17 exercises to improve your thoracic spine

Your thoracic spine plays one of the most vital roles in maintaining your posture.

In fact – I would say that it is impossible to attain the ideal posture if the thoracic spine is not addressed.

… Let’s do some exercises, shall we?

(Note: The following thoracic spine stretches will also help address Scoliosis and Thoracic kyphosis.)

Thoracic spine exercises


Disclaimer: All exercises are to be performed pain-free.

If you are unsure if you should be doing these exercises, please feel free to ask me a question in the comment section.


I have separated the thoracic spine exercises into 4 different parts:

  • Releases
  • Stretches
  • Mobilizations
  • Strengthening

a) Releases

Releasing tight muscles around the thoracic spine will help reduce knots/trigger points/stiffness.


Guideline:

  • You will need a massage ball and a foam roller.
  • Focus your attention onto the areas which are tight.
  • Make sure that you are able to breathe throughout these release exercises.
    • If you find that you are holding your breath, reduce the amount of pressure being applied.
  • Duration: Aim for 1-2 minutes per muscle group.

1. Between shoulder blades

shoudler blade ball

Instructions:

  • Position your body over the massage ball as to target the muscles between the shoulder blades.
  • Apply an appropriate amount of pressure onto the ball.
  • Slowly circle around the target area and pause at any areas that illicit more tenderness.
  • Once you find a tender spot, move you arm up/down to increase the release.
  • Repeat on other side.

2. Chest

ball chest

Instructions:

  • Position your body over a massage ball so that your chest muscles are targeted.
  • Apply appropriate amount of pressure onto the ball.
  • Slowly circle around the target area and pause at any areas that illicit more tenderness.
  • Once you have found a painful spot, move your arm around to increase the amount of release in the area.
  • Repeat on other side.

3. Latissimus dorsi

latfoam

Instructions:

  • Place a foam roller on the floor.
  • Position your body on top of the foam roller so that it is in direct contact with the latissimus dorsi. (see above)
  • Apply an appropriate amount of pressure onto the foam roller.
  • Slowly move around the target area and pause at any areas that illicit more tenderness.
  • You may want to move your arm around to increase the release.
  • Repeat on other side.

4. Upper abdominals

ball upper abs

Instructions:

  • Position your body over a massage ball as to target the upper abdominal region.
  • Apply a small amount of pressure onto the ball.
  • Slowly circle around the target area and pause at any areas that illicit more tenderness.
  • Note: Please take care with this release. Excessive pressure in this region can compress your organs!
  • Repeat on other side.

5. Intercostals

Instructions:

  • With your finger, feel the gaps between your ribs.
  • Starting from the outer side of your ribs, trace this gap towards the mid line.
  • Apply appropriate amount of pressure through your finger tip.
  • Once you have found a tender area, maintain the finger tip pressure and take 3x breaths in/out.
  • Make sure to cover as many ribs as you can locate.

b) Stretches

Now that you have released your muscles that influence the thoracic spine, the next step is to stretch!


Guideline:

  • Hold each stretch for a minimum of 30-45 seconds.
  • Repeat 2-3 times.
  • Make sure you feel the stretch in the targeted areas.

6. Side stretch

Side stretch

This stretch predominantly targets the latissimus dorsi muscle.

Instructions:

  • Whilst standing, reach over and bend to the side.
  • Aim to feel the stretch on the side of your body.
  • Do not let your torso rotate.
  • Repeat on the other side.

7. Front stretch

Chest stretch

This stretch predominantly targets the pectoralis (chest) muscle.

Instructions:

  • Place your outstretched hand on a door frame.
  • Lunge forward.
  • Pull your shoulder blades backwards.
  • Do not arch your lower back.
    • (Keep rib cage low.)
  • Aim to feel a stretch at the front of your chest.
  • Repeat on the other side.

8. Intercostals

These muscles are situated between the ribs.

(Surprisingly, they can actually get pretty tight!)

intercostal stretch

… I call this my sexy pose :)

Instructions:

  • Lie on your side whilst leaning on your elbow
  • Bend your body to the upper side.
  • Aim to feel a stretch at the side of your rib cage.
  • Aim to take deep breaths into the area of stretch.
  • Repeat on the other side.

9. Posterior line stretch

Posterior line stretch

Instructions:

  • Whilst sitting down, pull your head down and bring your chin closer to your upper chest.
  • Bend as far forward as possible whilst making sure to round the upper back.
  • Aim to feel a stretch at the back between the shoulder blades.
  • Take deep breaths into the area of stretch.

c) Mobility

If you have completed the releases and stretches, your thoracic spine should feel much looser now.

… Let’s get moving!


Note:

  • You may feel/hear clicks when you perform these mobility exercises.
    • (This is just the release of pressure in your joints.)
  • Aim to move your spine as much as possible without compensating with other joints.

10. Extension

Thoracic extension

Instructions:

  • Place a foam roller (a rolled up towel will work too) on the floor.
  • Lie down on the ground and position the foam roll so that it is in the middle of your upper back.
  • Stretch arms over head and arch backwards.
  • Keep your lower ribs down to prevent over arching of the lower back.
  • Oscillate this motion for 30 repetitions.

11. Flexion

flat round back

Instructions:

  • Get into the 4 point kneel position.
  • Proceed to round your upper back.
    • Aim to feel a gentle stretch at the back as your elongate your spine.
  • Return to the starting position.
  • Alternate between these 2 positions for 30 repetitions.
  • Progression: Try to round your upper back one vertebra at a time. (aka Segmental control)

12. Rotation

rotation

Instructions:

  • Sit down on a chair.
  • Place your hand on the outer side of the opposite knee
  • With the other hand, grab onto the back of the chair.
  • Rotate your spine. (as to look behind you)
  • Oscillate in this position for 30 repetitions.
  • Repeat on the other side.

13. Translations

thoracic translation

Instructions:

  • Whilst sitting, slide your shoulders to the side.
  • Aim to keep your shoulders level whilst performing this movement.
  • Alternate sides for 30 repetitions.

d) Strengthening

14. Wall angel

angel 1 angel 2

Instructions:

  • Stand with your back to a wall.
  • Keep your back and arms pulled backwards as to remain in contact with the wall throughout movements.
  • Place your arms in the ‘W’ starting position.
  • Transition to ‘I’ position.
  • Aim to feel the contraction in the muscles between the shoulder blade.
  • Repeat 10-20 times.

15. Parallel angel

horizontal retraction

Instructions:

  • Support your chest on a stool. (as to keep your body parallel with the floor)
  • Place your arms in the ‘W’ starting position.
  • Transition to ‘I’ position.
  • Keep your back muscles pulled backwards throughout all movements.
  • Repeat 10-20 times.

16. Side bends

Instructions:

  • Whilst standing, hold onto weights in your hands.
    • Use an appropriate weight.
  • Proceed to bend all the way to the side.
  • Make sure that you do not twist your body.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Alternate sides.
  • Repeat 20 times.

Note: Increase the weight when you are ready to progress the exercise.

17. Rotation in 4 point kneel

Instructions:

  • Get into the 4 point kneel position.
  • Place one hand behind your head.
  • Proceed to twist your body.
    • Aim to get the elbow pointing towards the roof.
  • Gently brace your abdominal muscles.
    • Keep your ribs cage low.
    • Do not flare you ribs out.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Repeat 20 times.
  • Repeat exercise on the other side.


What to do next…

1. Any questions?… Leave me a comment down below.

2. Come join me on the Facebook page. Let’s keep in touch!

3. Start doing the exercises!

114 thoughts on “17 exercises to improve your thoracic spine”

  1. Hey Mark,

    Your website has been a miracle in my life, thank you so much! I have 2 questions for you, I’ll try to make them quick.

    1) My anterior tilt was a quick fix as everything about correcting it felt natural, however the head, shoulders and rounding have still been a problem. Long story short I finally realized when I put my thoracic spine in a neutral position, my ears, shoulders and hips naturally line up, my neck straightens up shoulders roll back and down, and everything is fine and it feels great, obviously I can only maintain that posture for so long before I wear out and when I relax out of it I feel tension in my lower back, is this normal or am I doing something wrong possibly?

    2) I’m determined to become a back sleeper after being a lifelong side/stomach sleeper, its difficult making the change but the biggest problem is my arms falling asleep, with or without resting them on a pillow. Any tips for this?

    Thank you very much,

    Ryan

    Reply
    • Hey Ryan,

      1) You’ll need to train holding the thoracic spine in that position for longer periods. Pace yourself!

      Once you fatigue, it is likely other muscles (such as the lower back erector muscles) will start to kick in more so.

      2) You would need to have a look at the position of your head/neck and also the shoulder.

      If you want to sleep on your back, make sure that the pillow is not too thin as this will tend to make your head kink backwards and chin just upwards. This can compress the nerves that go into your arms.

      If your shoulders are naturally quite rounded, you might need to support them with even higher pillows. Make sure to support the back of the shoulder AND elbow (perhaps try having the elbows slightly higher than the shoulders.)

      See how you go with that!

      Mark

    • Thank you for the reply!

      My shoulders are no longer rounding, and that’s just one month of your program 👊, however the problem now is naturally they are back but slightly shrugged up, so I’m constantly having to depress my scapula. Should I keep on doing the shoulder program or should I be doing something a little more specific for this problem?

      My final postural problem, and I can’t really find anything on the internet, is I’m starting to notice myself standing with all of my weight on the balls of my feet and toes, to the point where my knees are further out than my shins, which obviously throws everything out of whack. That is what feels natural and I didnt even pick up on it until the other day. Are there any drills or exercises to help me balance on my feet properly?

    • Hey Ryan.

      Great to hear the shoulders are getting better!

      If you are excessive shrugging, then you might be engaging the Upper trapezius too much as you bring your shoulders back. If this is the case – try to specifically get the middle traps to engage more so.

      If your knees are in front of your feet, this can place your body weight in front of the center of mass. This will force you to weight bear at the front of your feet.

      Check out this post : Anterior pelvic shift and Sway back posture. (see if that relates to you)

      Mark

    • Hi James,

      Rib 9 can translate to the right if there is some sort of compression occurring along the left hand side at the same level.

      Try to release the muscles causing the compression on the left, that might be a good place to start.

      Mark

  2. Hi Mark!

    I have been having difficulty with breathing and my thoracic area is to blame. Are there any exercises you could recommend to me including breathing exercises? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hey Ellie,

      I usually couple deep breathes in when in the stretched position.

      For example: I would assume the stretch position #8, and breathe into the area where I feel the stretch.

      Breathing helps stretch from the inside out.

      In your situation, you will need to identify exactly where you are right, get in a position to stretch that tight area, and then attempt to take deep breathes into that said area.

      Mark

      Mark

  3. Hi Mark

    Love these stretches thank you so much!! I had s question for you; I wake up every morning with a tight mid back region despite all my efforts to mobilise my back. Is there tightness here because it’s over compensating for weakness elsewhere in the back of legs? I see a chiropractor each month who manages to correct any issues but I don’t feel like stretches are actually improving the situation they are just getting my through the day. I suppose I feel like I’m not really getting any better hi JUST doing the stretch routine; I need to find the route of the problem don’t i?

    Any helpful advice would be welcome

    Reply
  4. I just came across your site tonight. I had a spinal cord stimulator implanted back on March 7, 2019. I had a paddle for the stimulation which required a laminectomy at T-8. The SCS is doing wonders for my severe arthritis in my lumbar and the radiculopathy in my legs. My issue now the surgery site where the paddle is. I’m still getting severe muscle spasms and cramping in the area which reaches around through my ribs. I was told my muscle they cut through is atrophied. I’m exercising daily but can’t get this area to let up from being very painful, enough so I have to take medication for it most nights. Would these stretches help or is there something else I need to do? My next pain management appointment is in a month and I’m thinking of asking for trigger point injections. What are your thoughts?
    Thank you

    Reply
    • Hey Laura,

      The first priority is getting the full mobility around that area. If you are quite locked or stiff in this segment, these exercise will help stretch out the tightness.

      More importantly, you will need to learn how to control and activate the muscles around this segment. I would recommend that you get very good at the “segmental cat/cow exercise”. (Have a look at how to do it on youtube).

      Try these exercises before considering the injections!

      Mark

    • Mark,

      Thank you for your reply.
      I have been doing the cat/cow now a couple of months. I am also able to do push-ups on my knees with no pain. I find that strange. I will incorporate your stretches into my routine. I don’t want to have to have anything more done medically.
      Thank you again.
      Laura

  5. Hello Mark,

    I believe I have a thoracic spine issue where it is causing me to have anxiety and panic attacks. It also feels like around the T5 area, it is pushing left which triggers my issues. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    • Hey Johnny,

      This may be due to the Sympathetic nervous system.

      Do you have other issues such as sweating, high stress levels, digestion issues?
      Mark

    • Hi Mark,

      I believe I have the same issue as Johnny. I have other issues such as sweating and high-stress levels.

      Were any suggestions given to Johnny that may be useful to others?

      Thanks,
      Mark

    • Hey Mark,

      If the thoracic spine is not behaving optimally/not moving ideally/not positioned efficiently, it is said that it can sometimes affect the sympathetic nervous system.

      I have recently attended a course that has covered this material but I still need more experience with it before I can give a good answer.

      I would recommend learning how to control your thoracic spine. (Have a quick google search on: “Segmental cat cow exercise” on youtube)

      Mark

    • You can believe that spinal misalignment can cause sympathetic nerve irritation. In my case, a right hand curve in my upper thoracic area caused nerve irritation that led to a very erratic and uncomfortable ventricular arrhythmia, which quickly led to heart failure and a sky high risk of heart attack. Prior to this I had been an exceptionally fit cyclist. A decade ago, heart rate variability showed me to be in the upper 5% of my age cohort. Even today I’m probably still in the top 10%. A visit to a cardiologist was worthless (I think most people with this issue drop dead before they can get to a cardio). But based upon my discussions with him I purchased a portable EKG device. When it arrived I immediately tried it out. I was sitting in a chair with good, upright posture. The heart rhythm was perfect. Relieved to hear this, I looked down to view the screen – my heart rhythm went berserk. Shortly after returning to my original position it went back to a normal rhythm. I Googled my symptoms and came across a video by Dr. John Bergman, DC. He described the misalignment that would cause my specific problem, so I found a local chiro (I was in Florida at the time). The x-rays he took showed the right hand curve in the upper thoracic spine that Dr. Bergman described.

      Currently, I am dealing with chronic pancreatitis. My personal belief is that it is caused by nerve irritation that most likely originates in or around T10. I’m researching exercises/stretches to correct where T10 slips out to the back (one of the pancreatic sympathetic nerves exists the lower thoracic toward the abdomen). I was making good progress, with a crucifix stretch being particularly helpful (see http://www.sittingsolution.com/get-rid-of-that-slouched-posture-once-and-for-all/), but I got into the wrong position sleeping last night and have reverted. When I use a foam roller on my back, the discomfort is on my right side, adjacent to T10.

      If you want more information on how sympathetic nerve irritation can cause at times very rapid organ disease progression, research the Winsor Autopsies. These took place in the 1920 by an MD at the University of Pennsylvania. He had attended a lecture by a chiropractor who claimed a particular spine adjustment could cure a woman’s menstrual cramps, and that other manipulations cured various other issues. He obtained permission to perform necropsies on around 75 human and a couple dozen cat cadavers. He found 221 diseased organs. Of those, 212 had impingement of the corresponding sympathetic nerve.

      The chiro corrected my posture sufficiently to cure the heart problem, and my heart returned to normal just as quickly as it had been going down the toilet. The pancreas issue started about five months after completing that treatment. I believe he missed the issue of thoracic spine misalignment because my spine appears to be in alignment when standing, but in a bent forward position (as if cycling on a road bike) it was popping out of place.

      So I agree very wholeheartedly that the thoracic spine should be a first priority for anyone with a spinal issue. Correcting a lower back or cervical issue will always be compromised by not also correct the thoracic spine. And I will add that for most people it is prolonged sitting that causes thoracic misalignment.

      I’m 63 years old and take no prescription meds. My observation would be that it is age related muscle loss that makes spinal issues more likely as we age, and that such muscle loss can be mitigated through exercise at least until we reach our early nineties. Most otherwise healthy people die of diseases of “unknown etiology” caused by sympathetic nerve issues.

      By the way, my upper thoracic issue caused my wife (a former RN) to note that I was developing sleep apnea. When the heart issue cleared up, the sleep apnea also resolved. And my mother, in her mid-80s, had a pretty messed up upper thoracic/cervical spine, which nobody would attempt to fix because she had an unrepaired fractured C2 from a fall years earlier. She went into heart failure, which was corrected by a pacemaker. She soon after developed moderate sleep apnea that led to sleep deprivation. That led to paranoia and all sorts of negative outcomes. I firmly believe she could have been spared both issues if family practitioners were screening for these issues, especially in elderly populations.

  6. A very nice protocol kindly let me know if pateint had chronic pain of thoracic region 10 months ago from start how much of duration is used for each step? And when? Kindly clear

    Reply
  7. Hi Mark,
    I took a huge hit to the back of my right shoulder and it bent my shoulder forward and my thoracic spine to the right and it’s twisted. I have an x Ray I could send over. It would mean the world to me if you could please take a look and advise. My spine was straight 6 weeks ago before the accident. I get really bad pain when I stand too long. Please let me know your thoughts. Thanks so much. You’re the best!

    Reply
    • I do have full mobility, however it is still painful. Seems like my scapulas are uneven, my clavicles are uneven, and the shoulder has shifted down and forward (even though right clavicle is higher). I tried a chiro but left in tears after he did a shoulder adjustment and it seems that made things worse. The muscles on the left side seem to be permanently flexed, as if they’re in protection mode. They say I have mild scoliosis, however 2 months ago that was not the case. I’m desperate to find a solution and I’m willing to work as hard as I need to. I was in incredible shape 2 months ago and my diet is clean and strict. Please let me know your thoughts. Thanks.

    • I don’t think my reply worked the 1st time. I do have full mobility of my right shoulder. Full ROM but sloping slightly forward. My sternum is slightly bent and my clavicles are quite lined up anymore either. I can almost guarantee this happened in the fall, however one doc assumed it was structural/degenerative. Any help you could provide would be amazing. Thank you!

  8. Hi Mark!

    love the articles and I am very interested in your flat back article. I have been dealing with some very right muscles in my upper thoracic area for years and have been to several docs. finally, I found a Chiro that specializes in posture and he said I have a very flat back and severely tight muscles in my upper thoracic. one of the worst he’s seen in years. He couldn’t even get my back to take an adjustment. it seems very tight when taking a deep breath and has also caused me some balance issues. He believes because my nervous system is confused from all of the muscle tension and misalignment.

    anyhow. think your protocol for fixing this issue will help?

    Thanks for any input!

    Reply
  9. Hi Mark,

    Love your content on here and the fact you still reply to every comment. Hoping you will see this and may be able to help out.

    In the last few weeks I have developed a constant dull ache on the right hand side of my spine in between the bottom of shoulder blades. I would rate the pain a 5 out of 10. It feels like it’s in the spine itself and it is quite annoying as it still aches when lying down as well. I tried massaging with a hard rubber ball but it had no effect.
    I have had this issue in the past around 3 years ago and it was fixed after about 6-12 months of chiropractic sessions (they said one of the vertibrae was frozen and needed mobilising).
    It proved to be very expensive so was wondering if you could advise me if there is anything I can do myself to help here? Or if you have any other ideas what it could be and what I should do.

    To add, I have been told I have slightly rounded shoulders and APT.
    Many thanks,
    Mark

    Reply
    • Hey Mark,

      If the pain is coming from your joints, it is likely the facet joints or perhaps even the joints where the ribs meet the spine. (depending on the exact location of your pain)

      Do you have a flat thoracic spine? This could lead to pinching of the facet joints.

      Mark

    • Wow! I googled what facet joints are and yes that’s it. My Chiropractor had shown me a model of these and told me that’s exactly what the problem was. The facet joint was pinching/rubbing on something causing inflammation and pain. I had no idea what they were called.
      Can’t believe you guessed that immediately…
      I tend the slouch a lot so I don’t think I have flat thoracic spine. At work right now so I can’t really assess properly but will do when home and will report back. Thank you for replying.

    • Lucky guess, I guess :)

      You might slouch, but you may segments that are flat.

      The flatter the spine, the more like the facet joints will jam up in certain positions.

      MARK

    • Ok I have had a look from the side by taking some photos and yes it does look like my thoracic spine is flat, well a section of it. The rest of my spine (lower) is quite curved though (APT).

    • Thank you for this. I have been trying the stretches as you mentioned although I had also been taking ibuprofen to manage the pain and it seems to have gone now! Not sure which one it was but either way I am grateful for your help.

  10. Hi Mark! I injured my back over a month ago my upper lower back the part that bends in a back bend. I landed in a foam pit off a trampoline in an updog/cobra position and my whole back cracked very loudly. It was for awhile to sensitive to even touch. It is now not, so that is good. But I used to be able to do back bends very easily but now I get sharp pain there when I arch my back to much. Is there any exercises on here I can do so I can back bend again? I’m a circus performer.

    Reply
    • Hi Liz,

      Sounds like you may have compressed your facet joints.

      Inflammation (and tenderness) to the area will usually follow shortly after but should subside with time.

      If you want to improve your lumbar extension, you will need to perform cobra poses in a gradual but progressive manner. Pay close attention to any sharp pain that you may get. Do not push into this barrier.

      I would also recommend doing segmentation exercises for your spine. (have a quick youtube of that)

      Over time – you should be able to perform back bends again.

      If the pain persist, get a scan to rule out things like spondylolisthesis.

      Good luck!

      Mark

    • Hi Mark, I am having a number of problems but the one that never really has gotten better, is I have a bulging disk in my mid back. I have been to physical therapy numerous times. But nothing seems to stop the feeling like something is poking into my back. The intensity has lessened at times but worsens again in time. I always do the exercises etc. that I was told to do every day, in fact, I do them twice a day. Along with this issue I have tightness in my neck, which is on the opposite side of where my bulging disk is (not sure that makes a difference). And all along my ribs on both sides I have a burning sensation. I have recently been getting deep tissue massages. They were extremely painful the first few times. When I eventually spaced them out to three weeks things got worse again. But I don’t want to just rely on someone doing some kind of therapy on me I want to be able to better address these issues myself. I just started doing most of the exercises you have posted here for the therasic spine yesterday. Do you have any other suggestions for me? I do janitorial/ housekeeping work but I’m trying to find another type of employment. But unfortunately most things are repetitive no matter what you do. I am eager to hear from you!

  11. hey mark..please can you send me a link for kyphotic-lordoctic posture fix?? i really need it and you have great tips here but not for this specific posture…thanks alot

    Reply
  12. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for putting together these exercises. My question is: How do you keep lumbar spine from taking over?

    Context: I have hyper flexibility in the lower back when it comes to backbends. But it over-compensates: middle of back can barely budge. When it comes to folding forward, I feel like I can only hinge forward with my back in an almost straight line. If I lie on my back try to do a backwards roll or candlestick (shoulder stand), I can’t lift my butt first then thoracic region — I have to practically lift my entire back up all at once because my spine won’t roll in the middle.

    Reply
    • Hi Priscilla,

      A hypermobile lower back will usually compensate for a stiff thoracic spine.

      To isolate the thoracic spine, the best thing to do is lock out your lumbar spine by keeping it flexed. (You will also have to keep your pelvis posteriorly rotated for best results)

      Mark

  13. Hi Mark!
    Thanks for this arcticle! It’s a big help for everyone.
    But would a patient with t12 compression can do these workouts too?

    Reply
    • Hi Yanne,

      You can still do these exercises, HOWEVER- you will need to be very careful with how far you push yourself.

      If you wanted to stay safe, I would avoid exercise #10 as this may place direct pressure on the bone.

      Mark

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