Some of the most overlooked aspects of fitness aren’t involved with the actual lifts or exercises, or even the diet associated with whatever goals are being pursued. Muscle preparation and corrective stretching are some of the most under-appreciated properties of the building and maintenance of a balanced and healthy physique. If you’re not correctly or effectively stretching or warming up, you could be creating several imbalances in your body that can become stressors, and even cause injury.
One of the main problem areas, especially for those of us who work in an office, is the thoracic spine – the middle and upper parts of your back. There are several different parts, movements and principles behind muscle preparation and corrective stretching, including static stretches, dynamic stretches, warm-up sets, and, what we’ll be discussing today: foam rolling.
What Is Foam Rolling?
While looking around your local gym, fitness store or yoga studio, you may have spotted a long, cylindrical piece of foam, your run-of-the-mill foam roller. Foam rollers come in all different shapes and sizes with bumps and curves and spikes and all sorts of other torture-device looking appendages. Take this one, for example:
Fear not, for the foam roller is your friend (in fact, we even named it one of the best fitness tools of all time in our buyer’s guide for home gym equipment). Foam rolling is the act of using one of these bad boys to work out kinks and knots in your muscle, leaving you flexible and loose.
Daily life, as well as the stress on your body from lifting can cause several imbalances throughout your body if you’re not stretching. Tight shoulders, closed hips, upper and lower-crossed syndrome can lead to long-term back pain, joint pain and inflexibility – foam rolling can help with that. A lot of lifters don’t stretch and work out their chest so much that their shoulders get pulled in front, causing an arch in the top of the back – that’s why you see a lot of buff guys walking around like bulldogs, and a few decades down the road you’ll see them bent over with walkers.
If you’ve tried foam rolling before and found it uncomfortable, that’s because it’s supposed to be. The foam roller is a tool to target muscle imbalances and knots, and to work them out. The way to do this is to roll on a specific muscle or part of your body until you find a spot that hurts – you then hold for 20 seconds or until the pain dissipates. The thoracic spine is no exception to this principle; and, in fact, foam rolling can be extremely effective in increasing mobilization, flexibility and decreasing soreness in your upper and middle back.
In another post, we created a tutorial guide on how to do every foam roller exercise in the book, but today we’re going to talk specifically about using a foam roller for thoracic spine mobilization.
Foam Rolling For Thoracic Spine Mobility
If you’ve ever had a stiff or painful upper back after a long day at the office (as most of us have), these exercises are for you. These exercises with help you have more flexibility and decrease the amount of soreness in your thoracic spine. Perform these after a brief cardio warmup before you begin your lifts, plyometric movements or high intensity cardio exercises for back relief and mobilization.
Standard Thoracic Roll
To perform this exercise, lay the foam roller on the ground horizontally and lay down on your back so that the roller is perpendicular to your spine, or going across your shoulders. Lifting your glutes off of the floor and using your heels to move you back and forth, start to roll until you hit a point of discomfort. Once you hit that spot, hold for 20-30 seconds. Keep your hands either together on your chest or on your head with your elbows in front of you. This will help open up your middle and upper back.
Foam Roller Crunches
This exercise is a lot like the standard thoracic roll in the setup. Place the foam roller on the ground and lay back on it the same way (with the roller going across your shoulder blades). This time, you’re going to keep your butt on the ground and move in a crunch motion with the roller in the middle of your back. Make sure that you’re rolling with the crunch and maintaining contact with the foam roller at all times throughout the movement. This is a great exercise to warm up your core, as well as target any problem areas in your thoracic spine. You can try adding a twist in between crunches to start to engage your obliques, as well as open up some twisting movement in your spine.
Foam Roller Rib Grab
This exercise is fantastic for thoracic spine mobility with twisting motions. To start, set the foam roller on the ground and lay down on your side parallel with the foam roller. Put your top knee on the foam roller to open up the pelvis and neutralize that lumbar spine. Lay your bottom arm straight out and use the top hand to grab the opposite side of your rib cage (like giving yourself a one-handed hug). Once your hand is on your rib cage, you’re going to lean that top shoulder back and away from the foam roller and bringing your top shoulder blade towards the ground. Get a good stretch and then return to starting position and repeat.
This exercise will really open up that thoracic spine and take away tightness or immobility that may have developed through bad posture, your creaky chair at the office, etc.
Foam rolling is a savior for those who experience joint pain, have muscular imbalances, or simply want a little more skeletal and muscular flexibility. Daily life can have a crazy amount of impact on your posture, and the condition of your upper and middle back. This has a particular amount of gravity due to the extent a back injury can affect your life. Slipped, bulging or herniated discs can be seriously disabling injuries, and can necessitate physical therapy, time off work and expensive surgeries. Foam rollers are inexpensive, and commercial gyms will generally have 2-3 of them laying around. Adding just 3 or 4 minutes of foam rolling into your exercise routine before training can pay serious long-term benefits.