Thoracic Spine Mobility For Olympic Weightlifting
A solid overhead position for the snatch and jerk requires good thoracic spine mobility to create a platform for shoulder mobility. You need to address both mobility and the strength and stamina to maintain the position you want.
In all T-spine mobility and strength work, it’s critical to ensure you’re actually moving the T-spine rather than excessively arching the lower back or hinging at the thoracolumbar junction. Limited T-spine mobility is nearly always coupled with excessive lumbar or T/L junction extension, so this simply reinforces the problem.
Foam rolling is a simple but effective tool for getting some movement in the T-spine, but it needs to be done correctly. Hold your trunk in an approximately straight line from pelvis to shoulders by maintaining ab tension. Don’t arch over the roller—most of the movement you’ll get from this will be hinging at the T/L junction rather than actual extension of the T-spine.
The idea is to simply get the vertebrae moving independently of each other—you should feel some popping and cracking as you start rolling. Start with the arms across the chest and finish holding them overhead, but again, resist the temptation to arch over the roller.
The leaning bar hang is a way to get some traction on the T-spine while also stretching much of the musculature that can limit shoulder range of motion. Keep your toes on the floor or a box behind the bar—hang straight down and then lean the chest through the arms. It’s important to stay relaxed and hanging—don’t tense up with an excessive effort to push your body forward. Maintain some tension in your abs to avoid hinging at the T/L junction or over-arching your lower back.
Although we don’t actually need rotation for weightlifting, quadruped T-spine rotations can encourage relaxing of excessive generalized tension stiffening the T-spine. Place one hand in the middle of your upper back and keep the other arm locked straight against the floor. Keeping the back approximately straight and horizontal, use a controlled motion to reach your elbow down toward your other hand, then reverse directions and reach the elbow
as far up toward the ceiling as you can. You can follow this with some reps with the hand on your lower back as well. Be sure to turn your head along with your shoulders.
If you have friends, you can borrow one for a combined T-spine and shoulder mobilization. From your knees, place both hands on your upper back so your elbows are overhead, then lean over to place the backs of your upper arms on a bench or box. Maintain tension in your abs to avoid over-arching or hinging at the T/L junction. Your buddy will use their fists or thumbs to push straight down on either side of the spine, working gradually along the length of the T-spine.
The clean-grip overhead squat introduces some strengthening to the mobilization. If you can’t sit all the way in to a clean-grip overhead squat, don’t panic—it’ll actually be more effective for you. Again, maintain ab tension and avoid excessive lower back arching or hinging at the T/L junction. Sit slowly into the squat while pushing straight up against the bar and trying to reach your chest up to the ceiling. Sit only as deep as you can while maintaining control of the bar and try to hold that bottom position for a few seconds before standing again. Try to sit a bit deeper each rep and each workout.
If your lower body is really flexible and you don’t feel much in your upper back, try wearing flat shoes. If you’re extremely immobile, start with a PVC pipe and a wider grip. Once you can squat with a clean grip on the PVC pipe, move to an empty bar.
The dumbbell back extension is a simple and quick exercise to help strengthen your increasing range of motion. Lie prone on the floor and hold a dumbbell behind your neck. Keeping your glutes and abs tight and your belly pressed against the floor, reach your head and shoulders up as high as you can off the floor. This should be a controlled motion with a pause at the top—speed will kill the effectiveness.
And finally, stand and sit up straight! You can’t expect a few minutes a day of mobility work to overcome 12 hours a day of hunching around like a slob.
Rather than trying to arch the upper back, imagine stretching it upward to elongate your trunk. Yes, initially your muscles will fatigue quickly, but that’s how all training works. Stick with it consistently and you’ll see improvement.
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