Developing rotation and separation – the thoracic spine


What is the thoracic spine?

An often overlooked but crucial part of the body involved in the golf swing is an area in the middle of the back called the ‘thoracic spine’.  The spine is made up of four main regions called the cervical (neck), thoracic (mid), lumbar (lower) spine and sacrum (base of the spine).  The thoracic spine is different to the other 3 regions in that it has all the connections for the ribs at each level of the spine as well as the joints above and below each vertebrae (bone of the spine).  This makes this region very stable but at the same time can make it less mobile if not used and stretched properly.  This area of your back is actually designed to move a lot though, particularly in rotational movements compared to the lumbar spine.  As you may well be aware, the golf swing is an athletic movement that uses a lot of rotation.  If we lose range of movement at the thoracic spine it can have consequences for golf performance. This includes affecting our ability to swing the golf club properly, consistently and putting us at risk of certain types of injury patterns.

There are a large number of exercises and stretches that can be done to help maintain and develop the range of movement we have in our thoracic spine and the ability to separate the movement in the upper back/shoulders and the lower back/pelvis. This separation is often called the x-factor and is important in the modern day golf swing.  We are going to be looking at one particular stretch this month called ‘open the book’.

How it Benefits your golf game

Often, we see that when golfers have a reduction in the available movement in the thoracic spine (particularly extension and rotation), there can be many consequences on the golf swing and injury risk.  The body needs rotation in the golf swing. If it isn’t able to get enough from a key area such as the thoracic spine it will try to find it somewhere else or lose the ability to rotate fully.  This can mean being unable to make a full backswing or follow through.  It can also mean that other areas have to do more work to achieve a full swing.  We often see people using the shoulders/arms more in the swing when they have restriction of movement of the thoracic spine.  The other very common problem is that golfers start to try to force rotation at the lumbar spine and hips and often they don’t have the range of movement required. In addition, the lumbar spine is not well-designed for rotation, which can lead to injury and technique faults.

Doing exercises like ”open the book” as part of your daily stretching and warm up before golf will help you improve your thoracic spine rotation and subsequently your golf game.

How to do the “open the book” exercise

Use a soft mat or comfortable floor with a small pillow or yoga block to support the head and a foam roller/rolled up pillow or towel to put under the top leg.  It is very easy for the body to cheat in this exercise so make sure you follow the instructions carefully and concentrate on the starting position especially for the legs and keep that position for the whole exercise/stretch.

Start on one side with the bottom leg straight.  Bring the top leg up so that the hip and knee are at 90/90 degrees.  Place a foam roller or rolled pillow under the knee/leg of that top leg.  While doing the stretch make sure you keep that knee pressing slightly against the roller/pillow.  This will ensure that you don’t cheat and help to develop a good stretch and separation between the hips/pelvis and the thoracic spine/upper body.

Keep the head resting on the pillow and, as shown in the photo, your arms out straight. Slowly take your hands apart (open the book), remembering to breath out, so you open the chest and aim to touch the back of the upper hand against the floor behind you.  Go as far as you feel comfortable and then bring the arm back to the starting position whilst breathing back in.  Repeat this 5-10 times gradually increasing the stretch (without cheating!). Remember to repeat this exercise lying on both sides.  Try to do this stretch every day if you can.


Nigel Tilley

European Tour Performance Institute & Physio Unit

Twitter: @etpi_physiounit

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  Performance, Strength & Conditioning, Warm Up/Mobility