How to Save your Middle Back and Paddle Easier
The middle back is the connection between our lower back, neck, ribs and shoulders so its quite an important area to keep healthy!
The thoracic spine or more commonly known as the middle back is an important area for surfers.
The following article will outline:
- Anatomy and movement that occurs in the thoracic area
- Why this area is important for paddling and surfing
- What exercises you can do to keep your thoracic spine mobile and healthy to help you paddle easier
Anatomy and Movement of the Thoracic Spine
The thoracic spine consists of 12 vertebrae and their corresponding joint and rib articulations.
You can think of the 12 vertebrae as being like the links on a bike chain, connected and held together by strong ligaments, muscles and other soft tissue.
The vertebrae are therefore able to move and glide one by one on each other to co-ordinate global movement of the spine
The main movements in this area include:
- Breathing (respiration)
- Trunk rotation
- Trunk flexion (rounded back)
- Trunk extension (straightened or elongated spine)
- Side bending
Movement is assisted by the forces generated by muscles. Movement can be coupled on both sides which leads to extension and closing down the joints or forward flexion and opening of the joints of the spine.
Movements can be coupled towards one side to create side bending or rotation through each segment of the spine.
In a co-ordinated effort the ribs will rotate up or down around an axis at the same time.
To help visualise this relationship of the movement between the thoracic spine and the ribs imagine the spine as the boat and the ribs as the oars of a rowing boat.
As we row forward the ribs are internally rotating upwards, round and in.
As we row backwards the ribs are externally rotating downwards, backwards and out.
To feel this try placing your arms out to your side at shoulder height.
Turn both your palms down to the ground to imitate the ribs rotating round and in.
Now turn both your palms up to imitate the ribs rotating downwards, backwards and out.
To understand how rotation works for the spine and ribs: While turning your head and body to the right, keep your right hand facing palm up and with your left hand turn your palm facing down.
Repeat the opposite to the left, as you rotate left keep your left palm facing up and turn your right palm facing down.
Now you have more insight into how the thoracic spine and rib cage work in harmony. Moving together in synchrony as we paddle, breathe and move.
The shoulderblades which sit on top of the rib cage move and glide to assist shoulder movements.
- Upward rotate on the rib cage when we reach forward to paddle (think coming round the corner to the sides of the rib cage)
- Downward rotate as we pull the water underneath our board to propel us forward.
Why is this area important for Surfers?
5 key reasons for why the thoracic area is important:
- The thoracic spine allows us to keep our chest and head up as we paddle.
- Rotation occurs through the spine when we reach and paddle each side, when performing manouevres such as re-entries, cutbacks and aerials.
- We rapidly transition from trunk extension to trunk flexion during the pop up.
- We side bend and rotate to look behind for waves at timing of our take off spot.
- Loss of mobilty can affect the neck and shoulders as we paddle and increase risk of repeated strain injuries.
You'll likely see anyone from a beginner or a veteran at your local spot who has a hard time lifting their heads up.
When we have reduced mobility in our thoracic spine we start to hunch more over the board. As a result we begin to compensate by over extending through our neck to keep our eyes up. The hyperextension crams and closes down the space of the joints of the neck, thus creating increased stress on the neck joints.
The thoracic area also affects our shoulder position. When we lack mobility in our thoracic spine we start to round our shoulders. This closes down the space in the shoulder joint which results in less space and increased stress of structures in the subacromial space, primarily the supraspinatus/infraspinatus tendon and the subacromial bursa. Thus we are at more risk of developing "Surfers Shoulder".
- The Thoracic Spine (Middle Back) is involved in breathing, sidebending and trunk rotation for turns and balance, thoracic extension for keeping our chest up when we paddle and flexion which occurs during pop ups when we bring our feet through underneath us or when crouching down to fit in the tube.
- The Thoracic Spine is in close connection with the shoulderblades thus plays an important role of shoulder movements
- Reduced thoracic mobility can lead to compensation up into the neck where we over extend and put more stress on our neck joints
- Reduced thoracic mobility puts more stress on our shoulder joints as we tend to round our shoulders we decrease the space available for structures in the subacromial space
Exercises for Thoracic Mobility
Middle Back Flexion
On hands and knees in four point kneeling
Exhale deeply as you round back
Middle Back Extension
Inhale through your nose as you extend your spine the other way and look straight ahead
Upper Middle Back Extension
Inhale through your nose as you extend your spine. Lift your head up off the ground.
Maintain length through your spine without overarching through your neck.
Lower Back Extension
Inhale through your nose as you pushup from the floor.
Keep your hips and legs as relaxed as possible, allow for sagging of the lower back to the ground.
Lower Back Extension + Middle Back Rotation
Push your upper body up from the floor.
Look over your shoulder from side to side.
Lunge with Middle Back Rotation
Start in lunge position, foot placed both hands on the ground and your foot outside of your hands, lift one arm up towards ceiling as you inhale