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How to Stretch Thoracic Spine? (Relieve Upper Back Pain)

Connor Sellers
Published by Connor Sellers | Senior Coach
Last updated: June 21, 2023

The thoracic spine is one part of the upper back that a lot of athletes can often get some stiffness and pain. It’s also a part of the body that is critical for a lot of functional movement.

And that means you need to stretch it properly on a regular basis in order to improve your flexibility in many types of upper body exercises.

So, I got my physical therapist to help out and come up with a list of stretches that will keep your spine healthy and improve your muscle recovery times after training as well.

Quick Summary

  • There are several simple stretches, like the child’s pose, that can help with a stiff thoracic spine.
  • Everything from your cervical spine to the upper part of your lumbar spine is covered by these stretches.
  • Improving your thoracic spine mobility will significantly help your posture while sitting and standing and also help to increase the range of motion for different upper body workouts.

How Do You Loosen Your Thoracic Spine?

Holding back to stretch and relieve back pain

You loosen your thoracic spine with targeted stretching movements that specifically target the upper back.

What you need to do is achieve a muscle stretch from the cervical vertebrae down to the lumbar spine [1].

If you have significant chronic pain that might be related to nerve or disk damage in your mid back, then I suggest going for physical therapy before you try stretches that could possibly make it worse.

“The thoracic spine is capable of multiple movements in several planes. It can flex and round forward, extend, rotate, and laterally flex (side bend).”

- Lauren Jarmusz, PT, DPT

Best Thoracic Spine Mobility Stretches

Women in gym doing thoracic spine stretches

Not all stretches have to involve thoracic rotation.

And if you have a particularly sore mid-back, then I would suggest doing some of the easier beginner ones to loosen the muscles.

1. Child’s Pose

This is the easiest one to do, but it can relieve a lot of tension. Here’s what to do:

  • Get in the starting position on all fours with your knees below your hips and hands below your shoulders.
  • Now lower your buttocks down onto your ankles while keeping the hands where they are.
  • Your rib cage should now rest on your thighs, and you should feel a stretch in the back.
  • To intensify the stretch for lateral flexion, move your right arm further to the right and place the left arm on top of it.
  • Keep your rib cage on the thighs and try to reach further with the top arm.
  • Repeat the same on the other side.

2. Cat Cow Pose

Performing cow pose - a thoracic spine stretch

This is another easy one you can do just after the child’s pose.

Here’s how it goes:

  • Start on all fours like above and keep your spine in a neutral position.
  • Now raise your head and look up at the ceiling while arching your back and pushing your shoulder blades together.
  • Hold it for 10 seconds, and then slowly lower your head all the way down while raising your back as far as possible.
  • Hold this for 10 seconds and repeat a few times.

3. Spine Twist

Doing a lying spine twist is another great way to improve thoracic mobility gently with these simple steps:

  • Lay down on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  • Stretch your arms out to each side and then slowly turn your pelvis so that both knees go down to one side.
  • Hold the stretch and feel how it impacts your spinal erectors down the center of your back as well.
  • Slowly bring your knees back up and do the same movement to the other side.

4. Foam Roller Stretch

Foam roller stretch

Combining foam rolling with a stretch is another great option.

Here’s what to do for a thoracic extension:

  • Sit on a yoga mat in an upright posture with a foam roller on the floor behind you.
  • Slowly lower your body down so that the roller is shoulder blade height.
  • Allow your head to tilt back lower than the foam roller and feel the pressure and stretch in your back.

When Should You Do These Spine Stretches?

You should ideally do the thoracic spine stretches after a tougher back and shoulder workout.

You can also do them after spending a day at work sitting at a desk to release some tension. 

It will ultimately help to improve your spinal rotation and flexibility and should also help with your post-workout recovery process.


What Are The Symptoms Of Thoracic Spine Issues?

Persistent muscle aches and pain, as well as stiffness in the middle portion of the back, are symptoms of thoracic spine issues. In most cases, you’ll be able to solve that through static stretching.

What Causes A Tight Thoracic Spine?

Bad posture and heavy lifting can cause a tight thoracic spine [2]. If you spend a lot of time sitting down, then these muscles can become weak and tense and, in extreme cases, will require some physical therapy.

Add More Back Mobility Exercises To Your Cooldown

According to coach Bayu Prihandito of Life Architekture, mobility exercises enhance flexibility, extend the range of motion, and fortify the muscles that surround the spine. All these contribute to better overall back health and posture.

If you tend to get a stiff upper back and thoracic spine after workouts, then adding a couple of the above stretches to your cooldown will help a lot in your recovery phase.

The stretch will relieve some of the tightness and can prevent the back pain that might then slow you down at your next workout.

I would also suggest investing in a great post-workout supplement. These can make a big difference in recovery speed and will also help to relax your muscles a lot more.


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