Thoracic Spine: An Immovable Cage or a Mobile Spring?
Written by Brett Jones Monday, June 26, 2017 FMS
The thoracic spine or rib cage is a central player in shoulder mobility and health but it is also part of the entire spinal "engine" as described by Gracovetsky. One of the best descriptions I have found for thoracic function comes from a September 2007 Newsletter by Robert Burgess, BEd, PT, PhD, Feldenkrais Practitioner. He posed the question in reference to the thorax or thoracic spine - "An immovable cage or a mobile spring?”
Think about it - with all of those ribs connecting to the spine and up front on the sternum how can there be much movement in the "rib cage"?
Well - let us examine this further...
Burgess in his newsletter cites Buchalter et al 1988 and Willems et al 1996 for data on movement in the thoracic spine. The Thoracic spine provides us with 50 degrees of rotation, 26 degrees of side bending, 25 degrees of extension and 30 degrees of flexion in sitting -
"...in fact with each pair of ribs moving on the next- the thorax behaves like a hooped spring."
"The pelvis and thorax rotate in opposing directions and together with side bending are the prime movers of human locomotion (Gracovetsky 1997)."
If we are breathing correctly and using the diaphragm and intercostals for respiration there is a tremendous amount of movement in the thoracic spine. However, most people breath through their traps and upper chest which facilitates the development of kyphosis (rounding of the upper back) and a rigid rib cage. (See the recent article on breathing)
But what about the ribs and the connections to the spine and sternum? Surely that means the thoracic spine is rigid - doesn't it?
Not if you look at the actual anatomy of the area!
The ribs connect up front on the sternum by way of a large series of cartilage joints - rather than being more solid "bone to bone" joints like the Sternoclavicular joint. These cartilage joints provide a more mobile situation and even the sternum has at least two semi-movable joints in its structure.
There are two joints where the ribs meet the thoracic vertebrae – the costotransverse and the costovertebral – and this creates even more “interesting” movement for the t-spine.
Think about breathing and CPR - you can compress the chest 2"+ during CPR - Where does that movement come from?
So - is the rib cage a cage or a spring?
From Dead anatomy to Living Function
Dead anatomy is a cadaver laying on a table. Living function is a miraculous interplay of the anatomical structures and the Neurological and Physiological systems of the human body.
Dead anatomy is only a starting point. It cannot and will never match up to the myriad wonders of the whole integrated system.
Mechanoreceptors, Golgi tendon organs, intrafusel muscle fibers, and many, many other neurologically based structures change the dead anatomy freeze frame picture into a flowing movie.
Ten of the ribs have joints connecting them to the spine and have two more joints where the ribs meet the costral cartilages and then where that cartilage joins the sternum. All of these joints are alive with neurological pieces and parts that relay information to the brain. Instead of being a piece of dead rigid cage - the thoracic spine is alive with movement and function.
For the shoulder, the thoracic spine is essential to the health and movement of the scapula and thereby the glenohumeral joint. If you lack shoulder movement check the thoracic spine.
What about the rest of the spine?
Yes you need mobility and movement skill at the Lumbar and Cervical areas of the spine but don't forget about the Thoracic spine as an integral part of the "spinal engine".
So having a mobile t-spine is a key component of moving well and there are some great drills to look at and improve your t-spine. From an FMS perspective, we typically arrive at the t-spine during Shoulder Mobility or In-line Lunge corrective strategies. In the SMFA, the t-spine can be found in the multi-segmental rotation breakouts and shoulder breakouts.
Below are three t-spine drills that I prefer for improving and maintaining good mobility in the area:
1) Rib Grab: The Rib Grab is a great breath assisted t-spine opening drill using deep diaphragmatic breathing to improve mobility. Done with care and attention to the set-up it can lock out the lumbar and provide a great left to right appraisal of t-spine rotation.
2) Brettzel: The Brettzel incorporates a challenge to the anterior chain of the opposite sidehip. (Right rotation with the left hip anterior chain) So you can see if your t-spine mobility is being influenced by a tight anterior chain/hip. This is also a drill relying on good diaphragmatic breathing and we want to see the same t-spine mobility here as in the Rib Grab.
3) Lumbar Lock T-spine Rotation: The Lumbar Lock T-spine Rotation transitions into an active mobility drill. Making sure the active mobility matches the breath assisted mobility has been one of my biggest progressions in working on the t-spine.
Important note: you should not feel any of these in the lumbar spine (lower back).
What about extension?
I have found that extension will usually come along with improvements in rotation but an easy way to work on it is simple extensions over a foam roller. Just be sure that the extension is coming from the entire t-spine (look like an arch) instead of coming from one area (looking like a PEZ dispenser) and go easy.
Wrapping it up…
Whether an FMS professional improving Shoulder Mobility or an SFMA professional improving multi-segmental rotation, the t-spine can be a critical area to address. Breathing, shoulder mobility etc… all rely on a good mobile and well controlled thoracic spine so try the suggested sequence of breath assisted and active drills.
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Brett Jones is a Certified Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Specialist based in Pittsburgh, PA. Mr. Jones holds a Bachelor of Science in Sports Medicine from High Point University, a Master of Science in Rehabilitative Sciences from Clarion University of Pennsylvania, and is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).
With over 20 years of experience, Brett has been sought out to consult with professional teams and athletes, as well as present throughout the United States and internationally.
As an Athletic Trainer who has transitioned into the fitness industry, Brett has taught kettlebell techniques and principles since 2003; currently acting as the Director of Education for StrongFirst. He has also taught for Functional Movement Systems (FMS) since 2006, and has created multiple DVDs and manuals with world-renowned physical therapist Gray Cook, including the widely-praised “Secrets of…” series and currently acts as an Advisory Board Member for FMS in the development of curriculum and instructors.
Brett continues to evolve his approach to training and teaching, and is passionate about improving the quality of education for the fitness industry. He is available for consultations and distance coaching by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BrettEJones.