We usually think of mobility as it relates to our peripheral joints. Can the ankles move? Can the wrists bend? Can the shoulders let the arms go overhead? When it comes to the spine, the conversation changes. We frequently ask if the back stay still and be stable, rather than inquiring whether our spines move freely.
However, if we want to move well in a variety of conditions, we need our spines to be responsive. As Ping Fu writes, “Bamboo is flexible, bending with the wind but never breaking, capable of adapting to any circumstance. It suggests resilience, meaning that we have the ability to bounce back even from the most difficult times…” So, too, should your spine respond to any movement, only to return to its original shape once the movement is completed.
For the spine to respond well during activity, there needs to be movement throughout the spinal column. Often, people will have the ability to bend really well at one section, only to have parts of the spine not move at all. Increasing range of motion and control from head to tail can make activities like tumbling, climbing trees, and basic gymnastics moves much more enjoyable. It also makes it easier to control your spine when you are performing activities such as single leg deadlifts, squats, and lunges.
The spine, like most joints, can flex and extend. It can also laterally bend and rotate. Let’s focus on flexion and extension.
Where the Breath Meets the Spine
If you were to video yourself doing cat/cow, the movement where you arch and round your back, some of you would have a hard time moving your back at all, while others would notice a lot of movement through your low back, and not as much through your upper back. A small handful of you will be able to move all parts of your spine equally and with control, probably because you have spent a bit of time thinking about how your back moves.
The thoracic spine (the part of your spine where the ribs connect), houses important organs, namely the heart and the lungs. The lungs are designed to change size when you inhale and exhale. The diaphragm contracts during inhalation, moving down and out. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes, moving up and in. The movement of the diaphragm moves air in and out of the lungs, acting a bit like a pump. The ribs are built to accommodate this movement of the lungs and the diaphragm, subtly moving every time you breathe.
When you think about your ribs, you probably think about the front of the ribs and the chest. However, the ribs wrap all of the way around and connect to the thoracic vertebrae in the spine. This means the movement doesn’t just take place in the front of the body; it also takes place in the back of the body and in the sides of the body. I think of it like filling a tube of toothpaste with air when you inhale, and when you exhale, it’s like you are squeezing the tube of toothpaste to get a little extra toothpaste out- it gets smaller on all sides.
What often happens with athletic individuals is the front of toothpaste tube gets filled, but the back of the toothpaste tubs remains completely flat. This changes the structure of the tube so the front isn’t just moving forward, it also gets stuck in a slightly up position. To stick with our analogy, it also changes how the toothpaste is squeezed out, with less toothpaste squeezed out each time you exhale.
Get Round and Roll
What in the world does this have to do with spinal flexibility? One way to improve movement through the thoracic spine (which will alter the amount of movement at the lumbar spine), is to use your inhale to get a little bit of movement in the back of the ribs, and to use your exhale to get the front of the ribs to move down and in towards the pelvis. Three exercises found below implement this idea; they also utilize an isometric contraction in a flexed thoracic spine position to increase proprioception and strength at end range.
Once you have the effects of breathing on the thoracic spine worked out, rolling forward and back can begin to integrate flexion and extension throughout the spinal column. When you roll back, your spine rounds from head to tail. Otherwise, you make a clunking sound as you roll back. The softer you can be, the more dispersed the movement is up and down the spine.
When you roll forward, the belly pushes forward, the eyes and head look up a little bit, and you find yourself in a little bit of extension. It’s sort of like cat/cow, but more dynamic (and for many of us, a lot more fun).
As you roll forward and back, can you feel how the spine responds? Can you make it easy, with as little effort as possible? For those of you that practice martial arts or gymnastics, understanding the basics of a seated roll can make backward and forward roll variations a lot more interesting.
An aspect of spinal mobility that can make a big difference in terms of how you feel in your low back is the sense that the spine is long. This is different than the spine being extended; rather, it’s the sense that you are light and not compressed down while you are upright.
Understanding the expiratory position of the ribcage is step one; once that is taken care of, you can feel this length by putting yourself in positions where your arms are supported, taking the load partially off of your spine.
An easy variation of this can be found below. Notice the weight is moving back into my hips while my arms support me. My ribs aren’t flaring away from my pelvis, and I am stretching along the sides of my body using gravity.
Other ways to improve mobility length-wise is through hanging variations and gravity boots, if you are the type of person that likes gear and would rather hang from your feet than your hands. Playing with any of these ideas a couple of times a week will improve your spinal mobility and make it easier to flex and extend.
Extension and the Back Bend
Just like you should be able to flex the thoracic spine, the ability to extend it can be useful for athletic endeavors. Let’s talk about backbends for a brief moment.
The ability to come into a full backbend has its benefits. It strengthens the arms in an unusual position, and requires strength in the muscles that extend the hips. The wrists have to be able strong enough to support a fair amount of weight, the scapula upwardly rotate, and a lot of the muscles in torso work to resist gravity. It also requires mobility throughout the spine and pelvis.
If you are missing any of the mobility pieces in the upper extremity and mid-back, your backbend probably won’t feel very good. The ability to move weight into your arms in a backbend is partially dependent on shoulder mobility and extension in the thoracic spine, so working on those two things can make the backbend more enjoyable and successful.
Now, you might currently be thinking you have no desire to do a full backbend, because it has no purpose in your life. That’s fair. For people working on Parkour or gymnastics skills, the backbend enables the practitioner to work on more advanced skills, but it isn’t a movement that is required on a daily basis like, say, a squat.
But even if you don’t want to work on the backbend, learning how to isolate extension through the thoracic spine and neck translates into more dynamic flexibility during everyday life. The body likes options, and being able to move into extension from somewhere other than the lumbar spine or neck is a good thing.
The short sequence below demonstrates ideas for learning how to isolate thoracic extension. Using the eyes can help initiate the extension pattern in the upper extremity, and learning how to keep the pelvis still will enable you to isolate the movement to the cervical and thoracic area. At the end of the sequence, you will notice I don’t cue holding the body any particular way, giving the body a chance to self-organize. Once you give the nervous system options, it doesn’t need to be micro-managed. It should be able to figure out the most efficient, pain free option, especially if there is no end goal regarding what the movement should look like.
Why Does This Matter?
Remember how proprioception is the ability of the body to sense where it’s located in space? One of the things that happens when you begin to move a joint through its full range of motion is the mechanoreceptors responsible for sending information to the brain about current limb GPS coordinates become more accurate. It’s the difference between Siri sending you to an abandoned warehouse in San Jose, versus the hotel you are trying to get to that’s two blocks over. The improved accuracy makes for more comfortable movements and posture, not to mention a better night’s sleep.
The ability of the entire spine to flex, extend, and get long can alter your relationship to movement. Using the breath to improve mobility can alter thoracic spine mechanics (in a good way), by decreasing the sense of muscular tightness. Learning to extend the spine makes it easier to know what it means to not be extended, and taking a load off of the lower extremity by using gravity to “pull you long” can create a sense of ease throughout the back musculature. Get in touch with how it feels to move different parts of your back and improve control, both separately and in an integrated way for freedom of expression through movement.