Can we please stop saying shit like “open up the t-spine?”
Is there a special prize inside if I open it?
Is there some sort of closure going on that I’m not aware of?
This phrase certainly doesn’t tell me anything, and it isn’t helping the masses of fitness enthusiasts and young professionals exposed to it all over the Internet, either.
Let’s stop using ambiguous terms and actually define the desired outcome when we talk about thoracic spine rotation, so we can all stop watching people compensate through lumbar extension, thorax extension, and/or anterior humeral translation.
When people talk about “opening” the t-spine, what they actually want is to increase the ability of the entire thorax (thoracic spine AND ribcage, this is not semantics) to rotate in the transverse plane. This is certainly a worthy goal, as we need rotation of the thorax to sprint, change directions, play rotational sports and, ya know…walk.
When discussing human performance, we’re not really just interested in the rotation of the thoracic spine…we’re interested in the tri-planar movement of the entire thorax.
When we think only in terms of rotation of the thoracic spine, we completely ignore the fact that each vertebral body of the thoracic spine connects to a rib. These ribs, when looked at together, form a cage. That cage houses vital organs including…THE LUNGS. What are the lungs filled with? AIR.
Image One: Posterior view of the thorax. Notice that ribs articulate with each vertebral body of the thoracic spine, and that the lungs take up the majority of the space in the thorax. Below the lungs is the diaphragm. It contracts and moves down, creating more space in the thorax, which is filled by air when the lungs expand. It then recoils and relaxes as air is pushed out of the lungs and expelled from the body, shrinking the lungs and decreasing the air pressure in the thorax.
Take a look at the human thorax (picture) and what you will see is that it is pretty much entirely filled with air. Air is moved in and out of the lungs changing the pressure inside the thorax. The amount of air inside the thorax at any time will largely dictate the available range of motion of the thorax. Therefore, the key variable when talking about tri-planar movement of the thorax is…AIR.
Image Two: Anterior view of the thorax & the abdominal cavity. Above the diaphragm the lungs dominate space in the thorax, comprised mostly of air. Below the diaphragm, the vital organs fill the abdominal cavity and are mostly water.
When we rotate the thorax, the contralateral (opposite from the side we’re rotating towards) ribcage needs to move down, in and back, and air needs to be emptied from the contralateral lung to make that happen. The ipsilateral (same side) ribcage needs to move forward, out and up, therefore opening up space for increased airflow into that side chest wall.
So, when we rotate the thorax to the right, the left ribs should close down, and the right ribs should open up (1). The movement of these ribs is dependent upon the ability to move and alternate airflow in and out of the body. If we can’t exhale and get air out, the thorax remains full and the above rib kinematics can’t take place. It’s like trying to turn with fully inflated beach balls in your chest.
Likewise, if we can’t get air into one or both chest walls, the ribs will remain closed down and trunk rotation in one or both directions will be limited.
Consider this example:
When someone is squatting a heavy weight — if they know what they’re doing –they take a deep breath and maximally fill the thorax with air, increasing the pressure in the entire trunk. This decreases the available degrees of freedom in the frontal and transverse planes, and locks the entire system into the sagittal plane to maximize stability and force transfer from the ground into the bar. In this case the brain sacrifices range of motion and movement options in order to maximize specificity and the ability to complete the task at hand.
When squatting heavy, this is a good thing. It’s an adaptive and protective mechanism to ensure the body’s energy and resources all go into completing the squat against a significant outside stressor. However, when we’re looking to increase thorax rotation and increase movement options for general health or athletic performance, being chronically inflated creates a problem.
Try this experiment: take in the biggest breath of air that you can, hold it, and then try to perform your favorite trunk rotation exercise. Rotate as far as you can still holding your breath. Now, exhale all the air out, continue to exhale until you feel like there’s no air left in your body, and then exhale some more. Sigh out at the end as if you’re fogging up glass in the winter. Try to rotate more. You will find that you are immediately able to rotate your trunk further in the desired direction.
To take this one step further, following your full exhale, feel your abs on the side of your body opposite of the direction you’re rotating (if you’re rotating right, feel lefts abs) and keep them slightly engaged to keep your ribs down on that side as you maintain position and take a breath in through your nose. You should feel air go into your chest wall on the side you’re rotating towards, and you should pick up even more rotation in that direction.
It drives me nuts when I watch coaches and therapists teach and then stand there while their clients crank their way through compensations, usually by further driving their thorax and lumbar spine into extension as they hold their breath while performing various popular “t-spine rotation” exercises.
At the same time, the Internet is full of countless so-called “movement experts” advocating the need for these t-spine rotation activities performed by twisting the trunk as much as possible without any regard for airflow or rib position.
The good news is that you don’t have to change very much about your actual practice in light of this information. Common trunk rotation drills like windmills, quadruped rotations, lunge + rotations, world’s greatest stretch, etc. can be very effective for improving thorax rotation IF AND ONLY IF YOU COORDINATE BREATHING TO MANAGE PRESSURE IN THE THORAX.
Exhale as you rotate, feeling the ribs move down in and back to flatten with your abdomen. Maintain some tension in your abs and take a breath in as you rotate a bit further, continuing to feel your abs, especially on the side opposite the rotation, and feel air fill your chest on the side your rotating towards. That’s one rep. Perform each rep in this manner. Since each rep demands more time, attention, and awareness, you may not be able to do as many as you’re used to. This is completely fine. More is not better. Better is better. Do fewer reps, but maximize the quality of each one and your movement practice will be far more effective.
The reason I’m so passionate about this subject is that when I first started coaching professionally no one explained this concept to me. All I was told was that we need thoracic rotation for shoulder health and to improve the “mobility” of rotational athletes. The connection between these things was never explained. I followed suit and programmed all manner of t-spine rotations for my clients, not entirely sure of what I was looking for.
I’d ask questions like, “How do we know we’re actually getting rotation through the thoracic spine only and not somewhere else?” No one around me had a legitimate answer for that.
I’d ask, “What is actually restricting the spine from rotating here? What are we stretching or mobilizing by just rotating over and over?” The answers I got to those questions were also unsatisfying.
Understanding functional anatomy and biomechanics forms the foundation by which we are able to become more effective and discerning movement practitioners. We need to appreciate that nothing happens or exists in isolation in the human organism. The relationship between the spine, ribcage, diaphragm, the pressure inside the thorax, and our need to breathe must be appreciated in order to understand tri-planar movement of the entire thorax.
If we truly want to improve an individual’s ability, we need to move and manage the position of ribs, airflow, the spine and the pelvis, which is a piece of the puzzle that wasn’t even covered in this article. It all matters, because it all makes up a system, and we cannot isolate individual parts of a complex system without appreciating their interactions and what they do as part of the whole.
So let’s stop teaching people that they need to open up their t-spines, and stop leading people to think that mindlessly rotating their trunks as far as possible is the answer to greater freedom of movement. Instead, let’s teach people to move mindfully, to move their ribs in three planes of motion, to manage the air flowing in and out of their bodies, and to authentically rotate through their trunks without compensatory strategies that defeat the purpose of performing trunk rotation activities in the first place.
- Lee, Diane Gail. “Biomechanics of the thorax – research evidence and clinical expertise.” Journal of Manual & Manipulative Therapy, vol. 23, no. 3, Feb. 2015, pp. 128–138., doi:10.1179/2042618615y.0000000008.