How to do Thoracic Extensions

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

A young man performing exercises on a foam roller outdoors in a lush mountain area.

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Also known as: Mid-back extension

Targets: Middle and upper back and neck.

Equipment Needed: Foam roller.

Level: Intermediate.

You need your T-spine for many things, from normal daily activities to the most extreme workouts you do. Your thoracic spine is meant to extend and help you do things like lift your arms above your head, squat, jump and do pretty much anything else. 

Unfortunately, many of us lead largely sedentary lifestyles that push our T-spines into chronic flexion. This means the T-spine rounds and the shoulders fall forward. Eventually, this makes it difficult to achieve extension and nearly impossible to maintain extension during movements like squats

However, a bit of TLC to the T-spine can undo the ill effects of sitting many of us experience every day. Thoracic extensions are a good place to start, but be wary of a few major mistakes—and modify if needed.


Improves Thoracic Spine Mobility 

Thoracic extensions target your upper and mid-back, both of which are problem areas for many people. If you feel tight in those areas, try adding T-spine extensions to your stretching routine to improve mobility.

In addition to improving functionality (i.e., your ability to exercise and do everyday things), this enhanced mobility might even reduce pain in your neck and shoulders. What you feel as neck pain might actually stem from tightness in your back (particularly the trapezius muscle). 

Teaches Core Control 

Thoracic extensions will expose anyone who doesn’t know how to engage their core. The first fault most trainers look for is overextension of the lumbar spine, which tells the trainer that the athlete is compensating to reach extension of the thoracic spine. T-spine extensions will help you gain core control and stability when you practice with proper technique.

Helps Pinpoint Mobility Issues

Thoracic extensions serve as a great tool for identifying underlying mobility issues. For example, if you have trouble sinking into a deep squat, a thoracic extension can tell you if the problem lies in your upper back or if you need to address a problem in your hips. Likewise, if you can’t extend your arms overhead, T-spine extensions will help you understand what body parts to focus on improving.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Here’s how to do thoracic extensions on a foam roller.

  1. Set up a foam roller on the ground. Sit on the ground in front of the foam roller with your knees bent and feet flat. Position the foam roller so that it makes contact with your mid-back when you lean backward.
  2. Cross your arms in front of your chest or behind your head to support your neck. 
  3. Slowly lean back until your back makes contact with the foam roller. Inhale here. 
  4. As you exhale, press your back into the foam roller and lean back slightly until you feel moderate pressure. Keep your navel tucked in and extend only your thoracic spine, not your lumbar spine.  
  5. Inhale and return to center. Complete 8 to 10 repetitions.

Common Mistakes

This complex stretch falls victim to many mistakes. Try to avoid these common T-spine extension mistakes when you try this stretch out.

Hyperextending the Lower Back 

Many people who try thoracic extensions grab a foam roller and just lean as far back as they can go, but they don’t realize their lumbar spine is doing most of the work—and reinforcing poor movement patterns while doing so. To properly do thoracic extensions, keep your lower back in a neutral position; don’t arch it. 

“Flaring” the Rib Cage

Likewise, the rib flare is a pretty common fault that occurs when people have limited T-spine mobility. When your rib cage protrudes, it means you don’t have control of your core. When doing thoracic extensions, act like you’re trying to achieve the hollow hold position: Envision drawing your rib cage in and down.

Hips Lifting off the Ground

If your hips lift off of the ground during thoracic extensions, you’re compensating for a lack of T-spine mobility. The goal with thoracic extensions is to extend your T-spine while leaving everything else in a neutral position, hips included. 

Too Much Range of Motion (ROM)

In the fitness industry, many coaches and trainers glamorize ROM. This is usually a good thing, as most people need to improve their ROM, but more is not always better. Thoracic ROM is actually pretty subtle compared to the ROM of other joints. Many people make the mistake of trying to push their ROM too far on thoracic extensions, which results in flared ribs or other technique flaws.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

If T-spine extensions on a foam roller feel too challenging—if it’s painful or you can’t maintain good technique—start with something simpler and with a smaller range of motion. Floor angels are a good place to start. Similar to wall angels, floor angels challenge your thoracic spine and reinforce core control.

To do floor angels, follow these steps:

  1. Lie face-up on the floor.
  2. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the ground. Press your back and hips into the ground.
  3. Position your arms so that your elbows make a straight line with your shoulders, and your fingers point toward your head (picture a football goal post).
  4. Slowly extend and lower your arms, mimicking an overhead pressing motion. Try to do this while keeping your back flat to the ground.

Up for a Challenge?

If you can safely perform T-spine extensions with good technique, you can place one or both arms over your head for an additional challenge.

Safety and Precautions

Thoracic extensions can hurt if you do them wrong. Keep these safety precautions in mind to maintain good technique and prevent injuries.

Keep Your Core Engaged

Always, always, always keep your core tight and engaged during T-spine extensions on a foam roller. A lack of core control will lead to reinforcement of poor movement patterns that put your spine in precarious positions. Your lumbar spine should remain neutral throughout the movement. 

Control Your Breathing

Believe it or not, your breathing technique can make or break the success of your T-spine extensions. Exhale as you extend your back and inhale as you sit up.

Perform Slow, Steady Reps

This is not an exercise you want to rush. For one, rushing may lead to poor technique, but more importantly, rushing through spinal extensions can lead to back pain or injuries in a worst-case scenario. 

By Amanda Capritto, ACE-CPT, INHC
Amanda Capritto, ACE-CPT, INHC, is an advocate for simple health and wellness. She writes about nutrition, exercise and overall well-being.