I have a desk job and I notice quite a bit of stiffness around the upper spine. I remember hearing in an episode of Barbell Shrugged that the number one reason people end up in nursing homes is loss of thoracic spine mobility (because they can no longer clean up after using the restroom). Of course I'd like to avoid that, but I'd also like to increase the mobility and strength in that area, and hopefully combat the stiffness.

For mobility, I do upper-spine foam rolling for stretching, and also some spinal rotation stretches, but I imagine having stronger surrounding musculature would improve the situation. For strength training, I do deadlifts occasionally, and squats and cleans frequently, but I'm not sure if there's something else I could add to my routine to improve on the thoracic area of the spine. Any recommendations?

  • In addition to the answers below, I like weight plate rotations. It can work the upper spine in all possible ways (from flexion to rotation to side bending to extension, and back).
    – BKE
    Apr 27, 2014 at 9:56

3 Answers 3


Foam rolling and streching is a good beginning, but strengthening the back can go a long way to reducing discomfort/pain in the back area.

For the thoracic spine, you'd want to strengthen your middle/upper back. Some exercises that would help in doing so are:

  • Chest Supported Rows: Work the Serratus Anterior, Lower Trapezius and Latissimus dorsi. Probably the go-to exercise for upper back stability. Proper form is very important, though, else you'll do more harm than good.
  • Pull Ups: Another exercise that works most of the back muscles, especially the Latissiumus Dorsi. If you don't want to row, this is the next best thing.
  • Deadlift: Mostly works quads, but also the lower and upper back. More of an allround exercise, but still very useful for building back musculature.

The above are not mutually exclusive, of course, so you can do all of those on a back day, should you plan on having one. Recommended order would be Deadlift -> Rows -> Pull Ups.

In any case, form is the key. You can really mess up your back if you do these with bad form. An instructor would probably be advisable, but most people won't have access to one.

Another thing you'd want to consider is muscular balance. I had (and still have) some back problems, which got a good bit better once I started adding dedicated ab exercises. The heightened core tension seems to stabilize my spine where my back can not, so you might want to work on core stability too (planks, reverse crunches etc.).


You might want to try dumbbell pull overs as they work the serratus muscles

  • Thanks for the suggestion. I can see how that would help. I'll give them a shot!
    – Daniel
    Apr 22, 2014 at 17:04
  • 1
    Not a big fan of one-liners. Would have been better as a comment.
    – user8119
    Apr 25, 2014 at 13:37
  • Funny, Doc was ok with it.
    – rrirower
    Apr 25, 2014 at 13:44

Larissa's answer covers almost all of the bases, however in addition if you are concerned about thoracic strength, I'd recommend shoulder depressions.

Unfortunately, they don't have a dedicated page on ExRx, however they are mentioned under the Scapula articulations page. While people often work out their upper and middle trapezius, the lower fibers are a deeper, less aesthetic, muscle and are often underworked.

Where the upper trapezius is used in raising the shoulders, the lower is used in pulling them lower, as shown in the image below:

enter image description here

In essence, you can work these out by mounting a dip bar as shown, keeping the arms locked lowering the body and concentrating on raising the body again.

Alternatively, if you do chest or triceps dips you can focus on doing a complete range of motion and raising the body as high as possible before lowering back down.

  • 1
    Now that you mention it, I did stumble across scapula articulation, too. It seems I missinterpreted its relevance for back health, though. Thanks for pointing out that connection :)
    – user8119
    Apr 25, 2014 at 13:36

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