The T-spine is exactly what you probably think it is: the thoracic part of the spine. Apart from the cervical part of the spine, the t-spine is, or it should be, one of the most mobile segments of the entire vertebral column. It can rotate a fair bit but it shines in flexion and extension, especially the latter which is mandatory for weightlifting, serving as a stable base for all the overhead positions. Think about it like this: if the legs are the explosion of the cannon, the body must be able to absorb the shock through all the major joints and structures that play along with each other. For the catching position( in our case, the absorption of the shock), the T-spine is the solid base, the foundation of the upper body that supports the arms so they can remain locked during the catch when the bar is overhead.
Assessing the T-spine
The T-spine is made up of 12 vertebrae that begin right below the C7( seventh cervical vertebrae) and end right above the L1( first lumbar vertebrae). because it has ribs attached to it, this section of the spine is really stable and strong, being less mobile than the cervical as we spoke but still a close second to it, mobility-wise.
Having to connect the upper body to the lower body, the T-spine allows for basic spine movement. If you bend down, hunch over, that is called FLEXION. If you bend backward, that is called EXTENSION. The T-spine allows for left and right ROTATION and BENDING movements also. The main focus in this article will be EXTENSION, as it serves as a base for everything overhead, so not getting into that position will cause you a lot of problems, even if your shoulder and scapular mobility is ok. Not being able to extend as much as you need to through your T-spine will cause you to frequently catch/drop the bar forward, as you just can’t stand straight. You will probably try to compensate with the shoulders and hips( pushing your hips too much in front of you) and you will either get hurt or just miss the attempt in the process.
As we can’t really isolate the movement of the T-spine, we will work with the entire spine and use the method of visual observation to see if something is not working properly here. All the tests will be to see the mobility of the entire column but we will focus our attention on the T-spine. Again, flexion is when you basically hunch forward, with your gaze facing down.
We will instruct the athlete to sit on a chair/bench with their legs spread apart and then flex forward through the spine in a cranial to caudal fashion. What does this mean? Just flex beginning with the head and thinking of “flexing one vertebra at a time” until they reach their full flexion range of motion. We will just look to see if there are segments of the column that look “stuck” or “flat”, especially at the T-spine. The arms will reach down, between the knees. We will look for about 20-45 degrees of spinal flexion at the T-spine.
Extension being the opposite of flexion, is where you bend backward, as you probably do in the morning when you wake up and need to “stretch” a bit.
Firstly we will instruct the athlete to sit on something and elevate their feet. This is tricky as if you don’t elevate the feet or create some flexion at the hips, the one that is tested can compensate with lumbar extension and look like he got a fair amount of thoracic extension. The body really is smart, indeed. But we are smarter.😉
Once we elevated their feet and the knees are higher than hips level, we instruct them to put their palms at the back of their heads and bend backward as much as they can. Again we will look for segments that appear to stay the same or be stuck. We will look for about 25-45 degrees of spinal extension at the thoracic region.
Bending sideways( lateral flexion)
The T-spine also allows for a little bit of bending, called “lateral flexion” in more fancy terms. This is where you bend sideways while maintaining everything else but the spine in the same position.
Testing lateral flexion
The athlete will again sit with their hands crossed at the back of the head and one leg elevated on the bench, being straight. The other leg will be bent with the foot on the ground. They are gonna bend to the side, on the bent leg that is on the ground, as much as they can. We will look for 20-40 degrees of lateral flexion.
This is where the T-spine shines as it does really transfer the rotational power from the lower body to the upper body. This movement is pretty self-explanatory as you basically rotate through this segment of the spine.
The athlete will once again sit on a bench with their legs flexed, palms on the back of their heads, and will rotate to the side. Make sure the pelvis stays in position and the head stays relatively still. Look for rotational differences between the left and the right side, ask for the “stuck” feeling and observe the movement. I don’t really have specific degrees to give you as the rotational aspect is hard to isolate but I can tell you this: you will really see when there is a big rotation range of motion deficit!
As I said, I will focus more on the extension and rotation movements, as they are the most important for weightlifting and they are really tied together. If you observe a deficit on the flexion/lateral flexion movements then you can pretty much solve that by doing more of those: flexion and lateral flexion! Almost every ab exercise will cause a degree of flexion so that should be really easy to solve.
1. Wall rotations
Stay in a lunge position oriented sideways from a wall and raise one hand straight in front of you and maintain this position, like you would be glued with that side on the wall. If you got your right hand on the wall, the left leg should be in front, with the foot flat on the ground and the other bend, sitting on the knee. Now take your other hand and raise it straight in front of you, right beside the one on the wall. Rotate through the spine while maintaining your pelvis oriented forward as much as you can. Always follow the hand that rotates with the eyes and head. Do this 5 times on each side, slowly, for 3 sets a couple of times a week.
2. Kneeling rotations
Stay on your knees and bend forward, supporting yourself on one of your forearms, like in a plank. Now put the palm of your other hand on the back of your head and rotate upwards, as much as you can. Try not to compensate with your pelvis. Do this 5 times on each side, 3 sets, again, 2-3 times a week.
You can also do this exercise supporting yourself on the palm of the hand, as this is an easier progression for the one on the forearm.
3. Foam roller extensions
This is really a simple one. Take a foam roller and place it right below your scapulas, on your thoracic spine. Now bend one leg and cross it on the other while repetitively bending backward at the spine. Do this for 10 slow reps then switch sides, taking the other leg and crossing it. Do this for 3-4 sets, 2-3 times/week.
A harder progression for this is taking weight and holding it overhead with your hands straight, then bending backward on the foam roller.
4. Preacher position
Kneel down in front of a box/an elevated surface. Take a dowel and hold it in a supine fashion with your hands. Now place your elbows on the bench/box/surface and bend forward, while bending the arms also. Spend 2-3 seconds in that deep position then come back up, maintaining your elbows on the surface. Do this for 10-15 reps, 2-3 sets a couple of times a week.
All the exercises listed above are simple yet will help you tremendously if you got problems with your thoracic spine range of motion and mobility. Remember: you cannot have a good catch position without a solid upper body foundation. It does not matter you strong your legs are, weightlifting is so much more than strength!
Until next time, go get some T-spine movement!