Move That Mid-Back to Save Your Neck and Low Back

I know I know.  You are probably sick of me talking about the thoracic spine, but I can’t help myself.  A few months back, I talked about the thoracic spine in my post “Exercises for a Tight Neck and Shoulders“.  Today, I want to dive a little deeper and talk about the whole spine and the importance of movement and fluidity especially in the thoracic spine.

For an array of reasons, your spine needs to move fluidly.  Proper movement in your spine not only allows you to move properly and avoid injury, but it also helps nourish the discs in your spine and move cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to and from your brain.  Today, due to high levels of stress, constant sitting, and working on computers, our spines do not get a lot of chances to move forward, back, side-to-side, and in rotation.  The place this shows up the most, is in the thoracic spine.

The thoracic spine is the the middle portion of your spine.  The spine should move like a snake – flexible but strong.  Imagine you are holding a snake (I know it’s gross, but it’s just pretend), if you hold onto the center of the snake, his head and tail are going to move like crazy!  The same thing happens to your back.  When we lose movement in our thoracic spines, our necks and low backs become hyper-mobile.  This excess of movement puts huge forces on our vulnerable discs and vertebrae and can lead to muscle soreness, nerve pain, and bulging discs.

So, now that I have scared you into moving your spine (I am totally proud of that by the way), let’s give you something you can actually use to help yourself.  Below you will find videos to move your thoracic spine in 3 different ways – flexion and extension, lateral movement, and rotation.  Do the whole set or pick one from each movement and get your mid-back moving!

Thoracic Mobilization – Flexion/Extension

Thoracic Mobilization – Lateral Shift

Thoracic Mobilization – Rotation

Sore Knees? Try These.

Knee pain.  It has happened to most of us.  1/3 of Americans will experience knee pain at some point in their lives.  It is the 2nd most common cause of chronic pain and new reports show it is affecting more people each year.  So, if you are experiencing a “twinge” or maybe a “tweak” in your knees, it is time to take some action before bigger issues occur.

The greatest cause of knee pain is, by far, poor body mechanics and poor mechanics are  typically caused by a lack of mobility  which leads to a lack of strength.  For example, due to prolonged sitting, a lot of people experience a tightness in the front of their hips.  This tightness in the front of the hips leads to decreased strength in the back of the leg (glutes and hamstrings), which decreases the support in the back of the knee.  Without the support and strength in the back of the knee (posterior), force traveling through the knee joint is pushed into the front of the knee (anterior) and causes pain across the front of the kneecap (commonly called “Runner’s Knee”).  This is not the only cause of knee soreness, but it is definitely one of the most common.

The knee joint is where the femur (thigh bone) and the tibia (shin bone) come together. All 4 muscles of the quadriceps come together to form the patellar tendon which starts at the top of the knee joint, adheres to the patella as it crosses the anterior (front) of the joint until in attaches at the tibia below.  The patellar tendon lies within a grooved-out notch the allows you to bend and straighten your knee without irritation.  A lot of knee pain is caused when the alignment of the patellar tendon and this specially made notch go out of whack.

The inside of your knees is referred to as the medial side and the outside of your knees is known as the lateral side.  Imbalances between these two sides can cause the patellar tendon the shift towards the stronger side.  For instance, if you have had an injury to your knee in the past, you may remember your therapist trying to get the inner-most muscle of the quadriceps to fire.  This needs to be strong, so that your patella does not start to track to the lateral side of the knee joint and cause you more pain.  If this imbalance continues, a person can start to feel tightness in the IT band and other soft tissue on the lateral side of the knee while also experiencing sharp pain on the medial side of the joint.  The knee has to be balanced side-to-side (medial to lateral) to stay pain-free and happy.

Imbalances front-to-back (anterior to posterior) are the usual cause of pain in the first example of our Runner’s Knee.  However, we also see in the example above, that imbalances medially to laterally can cause different, but equally annoying pain.  The routine below starts with releases of the most commonly tight areas of the hip and lower limb that may cause imbalances at the knee joint.  They are followed by exercises that strengthen the muscles that are commonly weak in people with knee pain.  This routine will not help everyone with knee soreness, but if you have been experiencing sore knees after activity or “tweaks” and “twinges”, this is a great place to start.  Even if you have not had knee pain, this routine will help your knees stay happy, healthy and pain-free.

Exercises For a Tight Neck and Shoulders

Do me a quick favor.  If you are reading this on your computer or your phone, take a quick second and press the top of your head towards to sky, make yourself as tall as possible, and level your chin.  Ok, now keep reading.  I would hate for my blog post about sore, cranky necks actually cause sore necks.  Nobody needs more pains in the neck.  Ok, I’ll stop…

In all seriousness, chronic stiff and sore necks and shoulders seems to be a thing people are just “putting up with” these days.  That feeling that you want to “pop” your neck or stretch it, or move it to release some tension.  We have all had it at one time.  If jobs and responsibilities allowed us to move more, allowed us to turn our heads to look at different things, allowed us to view things both up close and at a distance, allowed us to MOVE more, we could probably avoid it, but most of us don’t have that luxury.

So first, let’s understand your neck and shoulder pain.  For most people, the issue may not even start at the neck.  So all that pulling and popping and stretching you are doing up there, stop for a minute.  Most people’s necks are already hyper-mobile, the problem is not that they don’t move, but that they move too much.  You have probably heard of “Forward Head Posture”.  If you have it, your neck has moved a lot!  It is suppose to be sitting right on top of your shoulders, but you are able to move it way out in front!  Yes, that is sarcasm.

The position of your head sitting out in front of your shoulders acts as a big ol’ ball and chain on the muscles of the neck, the shoulders, and the upper back.  If you would like to understand it more, pick up something that weighs about 20lbs (kids, dogs, and bowling balls all work).  Now hold the weight close to your belly and feel the strain on your shoulder and back.  Not bad right?  Now straighten your arms and press it out in front of you about chest level.  Now we are talking.  Feel that pull on your shoulders, maybe a little twinge in your low back?  You neck pain is a product of the same mechanism.

There is a network of muscles that equally pull your neck forward, backward, and side-to-side.  When your head is forward, those muscles become off-balanced.  The muscles normally used to pull your head forward and down tend to get short and tight.  The muscles that normally pull your head back and up become long and stiff.  The side-to-side muscles don’t even know what to do, they are like children watching their parents argue.

The stiffness you normally feel in your neck and shoulders come from those muscles in the back that would normally pull your head back and up.  The most common response to these long, stiff muscles is to stretch them.  Here is the thing, they are already LONG.  They have been stretched day-in and day-out since your forward head posture started.  Stretching them will give you temporary relief, but it will not bring you any long-term benefits.  What we need to do is lengthen the deep muscles in the front of the neck as we strengthen the posterior muscles.

Ok, but why is your cervical spine moving so much?  Well, it is most likely because your thoracic spine is not moving at all.  Lack of fluidity in this mid-area of your back tends to make the segments above (neck) and below (low back pain anyone?) move too much.  This area tends to get stuck for a few reasons – excessive sitting, lack of core strength, tightness through the chest and diaphragm  – all of these can lead to stiffness in the thoracic spine.

So, when you start to address your neck pain, it is important for you to address the stiffness in your thoracic spine first.  If you only address your neck pain at the neck, it will come back time and time again.  The spine must move fluidly together, that is the basis of all good movement.

Below is a short exercise and stretching routine that will help you relieve your achy neck and shoulders.

*Please note – The exercises above are not medically prescribed.  Please check with your physician to check if the exercises are appropriate for you.

 

 

Suspension Training Workouts

Most of you have probably heard of or seen a suspension training system.  It looks  a little like something you might use to move furniture or ratchet down a kayak on the top of your car.  These straps may look a little silly, but this system is one of the most versatile pieces of workout equipment out there.

  • You can use it anywhere, and I mean anywhere!  I have looped it over tree branches, shut the anchor in hotel room doors, and I currently have one dangling from a machine at my studio.
  • It is portable and packable.  The straps weigh nothing and take up a small amount of space when you are packing them for a trip or putting them away when guests come over to your house.
  • You can do a high intensity interval workout (HIIT) using the suspension system.  Check out these routine ideas.
  • You can get a full-body workout done in 20 minutes.  There are so many ways to use this piece of equipment to exercise every part of the body.  Because it is bodyweight focused, your core is challenged during every move.

Try out the moves below to get a full-body routine done fast.  Do each move (or each side  if the exercise works one side at a time) for 45 seconds.  Rest for 15 seconds before moving to the next exercise (or side).  Finish all the exercises in the set, rest for 2 minutes, then repeat 2-5 times.

Also, please note the very adorable gym dog, Lily, sleeping away in the background.

Home Exercise Program for Knee Stability and Strength

Try this quick and easy at-home exercises to strengthen your hips, knees, and ankles. Help support the knee joint and prevent injury by bringing more mobility and stability to your hips.  Start with these 3 foam roller releases to get the legs moving correctly and then move into the 5 strength moves below to help bring stability to the knee joint and the lower kinetic chain.

Quad Rolling

IT Band Rolling

TFL/Hip Flexor Release

Hip Rotation

Bridge with Leg Raise

Dipping Bird

Squat

Long Lunge to Balance

 

5 Hip Openers for Better Movement

Tight hips have an impact on most of your movement, from how high you can step up, to how low you can squat down. Keeping your hips open and functional is an important piece to keeping you moving at your best, with more power and less pain.  Check out the quick video below  for 5 easy hip openers you can do before you head out for your next adventure.

  • Hip Flexor and Hamstring Rocker Stretch – This dynamic stretch helps open up the front of the hip flexor (think psoas, quads, etc.) and the posterior hip (think hamstrings, glutes, etc.). Make sure you keep you spine long and keep the stretch in the hips, not in the back. You can place a pillow under your knee if you feel discomfort at the kneecap.
  • Dynamic Butterfly Stretch – This is a “powered up” version of the traditional butterfly stretch. Make sure to keep the soles of your feet pressing together as you lift your hips so you engage your hamstrings and protect your low back.
  • Knee Dips – This move helps increase the range of motion in your hip rotation. Don’t push into a range where you feel pain in your knee. Keep a slight core engagement to help protect your back.
  • Hip Hikes – Warm up the muscles of the pelvis and lateral hip muscles with this gentle motion. Stay in a pain-free range and let your obliques (side abdominal muscles) help you “hike” the hip.
  • Pelvic Tilts – This gentle rocking motion can help relieve tension in the low back and encourage more range of motion through the pelvis.

New Strong Balance Class 2.0 Video Now Available Online

BUY NOW

This newest version of Strong Balance Class adds new exercises to challenge your core muscles and improve your posture in an express format. Lengthen your spine, strengthen your core, improve your balance, open your hips, and get a whole body workout that leaves you standing taller and feeling stronger. Class includes mobility and stretching exercises combined with functional and dynamic strength moves to increase coordination, agility, and overall power. Specific exercises are used to correct common postural deficiencies to help relieve pain or stiffness in the neck, back, and knees. The class is designed to strengthen you in ways that decrease stress on the joints and the spine, and we use a smart work-to-rest ratio to keep inflammation within your body to a minimum. The Strong Balance Class creates balance and symmetry in your body, instead of just pushing you through a hard workout. Our class helps decrease your chance of injury and sickness, establishes long lasting lifestyle changes, and promotes a functionally strong body.

Getting Started – Foundational Movement Exercises

Congratulations!  You have decided to start exercising and getting in shape.  Before you decide to go from zero to hero, make sure your body is ready.  If you haven’t seen the inside of the gym in a while or have to ask the person next to you how to operate the cardio equipment, please go over the moves below to keep yourself injury-free and set yourself up to accomplish your long-term goals.

The exercises below build a foundation of movement.  They “prep” your body by activating important stabilizing muscles that help protect you against back pain, shoulder injury, knee pain, and more.  They also help improve range of motion in your body so your are able to move through your squat, pull, or lunge with fluidity and grace.  Do this routine as a warm-up to get your body in a good space to work hard or as a full workout at home.

Remember, consistency beats intensity.  Exercise at a level you know you can maintain through the whole year, not a pace that makes you so sore you have a hard time sitting on the toilet the next day.