There’s always a lot of talk about what to do to ensure healthy shoulders when training the bench press, and it is relatively common knowledge that the health and mobility of the thoracic spine can have a dramatic impact on health at the shoulder joints.
The picture on the left is of me benching at the Beast of the Chrome and Steel in Bradford, PA during the summer of 2008. At that point in time I had always blamed the problems I had in my upper-back on my scoliosis and the stress that heavy squatting put on my spine. I failed to consider what holding 400 plus pounds in my hands every week for 8 to 12 weeks would do the joints in my t-spine. Captain Obvious couldn’t have saved me from my narrow view.
Thankfully, I have a brilliant girlfriend (that also happens to be in Chiropractic school). She is a lot smarter than I am and I should listen to her a lot more often than I do!
One day a few weeks ago I commented on how much better that my posture looked and felt. She said, “No shit, you haven’t benched for 4 months.” Que the light bulb!
Good benchers and coaches talk in terms of creating a platform with your upper-back to bench off of. It means to squeeze the scapulae back and down and to squeeze the lats tight to create a lot of tension in the upper-body, this helps to protect the shoulders as well as keep tighter form. All the tension created by making a back platform for benching helps to guard the t-spine, but it also can be a hindrance for thoracic mobility. Holding heavy loads directly above your chest tells your body to “lock” everything in your upper-back around your spine, limiting your thoracic range of motion and eventually affecting movement in other parts of your body. As a guy that has prepared for powerlifting competition for a little over a decade now, I can tell you that this stress compounds exponentially. All of a sudden, it’s harder to reach squat depth because your t-spine isn’t moving and your deadlift is affected because you aren’t getting the extension that you need.
I was talking about these ideas with one of my buddies this past weekend and he brought up the fact that the squat and the deadlift put a fair amount of stress on the t-spine as well. He’s definitely right. However, when you squat and deadlift the force of the load is absorbed by your core and leg musculature and transferred into the floor. While benching the predominance of the force is transferred through your arms and upper-back and into the bench. Also, the majority of the gym-going weightlifters bench far more often than they squat or deadlift. So, thinking of the t-spine in relation to the bench is much broader in that sense.
So, besides making your upper-back beastly in order to handle all the stress of pressing what else should we do to ensure that our t-spine keeps its health and mobility? Thoracic mobility drills! I’m sure you saw that coming, well, because it was pretty obvious (thanks Captain!).
There are a few strategies and drills that I like most for keeping the t-spine moving during heavy bench cycles. One I got from Tony Gentilcore while I was visiting Cressey Performance in April of this year. He has his clients do thoracic extension mobilizations on a bench in between their bench press sets. If you’ve never seen a thoracic extension mobilization on a bench, it looks like this:
I’m also a huge fan of the squat to stand with a reach because it forces you to put your spine in a neutral posture before rotating with your thoracics. It’s a great drill to finish off your mobility training with at the beginning of a bench training session. This video is also from Tony Gentilcore.
Of course, the staple thoracic mobility drils done in the quadruped and side-lying positions are also great. Be sure to add at least one thoracic mobility drill in each training day to keep your upper-back moving the way it should.
It’s also a good idea to take frequent trips to the Chiropractor if you have the means. Having your vertebrae realigned and reinforcing proper movement by doing mobility drills will go even farther in the battle to keep your thoracic spine healthy.