Cat/Cows: Improve Your Thoracic Mobility

Todd Sabol, MS, AT


Spinal mobility and spinal control play an integral role in our daily lives. They affect how we sit in the car, how our posture is at our desk or how we stand when we are in a 30 minute line at the grocery store. They play an equally important role in our athletic lives. They affect how much arch we can get in our bench setup, how much our back rounds during a squat or good mornings, or just in general how much pain we are in. The spinal column has 33 total vertebrae and is split up into five sections, the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral and coccygeal segments, each having their own responsibility in terms of movement. With the spine being the center of skeletal support, we rely on it for structure in every movement we do. The thoracic spine is the biggest individual section of the spinal column with 12 vertebrae. It is designed to help provide protection to the spinal cord and provide structure to the ribs. One thing that I have noticed, not only within my own training, but also in the vast majority of other athletes who train is poor mobility and control of the thoracic spine, or “midback” area. Many patients I work with, or guys I know at the gym, suffer from that mid back pain, right inside the shoulder blade, sound familiar?

The pain and discomfort we feel in those areas is typically caused from a combination of poor neuromuscular control and poor mobility of the thoracic spine. Proper control of this segment of the spinal column is vital during many of our common movements in the gym. A weak and poorly mobilized thoracic spine will cause your back to round, during movements like deadlift, front squat or bent over row for example, and additionally in terms of your posture it won’t allow you to maintain a stable neutral spine throughout the day.

This thoracic spine mobility movement called Cat/Cows will start with you in a quadruped position. From there you will start by extending your trunk by engaging your midback musculature. This will cause a caving in of the low back and a stretching feeling in your abdominal region. You want to keep a neutral cervical spine and not be looking way up in the air, because you can develop neck pain overtime. Once you have held this position for 1-2 seconds you will then reverse the motion and engage in flexion of the thoracic spine. Hold this position for another 1-2 seconds and repeat both directions 12-15 times. When you are trying to maximize the flexion during this portion of the movement, you can cue yourself to make sure you are flexing your abs actively, in addition to pushing your palms into the ground. This will ensure you are getting the most active thoracic flexion that you can. You want to make sure you are not initiating the movement from your lumbar spine, but that you are beginning the movement by activating the mid and upper back musculature. If you need an external cue to help you do this, add a mini band around your midback, and use that feedback to push into the band. This will help mobilize your spine in two efficient positions and allow you to obtain more neuromuscular control. This is a very simple movement but can be extremely effective for low back pain or inefficient posterior control of your body. You need to make sure that if you are struggling with back pain currently and you want to add this into your warmup, routine, etc, that you perform it in a pain free range of motion at first. If you have any questions about this or anything else spinal mobility related please reach out and always remember to #HealByMoving.