When exercising or in everyday life one of the more difficult things to do is to perform sustained work in an overhead position. Many people complain about feeling too tight in the shoulders to be able to get into a full overhead position. While the mobility of the shoulder joint can definitely affect a person’s ability to obtain an overhead position, there are two other factors that can be equally or even more important and they are often overlooked. These are thoracic spine mobility and flexibility of the latissimus dorsi muscle. Without having the ability to obtain full thoracic ext and adequate flexibility of the latissimus dorsi muscle a person cannot obtain and or sustain a proper overhead position regardless of how good their mobility is in their shoulder joint. Let’s dive a little deeper into these two factors and then discuss some simple mobility exercises to help address these issues.
The thoracic spine is the longest section of our spinal column running from the base of our neck down to the level of our abdomen. It is also inherently more immobile than the cervical and lumbar regions of our spine secondary to the fact that it is attached to our ribs. As you can see in the picture below the thoracic spine has a rounded curve to it called kyphosis.
Because of the kyphotic curvature it can limit how high up a person can raise their arm regardless of their shoulder mobility. Shown in the image below is a depiction of a spine with an increased kyphotic curve of the thoracic spine and how that limits shoulder movement and the ability to get the arm overhead.
This is something that can be worked on through utilizing techniques known as joint mobilizations to the area affected. Joint mobilizations can be applied manually by a licensed physical therapist or chiropractor, or there are self mobilizations techniques that can be very beneficial. There are a number of self-mobilization techniques, shown below is a basic option to get people started. It is the thoracic extension over foam roller technique. Lay on the floor with foam roller running across your mid back, with hands behind head extend yourself over the foam roller and then back up in a slow controlled motion. Perform for approximately 60-90 seconds moving the foam roller over different segments of the thoracic spine.
The latissimus dorsi is the largest muscle in the upper body and it’s primary responsibility is to perform shoulder adduction, shoulder extension, and shoulder internal rotation. These actions have an almost direct antagonist relationship to the proper overhead position, meaning that tightness within this muscle would cause limitations or compensations to overhead positioning. Below is a picture of the latissimus dorsi.
In the presence of increased tone/tightness of the latissimus dorsi there are mobility exercises that can be done to improve the mobility and stretch tolerance of this large muscle. One simple but effective technique to work on latissimus dorsi mobility is shown below. Begin standing or kneeling, and place arms on a bench, table, chair, etc. in front of you with the thumbs pointing up. Make sure to be bending from the waist and maintaining a neutral spine position, also attempt to sit your body weight back to increase the stretch felt. Can be prescribed in a number of ways, our preference is to perform multiple repetitions moving in and out of the position for 60-90 seconds as opposed to maintaining a prolonged static position.
This has hopefully provided some simple ideas around not just relying on shoulder mobility exercises to improve overhead position, but understanding the relationships of the spine and latissimus dorsi on overhead mobility. There are certainly a countless number of other variations to work on these aspects of overhead mobility. However, regardless of which mobility exercises a person finds that they respond to, it takes consistency over a long-period of time to make the kind of lasting effects that we all want to see. So find mobility exercises that can cause a short-term effect on your overhead position and put in the work and you will be able to obtain and maintain a proper overhead position to continue to improve for your overall health and fitness.