Washing your back in the shower or bath is one of those activities that you never think twice about — until it's suddenly difficult. If you're wondering "why can't I reach my back to wash it," or it just feels more challenging than it used to, that's a sign your back and shoulder mobility just isn't what it used to be.
It also means you need to practice reaching behind you more often, both in the shower and out, Phillip Higgins, DPT, a physical therapist who works with older adults at Bespoke Treatments in Seattle, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "You know what they say: If you don't use it, you lose it. The truth is, reaching all the way around to scrub your back is a legit mobility exercise in and of itself.
So if you can't wash your back with the vigor you want, here's are three things that might be going on — and how to increase your reach.
1. You Lack T-Spine Mobility
Washing your back requires mobility in your mid back, particularly your thoracic spine, Higgins explains. Your thoracic spine, also known as the T-spine, runs from the base of your neck to just where your lower back begins to curve.
It's the part of your spine that twists when you rotate your trunk. A healthy T-spine also bends forward and backward and side to side.
If you don't practice spinal rotation, you won't maintain this type of mobility as easily. Plus, if you're someone who sits at a computer for hours each day, you may spend a lot of time with your upper back in a rounded (read: hunched) position. This can make your T-spine really tight, making it hard for you to reach back and touch the spot in between your shoulder blades.
Add some T-spine mobility drills, like the T-spine rotation, to your day. You can do them during a warm-up and/or cooldown or simply drop down and twist it out mid-afternoon to keep your spine feeling loose.
- Get on your hands and knees, with your hands directly beneath your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips.
- Keep your hips level and place your right hand behind your head.
- Brace your abs as if you were about to be punched.
- 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.
- Then raise your right elbow toward the ceiling by twisting your head and upper back up and to the right as far as possible.
- Repeat, then place your left hand behind your head and twist to the right.
Supine Spinal Twist
- Lie on your right side, knees in front of your torso, stacked and bent at 90 degrees. Extend your arms on the floor with your left arm stacked on top of your right.
- Slowly open your chest and bring your left arm up and over to the left side as you rotate your mid-back. Keep your knees stacked, and stop rotating when you get to the point that your lower back wants to bend.
- Reverse the motion to bring your arms back together.
- Continue this movement for one to two minutes. Repeat on the other side.
2. You Have Low Shoulder Mobility
When we think about the shoulder, we think about the glenohumeral joint, which is the ball-in-socket joint where the arm connects to the shoulder, Higgins says. "But so much more about the shoulder and how it moves has to do with how the shoulder blade interacts with the upper ribcage and the thoracic spine."
The scapulothoracic joint, which is where the shoulder blade meets the upper ribcage, also needs to be strong and mobile for you to move your arms and shoulders comfortably. This, in addition to mobility in the shoulder's glenohumeral joint, is necessary for uninhibited arm movement — including reaching the middle of your back.
Lack of mobility in the shoulder joint, shoulder blades or thoracic spine can also lead you to overcompensate with the most mobile of the three, Higgins says, leading to injury.
To keep your shoulder moving throughout its entire range of motion, focus on mobility exercises that include reaching overhead.
You should also make sure you're strengthening this area — with exercises like bent-over rows and even planks — to promote shoulder stability, which will help the shoulder blades stay strong and locked in place when you do upper-body movements.
- Stand against a wall with your feet hip-width apart and a small bend in your knees.
- Tuck your tailbone to press your lower back as close to the wall as possible, and tuck your chin.
- Bring your elbows out to your sides in line with your shoulders, elbows bent to 90 degrees, and the backs of your hands facing away from the wall. All should be in contact with the wall.
- Keeping your hips, back, head, and arms against the wall, slide your arms up the wall as far as comfortable.
- Pause, then reverse the motion to return to the starting position.
- Lie face-down on the floor. Tuck your chin and pelvis slightly to create a neutral spine. Put your feet together.
- Extend your arms overhead and to the sides at 45 degrees to create a Y shape with your body. Situate your hands with your thumbs pointing up, palms facing each other.
- Keeping your head and torso still, squeeze your shoulder blades together so that both arms raise off of the floor.
- Pause, then lower your arms back to the floor and repeat.
Side-Lying External Rotation
- Lie on one side with your top elbow bent, palm resting on your stomach, holding a light dumbbell.
- Pull your shoulder blade back and down.
- Keeping your shoulder blade set and elbow bent, lift your palm away from your abdomen until it's parallel to the floor.
- Pause, then slowly lower the weight to start.
- Do all reps, then switch sides.
3. Your Shoulders and Chest Are Tight
If the front of your shoulder and pec muscles are tight, it can be difficult to rotate your shoulder and reach back without feeling an uncomfortable pull in the front of your body.
This front-body tightness can happen when you sit in a rounded position for long periods of time. The muscles sit in a shortened position and also weaken when they're not being engaged or challenged enough, Higgins says. Shoulder and chest tightness can also happen if you don't balance out pushing and pulling exercises.
No matter the cause, the end result can be limited shoulder movement.
Stretch that chest! Here are two great exercises to open up the pec muscles and the front of the shoulders.
Doorway Pec Stretch
- Start by standing in a doorway.
- Raise your right arm out to the side, elbow in line with the shoulder.
- Keeping the elbow in place, press your inner forearm and palm against the side of the doorway.
- Holding the arm here, step forward on your left foot and lean your chest forward.
- Hold here for 30 seconds.
- Repeat this move on each side.
Shoulder Dislocates Exercise
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes facing forward. Hold a broomstick or PVC pipe in front of your thighs with your hands about a foot wider than hip-width apart.
- Squeeze your butt and brace your core throughout the movement to prevent bending your lower spine.
- Keeping your arms straight and chest proud, lift the stick in an arc in front of your body and above your head, then rotate the stick behind you.
- If the bar or your elbows start to bend, stop the movement at your end range and hold the stretch, then return to the starting position.
- If you can move the bar and your arms without bending, continue rotating the stick all the way around until it touches your butt or the back of your thighs (depending on the length of your arms and the width of your grip on the stick).
- With straight arms, pull the stick back up overhead and in front of you, returning to the starting position.