Today’s article is a guest post by Derrick Blanton. I like the way Derrick thinks. Those of you who have delved into my glute stuff have undoubtedly noticed a sensation in the glutes that persists for a couple of months when you first embark on the training methods. You feel your glutes twitching and wanting to activate more, and you’re constantly aware of them throughout the day. My clients have told me this hundreds of times over, and I’ve personally noticed it as well. I don’t think Sports Science of Physical Therapy has a term for this phenomenon, but nevertheless it’s real. 

I recently started wearing a chain around my neck throughout my entire back extension workout (3 sets, separated by around 2 minutes of rest in between sets, for a total of around 7 minutes) and I noticed the exact same phenomenon in my t-spine. In addition, I found myself standing taller. This is what Derrick describes below, and I think it’s a valuable strategy for helping folks learn proper thoracic extensor activation during various movements. Here’s a video of me doing the heavy back extensions (I keep the 22lbs of chains on for 7 min), and below that is Derrick’s article. Give it a try for a few weeks if your t-spine is a weak link.

T-Spine Rx
by Derrick Blanton

This conversation will never happen:

“Hey dude, meet me at Gold’s, we’re gonna knock out some YTWL’s!  And get ready to bring the diesel this time!”

“Nah, broseph, I’m still trashed from those band pull aparts we did yesterday!  My rhomboids are screaming!”

(By the way, I don’t talk like this. Ahem.)

Let’s be honest.  Corrective exercises can be tedious and boring.  They are akin to “eat your brussel sprouts before you get to enjoy some ice cream”.

Does anyone really get amped to go crank out some “wall slides”?  I sure as shit don’t, and I’m guessing you don’t either.  Frankly, just watching the video demos alone make me want to put my head down and drool all over my computer.  This is why as much as possible, I try to build my correctives into my “regular” training protocol.

My thought process is, “You trained your way into the problem, now train your way out of the problem.”  Translation:  Stop benching so much, and start rowing every day with scapular control!

The reality is though, that often these odd little corrective exercises are necessary to get the ball rolling.  They are very useful, up to a fairly specific point.  Once you have activated the muscle group in question, it must be progressively loaded.  Consider strength the goal, and activation a prerequisite to reaching that goal.

As I see it, once identified, correcting weak links amounts to a three step general progression, with some obvious overlap:

Step 1.  Activate. Form a mind-muscle connection (MMC).

Step 2.  Progressively load the activation.

Step 3.  Incorporate the newly activated muscle group into a compound movement so it can pull its weight (literally) in more global type situations.

Let’s don’t make this unnecessarily complicated. You have a weak link.  You must identify and strengthen this weak link.

Thank you, and I’m accepting donations via PayPal.

Now, there are many different ways to get to Main Street, so I say travel them all, if necessary. One of the sneaky back routes that goes through the alley, and then cuts across a parking lot, is neuromuscular reactive training (NRT).  Essentially, this is loading the weak muscle into it’s dysfunctional position, while performing the desired compound movement, and forcing the weak link to battle out of it.  Probably the most popular example of this technique is wearing bands around the knees to correct valgus collapse during a SQ.

NRT is pretty cool because it helps you activate and strengthen your weak link while you perform the big rock moves, and is generally a lot more fun than doing isolated moves with low resistance.  This is not an either/or process.  It is a do both, prioritize what works process.

I have been playing around with a variation of this technique that focuses on the thoracic spine, a postural muscle group that we paradoxically also need to get crazy strong.  My experiment involves loading the kyphotic flaw for a meaningful length of time (say, 20-30-minutes), while simultaneously hitting selected basic training movements.

This is a bang for your buck corrective approach!  It grooves a stronger, more organized position on your basic lifts, and along the way does remarkable things for your T-spine strength and endurance.

Why the Thoracic Spine?

I’ve given this maybe too much thought.  But I think the T-spine may be the one, real deal area of the body that CANNOT be too strong.  You could make a decent case for the glutes too, and I probably wouldn’t argue too much.

But boy, the T-spine extensors, buttressed by the rhomboids and middle/lower traps, are critical to loaded torso alignment, during upper and lower body moves.  And when the T-extensors start really holding down their end of the bargain, the scapular controllers magically start functioning way more effectively.  Links in a chain.

Desk jockeys, and weight trainers alike can run into the relatively weak T-spine problem.  I say “relatively” because all muscles operate as links in a movement chain.  So the muscles’ strength and activation exist in relation to each other.

The office guys spend hours kyphotically slumped over a computer, and you just can’t lazily round over and protract the scaps all day and not have consequences.  Meanwhile, the strength trainer and athlete may have such powerful shortened lats and pecs pulling their scapulae and humeri forwards that their upper back is in a constant losing battle.  Just check out the gymnasts next time during the Olympics.  These guys are ridiculously strong, and their upper backs are invariably coiled forwards like a cobra, thanks to their enormous, inhumanly powerful lats.

So poor T-spine alignment and function can afflict pros and Joes alike.  Consider what a building a bulletproof T-spine can help you do:

  • DL more weight with less risk to your anterior shoulder, bicep tendon, and lumbar spine.
  • FSQ more weight, for more reps without dumping the bar
  • BSQ more weight, for more reps, and spare the lumbar spine
  • OHPR more weight, with better alignment, and less risk to your anterior shoulder…and lumbar spine.
  • Bench Press more weight, with a stronger, more stable platform to fire up from.
  • Curl more weight, because of a more stable “wall” to pull from.
  • Do pull ups without caving forwards and impinging your bicep tendon.
  • Row more without caving forwards and impinging your bicep tendon.

I could keep going, but I think you smell what I’m cooking here! And, unless your reading comprehension is seriously challenged, you are seeing a pattern:

When the T-spine is not strong enough, other muscle groups get put into awkward loaded positions.

First Things First: Improve Your Pelvic Positioning Using Your Glutes and Abs

In my view, there is not much point in even addressing the T-Spine until you have solid posture and bracing techniques from the hips and pelvis.  You are only building strength on a house of cards that will collapse under load.

If you are sagging into anterior pelvic tilt, with no abdominal strength, and no glutes, then you MUST correct this first to set the T-Spine up for success.  That’s a whole other article, so I’m going to assume that you already have gone through the plank and bridge phase in your training life, and are appropriately ready to focus on the T-spine.

I’m proposing that we need a multi-pronged attack on the upper back. The various twisting torso mobility type drills will certainly be helpful.  Seated good mornings are pure gold. And I like this banded GHR variation for additional T-spine work:

Band GHRThrow in a prone trap raise (Y), and it’s an upper back activation festival!

These are all effective exercises to launch the battle.  But let’s open up another front, and work in some extended time under tension (TUT) that persistently challenges the postural ‘normal’ of the T-spine.

Postural Time Under Tension

Implicit in the theory that kyphosis takes root due to desk time, or just generally lazy positioning, is that our body adopts a law of averages position.  To what extent this holds true makes for a fascinating, if difficult, variable to study.  But if it is basically true, then does it follow that 7-10 hours camped out at a desk or hunched over a steering wheel, can be corrected with a few sets of upper back good mornings, and some wall slides?  Even if you did these every day, your total time spent activating and strengthening would amount to an hour a week!  Versus 40-50 hours at the desk?

Perhaps for such a key postural area, more time spent in better posture, and more time spent grooving an extended position is necessary to hit the reset button.  I often look at older folk whose spine has curved into severe kyphosis, and wonder, “At what point could this have been prevented or stopped?” Sure some vertebral degeneration must occur which contributes heavily to kyphosis in the elderly, but I can’t help wonder if much of it could be prevented with sound training methods.

Likewise, I often ponder the little ways that our body is constantly adapting to stimuli.  More external rotation of the right foot due to driving.  Larger bicep on the non-dominant arm due to carrying stuff to free up the dominant hand to perform more dexterous tasks, and so forth.

When my son was a youngster, and we would go the amusement park, I would carry him around on my shoulders all day like a lot of parents do.  Unlike a front squat, “dumping the bar” is not an option with your child riding on your neck!

(Off the grid T-spine coaching cue: “Don’t let the child fall!”…Anyone?)

At the end of the day, my upper back into my neck was unbelievably tired and sore.  Perhaps you recall how exhausted your upper back was after engaging in swimming pool chicken fights with your tag team partner lodged on top of your shoulders (unstable training!).  What a challenge for your thoracic extensors to keep you from falling forwards!

Suppose that type of activity were the new normal?  The body is incredibly adaptable if you think about it!  Consider the 300-lb. bodybuilder, and the 100-lb. marathoner, the anorexic, and the morbidly obese person.  And it’s not just fitness adaptations.  I know a woman who started to develop a hump above her pelvis from perpetually carrying her young kids off to one side.  The adaptations are endless.

So it occurred to me that what we need is a supplemental form of “high volume, high TUT postural training”.  And there’s no reason why this can’t go on simultaneously with some good old fashioned, traditional strength training.  In other words, the fun stuff!

Be Like Mr. T!

So here’s the plan. Go to your local home improvement store, and buy a 2-3-ft long segment of heavy chain.  You are about to become a modern day Mr. T, wearing your chain like a necklace, and pitying the poor fool with the weak upper back.  The chain should weigh five pounds or so; get a carabiner so you can add weight plates as needed, and lock it up.

Now simply wear the chain for large chunks of your training time.  Add weight to it wherever necessary, and get used to (dare I say, adapt?) resisting a load pulling your neck and upper back forwards.  This can be done throughout your session, loading and unloading plates, and importantly while performing your regular strength training moves.  For example:

  • RDLs
  • Rows
  • Pull Ups – Just another form of adding load to movement.
  • Push Ups – Just another form of adding load, elevate the feet.
  • BSSs- Added load.
  • OHSQs – Very light, form practice to groove moving through the hips and spinal planking.
  • OHPRs- Advanced technique, don’t go there unless your OHPR is already solid.  (If it is, it will groove powerful T-spine extension; when you remove the chain, you will feel like you are pressing on a machine, due to increased stability.)
  • Back Extensions – Added load.

Here’s a full 30-minute video demonstrating the process in great detail…

Kidding!  It’s 40-seconds!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDV7t5xTeyg

Feeling salty?  Add a loaded hip belt to further ramp up the postural alignment challenge, and curb anterior pelvic tilt, as you learn to posteriorly rotate the pelvis to neutral while battling the load at the pelvis.  Wear a hip belt, and load the upper back, and you will experience a “planked spine” directly!

If you load this right, it should be challenging, but not overwhelming.  We are not going for 1RM T-spine iso hold records here!  The idea is simply to add a postural and stability challenge to a muscle group that needs to be active, durable, and strong.  You will find that you can still elicit a quality training effect with the main moves.  Use immaculate form, keep your chin tucked, and focus your attention on the agonists of the main movement.  Approach this session with a “movement practice, extra work” mindset.  And enjoy the stealth fringe benefits of activating and strengthening your T-spine along the way.  Armor building!

The rewards and adaptations commence immediately.  Once you remove the chain, you may feel “taller” as you walk around in a strangely proud and upright fashion as your upper back extensors remain switched on for a while.  You may find that your shoulders are not “clicking” anymore (the test/retest might be shoulder dislocates), as a realignment starts to take hold.

A caveat on the rows and RDL’s.  If you are a lumbar dominant type who has not learned to use your hips to anchor the torso, then this one might be contraindicated for you, (although supported one arm DB rows are still in play). Loading the T-spine the end of the spinal lever will also increase the torque at the lumbar spine and hip.  So tread carefully, and also learn to posteriorly shift your center of gravity, and screw your hips into the socket, which will give you a better anchor to “hang from”.

After a few sessions, you get accustomed to the new load, and you may have to start conservatively adding weight. This is a good thing!  When I first started trying out BC’s glute exercises, I started experiencing a weird gluteal twitching sensation, an urge to “push against” some force.  I now feel a very similar twitch in my T-spine, to the point that I don’t like to train back without the added T-spine load.  It grows on you!

This twitching sensation is the hallmark of enhanced activation of a muscle.  And the best part is that the correction just “came along for the ride” of your normal training.

12 Comments

  • Cliff says:

    Darn good article!!!

  • Roy Pumphrey says:

    Bret,

    This is very interesting, I work with a lot of “desk Jockeys” and getting more thoracic extension is usually either priority 1 or 2. The persistent “twitch” alone for a day or two after training, just as a reminder to sit up taller would be worth it’s weight in gold…

    Thanks for posting this.

  • Kevin Keast says:

    Amazing, amazing article. Major APT guy here. I am currently in the aforementioned plank and bridge training phase of my life. Just wondering if you can shed some light on when one would consider the glutes and abs strong enough to move onto the t-spine?

    • Derrick Blanton says:

      Kevin, I feel your pain…literally.

      The short answer is when you can extend your T-spine without compensating by hyperextending the lumbar spine, or flexing the neck. Admittedly, the neck part is something I am still working on!

      (Quick tangent: Now in my view, many many people will secondarily default to an intense scapular retraction and depression to try to force chest out, mimicking T-spine extension. Great until you try to move your arms up and upwardly rotate your scapula. Now you’re little trick is exposed! The scapular controllers are helper bees with T-spine position, but at some point they have to go clock out, and go about their scapular controlling business. They can’t be holding up the flagpole, and raise the flag at the same time.

      You should actually be able to keep the T-spine extended, and still protract the shoulder blades. I think you can see this on the push up plus portion of my video. The T-spine, cued by the chain, stays militantly erect, while the scaps are protracting around the ribcage into the “plus” position. Tangent over.)

      The lumbar substitution pattern will present in multiple moves, actually almost all moves. It could be tested by arms overhead test, a hip hinge pattern (RDL) with arms outstretched, an overhead squat, a DB pullover, prone YTWL’s, even face pulls.

      Video yourself and see if you are cranking the lumbar into an exaggerated curve in order to move the arms around, or flex and extend the hips. If so, then you are over prioritizing the lumbar erectors as a stability anchor. Try to keep the spine very close to neutral from sacrum to cranium. Many use a dowel to cue this, whatever works.

      I would suggest starting with the feet elevated push ups, as they are the most accessible movement to master. Your body is a long board that you are lifting with your arms, and mid back. And consider wearing a hip belt over time to reset your core posture.

      Hope this helps! DB

  • Kevin Keast says:

    Hi Derrick,

    Thanks for the quick reply. I tried emailing you but can’t find you anywhere, so I’ll post on here. Feel free to email me at keast.kev @ gmail. com.

    This article really is of interest to me as not only am I dealing with APT (and thus L5/S1 compression), I’m also dealing with a L rhomboid that won’t activate, super super tight/overloaded middle and lower traps and a nasty sore thoracic spine. I’ve been given alot of those low-resistance, YWTL type exercises. I’m not getting the results I want, nor can I stand doing them.

    I’m not sure if I didn’t get it or I wasn’t clear enough in the original message. I’m still not clear on when my glutes/abs can be considered strong enough to start working on the t-spine.

    I’ve been focusing on planks and bridges as I build up my training from the ground again. I can do 2×20 BW bridges with 5 second holds on top with ease. I’ve started adding a load to bridges bridges, currently 45lbs. Glutes feel pretty activated when I’m walking now. I can do 55s BW prone and side plank. I’m about to start adding a load onto the planks. I’ve got a few lower ab isolation exercises on the go too.

    Do you think I am good to start loading the t-spine with a chain during training?

    I love the idea of a hip belt btw. What a freaking awesome idea.

    • Derrick Blanton says:

      Kevin, let’s see…

      You have bad APT, compression at L5, and S1, compensatory pain and immobility up the back, and you’re thinking this might be a good time to really start ratcheting up the tension on the T-spine? How about, NO!

      🙂

      If you are in serious disrepair, get checked out. The last thing I want to do is dole out injury/rehab advice over the internet! That said, if you are just a garden variety dysfunctional weight trainer, then welcome to a big club.

      My primary concern is that loading a dysfunctional T-spine on top of a dysfunctional L-spine is a one way ticket to Snap City. Thus, if you have a load pulling you forwards, your default strategy may be to just crank the lumbar spine ever further to make up the difference. No bueno! The YTWL’s may be compounding your APT as you may be anchoring even harder with your lumbar.

      It is possible that all the problems up the back are just poisonous fruit from the shitty pelvic positioning tree.

      Planks if performed perfectly are great, now, how well you can incorporate that stable position into dynamic global movements? At minimum, be able to perform the following movements before I would further load your T-spine:

      Push up with a flawless line from ankle to cranium? No sagging at the abdomen, no flexion at the hip? Can we raise your feet? Can we raise your feet unstably?

      Can you perform a suspension face pull, without increasing or decreasing the angle of the L-spine? Can you do the same with a body weight row? A hip thrust?

      Can you perform a back extension in neutral or slight posterior pelvic tilt to parallel, hold that position, and raise your arms in a line with your torso with no lumbar compensation?

      Note that last wrinkle is how I would segue into T-spine loading. Then..

      Can you hold a dowel over head in a snatch postion, arms lined up with the back of your cranium, lumbar and neck in neutral. Can you hold this position, and perform a hip hinge and not lower the dowel below the head, and not increase or decrease the angle of your neutral lumbar spine?

      These are just general movement patterns, pick from others, but the point remains the same: How are you stabilizing the torso to move the limbs? If you are trying to achieve better T-spine strength/mobility on top of an already shitty APT, then you run the risk of further grooving the shitty APT stability pattern. Make sense?

      Fix the pelvis, Kevin. If your planks are flawless, then start with the push ups and face pulls as advised previously. And the clam up.

      If you want to try the chain, try the chain. Just go very light, and make sure that you are not compensating with lumbar hyperextension. Use video relentlessly to make sure you are not kidding yourself.

      I hope this helps, Kevin. Cool? Best of luck, and sort it out. No one said this shit was easy, right?! 🙂

  • Kevin Keast says:

    Wow, now that is exactly what I needed to hear! Thanks for taking the time.

    I see what you mean about not wanting to compensate for a weak t-spine by tilting the pelvis further forward when the t-spine is loaded. I was actually given YWTLs by my chiro and had that exact problem so we stopped.

    I’ll give those movements a shot and see where I am at with my pelvic positioning during dynamic movements.

  • Kevin Keast says:

    Also do you have some examples of “twisting torso mobility type drills”?

  • Cory G. says:

    Great article, Brett. Any more info on the “hip anchoring the torso” concept and how to train it? Thanks.

    • Derrick Blanton says:

      Hi Cory, not Bret, but I think I can get you started. (Also, Kelly Starrett has several posts on this subject over at MWOD).

      With your feet at shoulder width or slightly wider, and slightly toed out or straight ahead, focus on anchoring your big toe through the floor, and then “screw your lateral heel into the floor”. If you prefer to think proximally, think of screwing the hip externally into the socket.

      This provides a more stable anchor at the pelvis by activating the glutes, and the short rotator group, piriformis et. al,.

      Now, when you hinge at the hip, your lumbar erectors and hamstrings are not bearing the entire load of your body plus whatever external load you are DL’ing, or SQ’ing. Rather you have brought your potentially far more powerful hips more directly into the mix.

      The second part of the equation is learning to use your abs, obliques, diaphragm, etc. to brace the core, (“connect the ribcage to the pelvis”), and you have discovered a better way to support the spine than just arching your back, or hanging out on your thoracolumbar fascia, or hamstrings.

      Try doing this daily with just body weight hip hinges. Soft bend in the knees, torque the hips, push them back, and visualize your torso as a board, one long lever. You should feel a nice burn in your lateral hip. Set yourself a goal of 500 BW hinges a week, and this will become a default motor program. Then you load.

      Hips and abs make for a happy pelvis and lumbar spine!

      DB

  • Alana H. says:

    Hi Bret,

    Great article, thanks. I just wanted to add that you can work out the thoracic spine area using a few simple yoga stretches after your normal workout. I also wanted to point out that one shouldn’t overdo the T-spine workout if you’re susceptible to scoliosis genetically.

    Alana

  • Martin says:

    Hi Bret,
    Do you a similar thing would be viable for your neck to help correct forward head posture, for example having a head harness on with a light weight attached during strict rows etc?
    Thanks

Leave a Reply

SIGN UP FOR THE FREE NEWSLETTER

and receive my FREE Lower Body Progressions eBook!

You have Successfully Subscribed!