Unilateral Movements=Thoracic Mobility
Thorax stiffness is a major problem faced by anyone dealing with human movement. Trainers and manual therapists work with it every day. Everyone knows that a sedentary lifestyle and poor posture are major drivers, but…. what about training and rehab recommendations? Few know or understand it, but we actually accentuate thoracic rigidity with the exercises we choose.
If we use our bodies as they were meant to be we can naturally mobilize our own thoraxes. The human body maintains thoracic mobility by two main mechanisms: proper respiration and unilateral movements. Let’s save respiration and look into the movement aspect.
We have become a society dominated by bilateral movements. When I say bilateral, I am talking about movements where the thorax is held rigid and the extremities are moving around that rigid thorax. This is not dysfunctional until it becomes the only pattern worked. Think about common gym movements. Think bench press, upright rows, lat pull downs, curls, and machines in general. All involve holding the thorax in a rigid position while mobilizing the extremities. Some would argue that squats and dead-lifts do the same, and they would be right. However, these are very functional movements and I don’t want people to think I’m saying don’t squat or dead-lift. How else could you pick up something off the floor, or better yet, pick up something heavy off the floor? The video below is a great example of keeping a rigid thorax while mobilizing the extremities.
What I am saying is, we need more variety in the way we exercise. A variety of movement challenges keep the nervous system healthy. Unilateral movements lead to a powerful and natural mobilization of the thorax (among other benefits). I’m not saying you have to workout like Erwan Le Corre, but I doubt he has many mobility/stability issues. And pain, no way… unless he falls and scrapes his knee.
Fittest man on earth???
Let’s look at a crawling baby for inspiration and answers. When a child crawls, they move the trunk around stabilized extremities in a unilateral fashion. Again, most exercises we choose achieve just the opposite, the extremities are moved around an immobile thorax. In crawling, one arm is supporting while the other is reaching as the legs do the opposite, creating a diagonal pattern of stability and mobility at the same time. In this example the baby is using his right arm to stabilize the shoulder and thorax, while the left arm is mobilizing the thorax and extremity. This is allowed by the dual function of muscle chains.
For a great upright example, let’s take a look at a thrower. They use the lead arm for a stable base that the trunk can rotate around in order to create enormous amounts of velocity, all while keeping the throwing arm safe. Shouldn’t this be a rehab/training consideration with throwing athletes?
We can take advantage of unilateral patterns in multiple ways at the gym. Personally I try to work in one unilateral pattern for every bilateral pattern that I do. By implementing this strategy I have seen amazing results in my own thoracic mobility that I have never seen before. There is an amazing section detailing this in Evan Osar’s, Corrective Exercise Solutions to Common Shoulder and Hip Dysfunction (Side note -best book I have read in some time). I was first introduced to the idea reading something (can’t recall what or where) by Craig Liebenson. If you are looking for a good resource I suggest you start your search there.
Why not just add-in thoracic mobilizations, such as foam rolling, etc. and call it good? While these are valuable tools, in my opinion, they do not reset the motor program like complex unilateral movements. By mimicking what babies subconsciously learn how to do we can retrain proper function. As Charlie Weingroff says, “rehab = training training =rehab”, or more appropriately PROPER rehab = training and PROPER training =rehab. Using human movement concepts, such as crawling, and applying them to training and rehab can be extremely effective for both function and performance.
I am certainly not telling people to get rid of their tools for increasing thorax mobility. What I am saying is that it makes no sense to go foam roll, manipulate a T-spine, or release a rib cage if that patient/client is then going to perform 10 different patterns that lock down the thorax. Stop fighting yourself and let the neurology unlock your stiffness. Pushing, pulling, squatting, lifting, etc., are very functional movements, but we have watered them down to the point that there is no variety. Take any exercise you like to perform, and put a unilateral spin on it. Just use your imagination. Here are a couple of my favorites to get you started.
GET STARTED NOW!