8 Thoracic Extension Exercises

I got a new article published on TNation today on thoracic extensor exercises. Here’s the intro:

upper back

When it comes to squatting and deadlifting strength, the thoracic extensors play an even greater role in stabilizing the spine than the abdominals. And while many lifters perform accessory movements for the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteals, and abs, most lifters don’t do any accessory work for the erector spinae. That’s a mistake.

For years powerlifting experts such as Louie Simmons and Dave Tate have stressed the importance of targeting the erector spinae, especially when it’s an inherent weak link for the lifter, but until now we haven’t had any research to back up their methods.

A recent study by Fisher et al. showed that performing the Romanian deadlift (RDL) didn’t improve lumbar extension torque, but lumbar extension training was found to improve both RDL performance and lumbar extension torque.

This shows that performing isolation movements for the spine can directly improve deadlifting performance. According to Hamlyn et al., the lumbar erectors fire harder during squats than deadlifts, but the thoracic erectors fire harder during deadlifts than squats.

Needless to say, both the lumbar and thoracic spine need to be incredibly strong to hold the pelvis in place and prevent the spine from buckling during heavy squat, deadlift, and good morning variations.

Below are eight go-to-exercises for accessory erector work. When you perform thoracic extension exercises, it’s very important to do them properly. You want to move mostly at the thoracic spine and not so much at the lumbar spine.

While the lower back does flex slightly when performing thoracic extension exercises, trying to maintain a lumbar arch ensures that it doesn’t round excessively and that the vast majority of motion comes from the upper back. Moreover, the lower lumbar spine and pelvis will remain stabilized with any lumbar motion occurring in the upper lumbar spine.

A variety of barbell, safety squat bar, chain, kettlebell, band, and dumbbell exercises can all be used to develop upper back strength.

Here’s a video that shows how to do all of these movements, with descriptions to follow.

Click HERE to keep reading and see the exercise descriptions.

13 thoughts on “8 Thoracic Extension Exercises

  1. Jeff

    That was fun, considering how it is something I’ve always tried to avoid. The last time I had this feeling was when I started weight training, and deadlifting with a flexed thoracic and lumbar spine, excluding the lower back this time.

    Reply
  2. Sean Spaulding

    The lumbar and thoracic extensors should not be forgotten, however I question the seated good mornings and the safety bar good mornings that you demonstrated. Sitting itself imposes tremendous strain on the IVD, coupled with a load is a recipe for disaster. I like the the last 4 exercises in the video for building strength and endurance. I feel your low back went into a fair to good amount of lumbar flexion in that good morning, could be disaster for a lot of people who are flexion intolerant.

    I feel you should mention careful programming of these exercises during your workouts taking into account they should probably follow hinge/squat movements not before. I feel the take home of your post should be always check your weakest link and be sure your not leaving any body part behind. The back extensors are the weak link for most people during their squatting. Testing via a static back endurance test may be helpful particularly in comparison of flexion/extension strength ratios.

    Thanks for the blog post!

    Sean DC DACRB

    Reply
    1. Sean Spaulding

      I forgot to mention, the last 4 exercises work great and I do often, typically with superbands.

      Reply
    2. Bret Post author

      Hey Sean,

      I thought that I did that with this quote:

      “When you perform thoracic extension exercises, it’s very important to do them properly. You want to move mostly at the thoracic spine and not so much at the lumbar spine.

      While the lower back does flex slightly when performing thoracic extension exercises, trying to maintain a lumbar arch ensures that it doesn’t round excessively and that the vast majority of motion comes from the upper back. Moreover, the lower lumbar spine and pelvis will remain stabilized with any lumbar motion occurring in the upper lumbar spine.”

      Good call about the programming aspect and performing them following squats/deads.

      Reply
      1. Sean

        Hey Bret,

        You do mention yes, however your good morning is clearly loads of lumbar flexion.

        Maybe your average reader client isn’t a complete newbie, but I would venture to guess very few people understand the difference between hip flexion, lumbar flexion and thoracic flexion.

        Reply
        1. Bret Post author

          The seated gm or the standing gm? Sure I move into flexion, but I’m very in tune with my body and I’m definitely limiting the ROM and avoiding end-range. Probably using 50% of my available lumbar flexion ROM. It’s hard to tell when relying on “feel” or video analysis. In retrospect I could have spelled this out more but I didn’t want to get too technical and lose the readers. The cue “feel it in your upper back not your lower back” is usually pretty effective in this regard. Cheers!

          Reply
  3. Lukasz

    Great post of yours! People mostly write about lumbar part of erector spinae muscles but it very important to emphasize the role of upper part… Thx for your work!

    Reply
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  5. Jon

    Great article! You have to use other movements to strengthen the weak link. Don’t use tbe lift to build the lift, Credit to Louie Simmons and Dave Tate. You are bringing smart training to the masses. You have made a huge impact keep it up. I paid to talk to you 3 or more years ago. Worth every penny. Take care

    Reply
  6. Ryan Hattaway

    Great article! I agree with you that spinal extension can be a missing link in programming. I do have a question though: could the lumbar erectors be trained for extension if the weight was kept light enough. For instance, I saw a Glenn Pendlay video in which he demonstrates a variant of back extension in which he keeps the hips fixed and allows the spine to flex and extend. I should note that the hip pad is rounded so that the lower abdomen is supported as well. What do you think about the safety of this?

    Here is a link to the video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdmI5Ex8HMw

    Thanks Bret!

    Reply
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