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What came first, poor posture or a stiff upper back (thoracic spine) and shoulders? In most cases, the two go hand in hand so it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is knowing how to mobilize your spine to reduce the discomfort of upper back stiffness while promoting better posture. This simple mobilization is a great option.

Could this help you?

People who spend a lot of time looking at mobile devices or computers, typing, driving, biking or in a slouched position for any reason, tend to have tight upper backs and shoulders. If you feel tension or stiffness in your upper back and shoulders this exercise may help.

What you’ll need

All you need for this mobilization is a foam roller and a space on the floor to use it. At Hosmer Chiropractic Health, we recommend using a roller with a PVC pipe (hard plastic) core because they don’t compress like traditional foam rollers (when your roller compresses too much it makes it harder to effectively mobilize individual spinal joints due to a wider fulcrum point).


Relax muscles surrounding the upper spine and shoulders and restore proper movement in the individual vertebrae in the upper spine.

Exercise overview

The thoracic foam roller mobilization uses a combination of pressure on and movement of your upper spine over the foam roller. It starts with positioning the foam roller near the top of your upper back just below your neck. Then you interlock the fingers of each hand behind your neck and use them for neck support. Work your way down through each joint between the vertebrae in your upper back. Spend some time on each joint and use flexion, extension and slight lateral rotations to coax the joints to relax.

When you let your elbows hang open during the stretch, it applies more pressure across your entire back on the foam roller while also gently stretching your chest muscles. If this causes discomfort in your hands or nerves to tingle, simply bring your elbows in toward your chest until the discomfort goes away. If the discomfort is still too great, try the supported thoracic foam roller variation.

Frequency and tips

Start with one session a day and see how you feel.  If you are sitting for long periods each day, you’ll likely want to build up to several sessions per day depending on your needs and circumstances.

Use gentle movements (no bouncing or forcing).

When you find a particularly stiff or restricted area, spend more time on it (try focusing the in and out of your breath in the restricted area for 4 – 6 breaths while breathing slowly and alternating between flexion, extension and slight lateral movements).

How to stay safe

Limit the mobilizations to your upper back only. Do not roll up to your neck or down into your lower back.

  • You can identify your lower back by holding your hand behind your back (palm facing away) behind your back. With your pinky at your belt line, extend your thumb up along your spine. The area between your beltline and the top of your thumb is your lower back.

If you notice tingling or discomfort in your hand or arms, pull your elbows in until the discomfort goes away or becomes tolerable.

When your hips are raised off the floor, brace your abs to keep the mobilization focused on your midback and your lower back protected.

Always check with your doctor before starting a new exercise.

We’re here to help
If you have questions about the thoracic foam roller mobilization, we can discuss them at your next appointment. We also have foam rollers available at the clinic, if you need one.