“If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old;
if it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.”
Joseph Pilates, 1945
Keeping your spine healthy and happy can be the key to feeling younger! Having a flexible and mobile spine makes all movement easier and ensures that forces placed upon the body are distributed evenly, thereby reducing the risk of injury. Typically, the thoracic spine (upper back) has less natural mobility than the cervical (neck) or lumbar (low back) regions of the spine. So, maintaining mobility through this area is crucial in preventing aches, pains and injuries in other areas of the back. In addition to limited flexibility, many people develop rounded shoulders and a forward head posture from spending too much time hunched over a desk. To help counteract all these negative changes, I’m showing you a few movement activities using a foam roller that will improve spinal mobility, posture and muscular endurance of the small stabilizer muscles that are so important for stability of the spine. And after a few weeks, you should notice that your spine has more freedom as you go about your daily activities.
Upper Spine Mobility Exercises
1. Scapular retraction/protraction – improves mobility of the shoulder blades as they glide over the ribs and provides strength and stability during arm movements. Begin lying lengthwise on the foam roller with your head and tailbone supported at each end of the roller. With arms straight up toward the ceiling, inhale and draw the shoulder blades down as if trying to wrap them around the foam roller (photo A). Next, exhale and press your arms up toward the ceiling as you unwrap your shoulder blades and imagine them gliding forward around your ribs (photo B). Repeat 8 times.
2. Thoracic flexion/extension – improves mobility through upper back to improve posture. Begin with both shoulder blades resting on the foam roller placed perpendicular to the spine. Hands supporting the head so there is no strain in your neck or shoulders (photo A). Inhale and slowly allow your upper back to extend over the foam roller (photo B). Continue supporting your head to prevent your neck from going into too much extension – the goal is to have a gentle curve from your upper back through your neck. Exhale and return to start position (photo A) and then move about an inch so the foam roller is lower on your spine and extend back over again (photo B). Continue to move down about 3 – 4 more times.
3. Swan – this requires active movement into thoracic extension, improving spine mobility and strength through the upper back. Begin with arms outstretched overhead with palms on the foam roller, head looking down at the floor (photo A). Inhale, keep the collar bones wide across the front of your chest and prevent your shoulders from creeping up towards your ears. Engage your abdominals by drawing your belly button toward your spine, exhale, press your hands down onto the roller as you lift your chest from the floor, reaching forward with your sternum (photo B). Inhale at the top – your lower ribs will stay on the floor and your low back should remain relaxed – keep drawing that belly button in to prevent any strain in your back. Exhale and lower back to start position. Repeat 3 times.
Aim to perform each mobility exercise 3 times per week. Move slowly and never force into a stretch; stop if you feel pain. Before attempting the movements, please consult a doctor or physical therapist if you have any type of back condition. Foam rollers are available at most sporting goods stores or online – well worth the investment as there are many ways to use one for self-massage and mobility.