Anyone who is a regular gym-goer may have heard the term “thoracic mobility” before. It has become a particularly popular topic in Cross-Fit circles and sports where a maximal shoulder end range of motion is desired (the lock out). This is necessary for exercises such as pull-ups, hand stand push-ups, ring work, and over head press’ (power and Olympic lifters are not safe either!). But, what does this mean and how do we improve it?
To perform any above head movement requires first a stable shoulder. This means that all of the associated muscles are firing and working properly providing stability to an otherwise unstable joint (just ask anyone with a shoulder injury!) If you have not accomplished the ability to stabilize the shoulder in these moves; you shouldn’t be doing them since this will eventually lead to injury. Once the shoulder is stable we can discuss mobility of shoulder. Though it is more likely for an injury to occur due to instability, mobility of course plays a factor.
When discussing shoulder mobility in over-head moves I am referring to the ability of the humerus to pass under the subacromial space in the shoulder without impingment. This space is already quite small so it is important that we have appropriate movement of the shoulder (often termed scapulo-humeral rhythm.) When we raise our arms over-head (as we do when pressing) the scapula should begin to rotate after 60 degrees which allows the humerus to pass under the subacromial space. The ability for this to occur is very important for injury prevention of over-head athletes! Shoulder impingements will occur when the space between the coracoid and humerus narrows which leads to the rotator cuff muscles to “catch” as they pass under the structure. Over-time this will lead to fraying and injury of these muscles and potentially tears.
In order to maintain the necessary space for your rotator cuff when lifting your arms above head the scapula must retract and rotate upwards. Mobility of the thoracic spine is particularly important as it will impact retraction of the scapula. Additionally, assumption of a slumped posture (which many of us have from desk jobs) which causes shortened pecs, and upper traps that will pull the shoulders forward creating an anterior tilt in the scapula reducing the space needed. In summary, when the shoulder is not moving properly and the subacromial space is reduced from lack of thoracic spine mobility and tight muscles it will eventually lead to some sort of impingement.
So what can you do to prevent/fix this issue?
- Have your thoracic spine mobility assessed
- incorporate some “pre-hab” in your normal routine; this should include rhomboid, mid and lower trap work.
- Stretch your pecs, and upper traps.
I urge you all to incorporate a bit of pre-hab; your body and gains will thank you in the long run!