How to Do the T-Spine Rotation to Stretch Your Back and Relieve Tight Shoulders

illustration of a man demonstrating the quadruped t-spine rotation stretch
The T-spine rotation stretch enhances your thoracic spine mobility while correcting your posture. Here's how to do it.
Image Credit: LIVESTRONG.com Creative

Even if you've never heard of your T-spine, you've probably felt the need to stretch it. Your T-spine (short for the thoracic spine) runs from your neck to your mid back and connects to your rib cage — and it's the source of that all-too-common upper-back tightness and stiffness after hunching over a computer all day.

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If that sounds familiar, the T-spine rotation might be your new favorite exercise. It stretches this entire area, improving your upper-back mobility and posture.

  • What is the T-spine rotation stretch?​ This mobility exercise stretches your middle and upper back and is usually performed in the quadruped position (on your hands and knees).
  • What is T-spine mobility?​ Your T-spine is designed to open up or close your chest and allows your torso to twist and bend from side to side.
  • Who can do the T-spine rotation?​ People of all fitness levels benefit from doing this exercise for increasing middle and upper-back mobility. But if you're not able to get on your hands and knees in a quadruped position, you can do this exercise on a chair (see below).

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How to Do the T-Spine Rotation With Perfect Form

T-Spine Rotation

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Body Part Back
  1. Get on your hands and knees, with your hands directly beneath your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips.
  2. Keep your hips level and place your right hand behind your head.
  3. Brace your abs as if you were about to be punched.
  4. Keeping your core braced, rotate your middle and upper back down and to the left so that your right elbow is pointed down and to the left.
  5. Then raise your right elbow toward the ceiling by twisting your head and upper back up and to the right as far as possible.
  6. Repeat, then place your left hand behind your head and twist to the right.

Watch the Full Tutorial

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4 T-Spine Rotation Benefits

1. It Helps Prevent Lower Back and Neck Pain

Because your thoracic spine is a mobile joint, it means it can twist and hinge. However, if your thoracic spine isn't as mobile as it should be, your lumbar spine — aka your lower back — picks up the slack. The big difference is that your lumbar spine isn't designed to twist, so when it's forced to, it can lead to pain and injury.

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Fortunately, doing T-spine twists help keep your neck, middle and upper back mobile by opening up your chest. When your T spine is mobile, you won't rely on your lower back to carry out everyday activities that involve twisting.

Limited thoracic spine mobility is also associated with neck pain, according to an October 2019 study in Asian Spine Journal, but doing quadruped T-spine rotations can help ease tension in this area by turning your neck from side to side.

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2. It Increases Shoulder Mobility

Thoracic spine mobility is important because it connects to so many other parts of the body, including your shoulders.

In fact, low thoracic spine mobility is associated with poor shoulder mobility, according to an October 2012 study in the ​Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy.​ That means it can make exercises like the overhead press impossible.

But increasing your thoracic spine mobility, which in turn, enhances your shoulder mobility, is one of the many quadruped T-spine rotation benefits. When doing this exercise, you practice twisting using your thoracic spine instead of your lower back, expanding the mobility of your T-spine and shoulders.

3. It Improves Posture

When you have a forward head posture, your chin juts forward so that your head sits in front of your spine. This can result in neck and upper back pain.

Thoracic kyphosis, a condition where your shoulders and spine are rounded forward, is associated with forward head posture, according to an October 2019 research review published in the ​Asian Spine Journal​.

When you have thoracic kyphosis, the muscles in your spine are stretched while the muscles in the front of your body are shortened, pulling your shoulders and chest forward.

But doing the quadruped T-spine rotation can loosen up your shortened chest muscles that contribute to kyhposis. As you twist and point your elbow toward the ceiling, your pecs are stretched and opened.

4. It Can Undo Damage From Sitting

In a May 2018 study in BMJ Open, students who sat for seven or more hours and engaged in less than 150 minutes of activity per week were more likely to have limited thoracic mobility.

In addition to just moving more, adding the T-spine rotation stretch could improve your thoracic spine mobility.

3 Tips to Get the Most from T-Spine Rotations

1. Stack Your Joints

Place your hands directly beneath your shoulders, and your knees directly below your hips. This will create a stable base of support so you can focus on twisting.

Setting your knees farther behind your hips or your hands more forward than your shoulders can make your core fire prematurely — like in a plank. This can create more of an ab challenge and takes away from the thoracic twist — which is your main motive for exercise.

2. Brace Your Core

Keeping your abs tight throughout the exercise ensures that you're twisting through your thoracic spine and not in your lower back. Before you start the move, brace your abs as if you were about to take a punch in the gut and hold this brace for the entire exercise.

3. Stick With a Comfortable Range of Motion

When opening your chest as you twist, you may be able to have your elbow completely pointing at the ceiling or it may only come up to be parallel with the floor — both are twisting with full range.

Be sure to work within your own range of motion and twist only as much as you can. Stop the movement if you start to feel the twist in your lower back.

You also want to move slowly and with control as you do this exercise so you can truly feel the twist in your middle and upper back.

2 T-Spine Rotation Variations

Move 1: Seated T-Spine Rotation

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Body Part Back
  1. Sit tall on the edge of a chair with your feet flat on the floor and knees bent at 90 degrees.
  2. Place your hands behind your head in a “prisoner” position.
  3. Pretend your left elbow is the spout of a tea kettle or coffee pot. Keeping your torso upright, tilt your upper body to the left, then straighten back up.
  4. Now gently twist to the left until you feel a bit of resistance in your twist. Stop and tilt to the left.
  5. Straighten back up and continue to twist and tilt to the left. You should be able to twist further to the left with each rep.
  6. Repeat on your right side.

If you have trouble getting onto your hands and knees, this seated variation allows you to work on your T-spine mobility. It’s also great to do at your desk since long periods of sitting can reduce thoracic mobility.

Move 2: Side-Lying T-Spine Rotation

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Body Part Back
  1. Lie on your right side on the floor with your hips and knees stacked and bent at 90 degrees. Your arms should be straight out in front of you with your hands together.
  2. Keep your bottom arm and both legs in this position. Open up your chest and rotate your torso to the left, bringing your left arm up and over to the other side of the floor. In this position, your upper body will form a “T” shape. If you can't get into this position, you can place a blanket or block where your top arm will land to reduce the overall stretch.
  3. Hold the “T” for a few seconds, then return to the starting position.
  4. Repeat for a few repetitions, then switch sides and repeat.

To keep your hips square in this side-lying modification, place a pillow or a rolled-up blanket between your knees as you lie on your side.

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