Mobility for Rowers, Part 1: The Thoracic Spine

Will Ruth

Main Takeaways

  1. With its unique demands as a seated sport, rowing requires an aggressive mobility regimen to avoid decreased performance, pain, and injury.

  2. Learn how to effectively target these problem areas with a combination of self-manual therapy, dynamic stretching, and static stretching for improved performance and longevity in the sport.

Part 1: The Thoracic Spine

Part 2: The Hip Flexors

Part 3: The Glutes

Part 4: The Ankles

For most athletes, practicing and competing in their sport is a daily break from the usual routine of sitting necessitated by the lifestyle of a student or desk-bound employee, but not so for rowers. While mobility work is important for all athletes, without dedicated attention to specific target areas, rowers can develop severe mobility restrictions that can decrease performance and lead to both short-term and long-term pain or injury.

First, we should understand broadly what “tightness” is and why mobility becomes restricted. “Tightness” has less to do with the structure of a muscle, and more to do with nervous system feedback, as very few people have muscles that are inherently too short for their skeletons. True structural problems in muscles occur when a muscle is torn or artificially kept in a shortened position for an extreme amount of time, such as an arm kept in a sling for 6-8 weeks. Instead, when someone says, “my _____ is tight,” what they likely mean is, “my nervous system recognizes my instability in a fully stretched position and will not allow me to reach that point.” This article provides more information on neural inhibition, trigger points, and flexibility if you are interested in greater detail.

The important takeaway is that end-limit flexibility is not the be-all-end-all to the mobility issue. Pure flexibility does not necessarily equate to stability, which is often the real reason movement is restricted. If you cannot support or stabilize yourself in a given position, the nervous system will continue to restrict range of motion to keep you out of that position. You also need to gain strength and stability in those flexible positions, or your flexibility on the yoga mat won’t carry over to the boat. This is done with strength training and disciplined attention to technique in the boat. Every flawed stroke pulled is another that needs to be un-done and corrected before a new motor pattern can take place. Steady state rowing and erg training is a great way to train for postural and technique improvements at lower intensities. Simply row or erg until your form breaks down, rest, do some of the mobility work, and then do it again. Changing a technique or habit is painstaking, but well worth it to achieve greater performance, longevity in the sport, and decreased chance of injury.

Many rowers have mobility problems that restrict their ability to fully compress in the catch position or to get adequate torso angle and reach on the recovery. Rowers who bend excessively at the lumbar spine, round excessively in the mid and upper back (hunchback posture), or lose control at the catch resulting in inconsistent blade placement are common exhibits of mobility restrictions.

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Today’s Guest: The Thoracic Spine

Each article in this series will detail a different target area where rowers are particularly susceptible to mobility restrictions that decrease both short and long-term performance as well as health.

Restriction: Thoracic spine

Location: Mid back, vertebra T12 to T1

Muscles: The Thoracic spine includes the scapular muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres major/minor), posterior deltoid, rhomboids, lower/middle trapezius, and latissimus dorsi muscles.

Test: Easy thoracic spine mobility test. If you can’t maintain contact between your hand and low back while reaching overhead with the other arm (keep it straight), there is a restriction.

Rowing fault: Hunchback posture, inconsistent handle heights, over-reaching at the catch.

Explanation: Restriction of these muscles most often displays as a rounded upper back, referred to as thoracic kyphosis or hunchback posture. The inability to reach thoracic extension or maintain a neutral thoracic spine under load causes uneven handle heights and difficulty with a “soft hands” approach at the catch, as rowers will naturally round further at the catch, making it more difficult to smoothly place the blade in the water. This also may look like overreaching, but it is really just what the rower perceives as a neutral spine because neutrality feels like extension to them. Finally, hunchback posture puts great stress on the anterior side of the spine, compressing discs and possibly causing damage to the thoracic vertebrae, especially when under load.

Watch the Video

The Fix

Start by foam rolling broadly over the mid back. Do not roll on the lumbar spine or the neck. Roll both up and down the middle of the back as well as on the sides of the back, by the latissimus dorsi. After a few broad strokes up and down the back, begin at the bottom of the mid back and hinge up and down over the foam roller, moving up one vertebra at a time. Remember to not do this on the lower back or upper back. Further self-manual release work can be done with a lacrosse or tennis ball if you find one particular spot of tightness, commonly referred to as a trigger point. “The Peanut” is of great use for self-manual therapy on the thoracic muscles, as is a Theracane in my personal experience. With any specific trigger point work, take special care to avoid rolling directly over vertebrae or bones, as this will cause pain. Once you have worked through the thoracic spine, move on to the stretching shown in the video [timestamp 1:43].

Strength Training

The strict overhead press, face pull, Y-W-T raisepull-up, and front squat will improve the strength and postural endurance of the scapular and postural muscles of the mid back and shoulder region. The Sotts Press is also a useful activation and strengthening exercise, as seen in the mobility video. Strict attention to form to keep shoulder blades depressed and externally rotated, also referred to as “packed” or “back and down,” is essential.

In order to enact significant, lasting change, a dedicated comprehensive program that involves all modalities is critical. I recommend focusing on one problem area at a time, at least one 10-15 minute session per day. Spending 20 minutes a day working on mobility for 2-3 weeks while watching a TV show, for instance, is a great way to progress toward full function. Foam roll, perform self-manual release on specific trigger points, and stretch, then make sure to perform additional strengthening exercises while implementing proper form into your rowing and erging training. Also, be cognizant of posture throughout the day. Many times, those with thoracic restrictions will spend much of the day hunched over. Once full function is achieved, daily maintenance is simply performing daily activities from that now-strong position that your body can now adopt as normal positions.

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