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Thoracic Mobility for Olympic Weightlifting
Greg Everett

Most of you have discovered that a solid overhead position for the snatch and jerk requires good thoracic spine mobility to create a platform for shoulder mobility and stability. We also need some T-spine mobility to create an optimal back arch when pulling snatches and cleans.

T-spine mobility can be stubborn, and you need to address both mobility of the spine and the strength and stamina to maintain the position you want. Here’s what I’ve found to be most helpful. You can add all of these exercises to your warm-up and cool-down, except the dumbbell extensions-keep those to 2-3 days/week at the end of your workouts.

You can’t expect a few minutes a day of mobility work to overcome a lifetime of hunching around like a slob 12 hours a day.

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 (T/L) junction.
 

In all T-spine stretches and exercises, avoid hinging at the T/L junction or excessively arching the lumbar spine.
 
 
Foam Rolling
 
Foam rolling is a simple but effective tool for getting some movement in the T-spine, but it needs to be done correctly to be effective. Hold your trunk in an approximately straight line from pelvis to shoulders as you roll. Don’t arch over the roller—most of the movement you’ll get from this is hinging at the T/L junction rather than actual extension of the T-spine, meaning it will reinforce the problem more than solve it.
 
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 work toward holding them overhead, but again, resist the temptation to arch over the roller.
 
 
Leaning Bar Hang
 
The leaning bar hang is a way to get some traction on the T-spine while also stretching the shoulder girdle and lats. 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, just let gravity do most of the work. Maintain some tension in your abs to avoid hinging at the T/L junction or over-arching your lower back.
 
 
Quadruped T-Spine Rotation
 
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 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.
 
 
Partner T-spine Mobilization
 
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 arms 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. This should not be painful—don’t let them push excessively hard. Think of this similarly to T-spine foam rolling in which the goal is to just get the vertebrae moving independently of each other.
 
 
Clean-Grip Overhead Squat
 
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 because the point is using T-spine extension to make up for imperfect mobility elsewhere.
 
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 head and shoulders 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 day.
 
If your lower body is very 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.

You can do these in sets of 5-10 reps.
 
 
Dumbbell Back Extension
 
The dumbbell back extension is a simple and quick exercise to help strengthen and support 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. Do these in sets of 10-20 reps and keep the weight to what allows you to fully extend and pause.


Behind the Neck Pressing & Push Pressing
 
I’m a fan of pressing from behind the neck despite of all the fear-mongering. However, you do have to have a certain baseline of T-spine and shoulder mobility before doing it. My rule is pretty simple—if you can’t press smoothly (this means not ramming the bar into the base of your skull, for example) and without pain, you’re not ready for behind the neck work. Once you are, it will help improve both mobility and strength for T-spine extension.
 
 
Posture
 
Finally, stand and sit up straight! You can’t expect a few minutes a day of mobility work to overcome a lifetime of hunching around like a slob 12 hours a day.
 
Rather than trying to arch the upper back, imagine stretching it upward to elongate your trunk. Yes, your muscles will fatigue and it’ll be tough initially, but that’s how all training works. Stick with it consistently and you’ll see improvement.
 
 
Time & Frequency
 
As with all issues of mobility in weightlifting, continuing to perform weightlifting exercises with the best positions and range of motion you can manage in your present state is arguably the best way to improve sport-specific mobility. Remember that accumulated time and frequency are keys to mobility improvement—in other words, use pauses and slower movements when and where you can, and do all of your movements and additional mobility work as many times per day and week as you can manage.

 


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Greg Everett is the owner of Catalyst Athletics, coach of the USA Weightlifting National Champion team Catalyst Athletics, author of the books Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches and Olympic Weightlifting for Sports, director/writer/producer/editor/everything of the documentary American Weightlifting, co-host of the Weightlifting Life Podcast, and publisher of The Performance Menu journal. He is an Olympic Trials coach, coach of over 30 senior national level or higher lifters, including national medalists, national champion and national record holder; as an athlete, he is a fifth-place finisher at the USAW National Championships, masters national champion, masters American Open champion, and masters American record holder in the clean & jerk. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, and sign up for his free newsletter here.

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