You know, there’s a piece to this expanding and wonderfully complex puzzle that is the healthy flyer/aerialist/circus artist that has been nagging at me for the past couple of months because I realized that I haven’t included it and yet, it’s such a foundational and important piece. (Wow. That was quite a long sentence.) The thing of it is that I’ve mentioned this piece of the puzzle before, but I’ve neglected to discuss how you can assess it in yourself and manage it accordingly. So let’s talk thoracic mobility.
Some readers are up on their anatomical lingo and others might not be, so let’s take a moment to drop some science. Anatomists have sub-divided your spinal column into five regions. Starting from your head bone, the first seven vertebrae are referred to as your cervical spine (basically, your neck). The following twelve vertebrae make up your thoracic spine (for thorax; like your upper torso; sometimes called your T-spine by people in the know). Then there’s the five vertebrae of your lumbar spine followed by the five fused vertebrae of your sacrum and the three to five (mostly) fused vertebrae of your coccyx (the number and segmentation varies by make and model). Our focus for this post is going to be on the thoracic spine.
Thinking in terms of your shoulders and more specifically, shoulder mobility, your thoracic spine’s mobility plays a significant role. Full range of motion at the shoulder should happen without any change in position in your torso—this is the flinch/rib flare that I was talking about earlier. Once you engage your core musculature—think squeeze your butt to set your pelvis in neutral and then brace your ‘abs’—this should not change as you move your arms overhead.
Your shoulder’s range of motion overhead is the result of the wonderful and somewhat complex interplay between your humerus in the socket of your scapula, the positioning of your scapula on your thoracic spine and your thoracic spine’s ability to allow your scapula to move into the position it needs to, based on where you’re trying to move your arm. You might ask, How does your thoracic spine influence the position of your scapula? And I would say good question!
This is ultimately a matter of thoracic mobility, the functional movement available between each of the segments of your thoracic spine. Consider the act of raising your arm in front of you to about 90° (shoulder flexion). The majority of this movement happens at the glenohumeral joint. [Aside: your shoulder blade is the scapula (you knew that one) and the socket of the shoulder blade, where the head of the humerus sits, is called the glenoid. The joint then, is called the glenohumeral joint.] Past 90°, your scapula really needs to be able to move in order for your arm to reach full flexion. For those who have experienced the joys of impingement pain (which happens when you move your arm overhead and the humerus collides with the acromion and the soft tissues in between—think biceps tendons and/or supraspinatus—get hammered and irritated) you’re probably all-too-familiar with how important it is to have your scapulae able to move into the right position.
And one of the key factors that determines whether your scapula can move the way it needs to is the mobility of your thoracic spine.
So how do I know if my thoracic spine is mobile enough?
Well, at the risk of repeating myself, start with some back-to-wall shoulder flexion. If you don’t have a wall handy, lie down on the floor. Bend your knees so that you can put your feet flat on the floor. Tighten up your core and feel your lower back press into the floor. With your arms at your sides—and elbows straight—point your thumbs up in the air.
Keeping your elbows straight, raise your arms overhead. As you do so, make sure to keep your core tight—don’t let your lower back come off the floor. If you can get your thumbs to touch the ground above your head, chances are your thoracic spine is sufficiently mobile. If not…
A warm-up (and cool down) exercise that every flyer/aerialist should do
Find your trusty foam roll. You should be able to find one at the rig where you fly (ask your instructors!).
Take about two or three minutes and lie down on the foam roller like you see in the photo. You can also cross your arms in front of your chest, like you’re hugging yourself. This is actually a little easier to do at first. Begin by rolling up and down the length of your thoracic spine (your best guess based on the diagram, above, is perfectly fine). Then, imagine stopping with the foam roll on each vertebrae. Hang out there for a moment or two. Arch your back and then curl up. Repeat this arching and curling pattern a few times. On segments that feel particularly like ‘hotspots’, repeat the arch and curl pattern until it feels like it’s changed. Ideally, it will feel like things move better.
Foam rolling can be like a bit of a personal exploration. Where each person feels like they need a bit of work is going to vary from person to person. And that’s a good thing because it means you have the opportunity to check in with your body on an ongoing basis. It means that, if you haven’t already, you can adopt a practice of regular ‘check-ups’ and ‘maintenance’. And that’s going to help keep you healthy and happy in the long run.
And for those ready to take their pre-flight warm-up to the next level…
Why not? Let’s go a little bit more ‘functional’ and add some arm movement. It will only take another minute or two. The video below explains what to do. The beauty of adding this exercise is that it will help you to develop thoracic mobility with overhead arm movements.
In many ways, developing and maintaining an appropriate amount of thoracic mobility is a basic prerequisite for participating in aerial arts. The more functional your range of motion, the better able you will be to perform the way you want to. Please note—as always—that individual mileage may vary and consulting with a physician is a fantastic idea if you find yourself working through stuff and still getting stuck or experiencing pain. There are a variety of factors that will contribute to and influence your overhead range of motion. The general case, however, is that you simply need to take care of how your thoracic spine moves and, if you didn’t know how to do it before, now you do!