on getting the correct breathing pattern.
A second exercise from the yoga repertoire that is great for thoracic extension, and lumbar muscle control. To perform this exercise well you need good hamstring flexibility, good abdominal control of the lumbar spine, good upper back and shoulder flexibility as well as scapula stability.
The following is a step-by-step guide to performing the stretch perfectly:
The overhead squat is a progression from the deep squat that increases the range of movement of the spine. During this exercise the lumbar spine flexes and the thoracic spine extends. This is an advanced exercise that requires a great deal of core strength as well as flexibility. Start this exercise when you have been performing the first three exercises for a while and feel that you have been making good progress.
Start position: Stand with your heels on a 2-4cm heel raise. Have your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed out slightly. Place your hands by each side.
Movement down: Squat down as far as you can and at the same time raise one hand above your head. Aim to get your arm vertical in line with your head as you reach the bottom of the squat. Pause slightly at the bottom of the squat. In this position your trunk should be upright and not leaning forward too much.
Movement up: Squeeze your gluteals and stand up, lowering your arm as you come up.
Reps and sets: Perform two sets of 10 repetitions each arm (20 squats in all). Take your time performing each squat.
Start position: Stand with your feet on the floor shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed out slightly. Place your hands by each side.
Movement down: Squat down as far as you can and at the same time raise both hands above your head. Aim to get your arms vertical in line with your head as your reach the bottom of the squat. Pause slightly at the bottom. In this position your trunk should be upright and not leaning forward too much.
Movement up: Squeeze your gluteals and stand up, lowering your arms as you come up.
Reps and sets: Perform three sets of 10 slow repetitions.
Start position: Stand with your feet on the floor shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed out slightly. Hold a stick or broom handle above your head with your arms straight. Grip the bar with your hands wider than your shoulders. Ensure that the stick is directly above your head. You may need to adjust the width of your grip to achieve this position.
Movement down: Squat down as far as you can, keeping the stick above your head. Aim to get your arms vertical in line with your head as your reach the bottom of the squat. Pause slightly at the bottom. In this position your trunk should be upright and not leaning forward too much.
Movement up: Squeeze your gluteals and stand up, keeping the stick above your head.
Reps and sets: Perform three sets of 10 slow repetitions.
This is a great exercise for increasing the active range of thoracic rotation.
Start position: Sit down with your legs loosely crossed. Pull your back up tall and stick your chest out so that you are sitting upright with perfect posture. Fold your arms across your chest.
Movement: Engage your deep abdominals so that your pelvis is stable. Then slowly turn your head and shoulders to one side. Turn as far as you can and you will feel the stretch in the rib area. Hold the end position for a count of two and then turn across to the other side and repeat.
Reps and sets: Perform two sets of 10 repetitions each side.
To get the best from this set of exercises I recommend performing them most days of the week. Do not force any movement, but focus on the coaching points above, using the muscles correctly to actively produce and control the range of movement.