When discussing the thoracic spine (upper back), we often focus on the importance of mobility in this area. Limitations in upper back range of motion can have a huge impact on your overhead mobility, neck pain, and lower back health. But weakness of the thoracic spine is not commonly discussed. But if you are doing front squats, cleans, and deadlifts, having a strong upper back is crucial to your strength progress. In this article, I’ll share several of my favorite thoracic spine strength exercises to push your strength performance up!
For more back strength work, be sure to check out our Bulletproof Back Builder accessory program inside of the Performance Plus app!
Thoracic Spine Strength Exercises
#1 – Zercher Squats & Carries
In the Zercher position, the barbell sits in the bend of your elbow. This places the bar out in front of the body and challenges the ability of the upper back to stay upright. This makes Zercher squats, lunges, and carries all great options for strengthening the thoracic spine extensors.
Safety Squat Bar Squats
Similar to the Zercher squat, Safety Squat bars position that bar further away from the hip. This longer lever arm makes SSB squat more challenging on the upper back.
I learned of the Sweatt Shrug from Shane Sweatt. They’ve since been a staple in many of my back pain rehab programs as well as after thoracic mobility work to strengthen the newly opened mobility. Focus with these on segmentally rounding and extending the upper back to get max benefit from them.
Goblet Squat & Press
The Goblet Squat & Press is another exercise I really like to use after thoracic mobility work. With a narrow grip press from a squat position, the upper back is forced to actively extend. These won’t look like much as you watch the video, but they are much more punishing that you’ll expect. Go lighter than you’d imagine and make sure you keep elbows tucked in.
The Pendlay Row is a great exercise for strengthening the entire back. When an athlete needs emphasis on thoracic spine strength, I like to have them focus on arching the upper back as they row. Be sure to let the barbell come to a complete rest at the bottom of every row.
D-Ball and Front Rack Carries
Carries of any sort are great for general physical preparedness (GPP). When we perform carries with the weight out in front of the body, they become great for building thoracic spine strength. The two best variations for this are then D-Ball carries and front rack kettlebell carries.
Upper Back Good Mornings
The final thoracic spine strength exercise that I’ll share are upper back good mornings. I first saw these from elite powerlifter Blaine Sumner and they did not disappoint. Use a safety squat bar and a glute ham developer to train the upper back resisting spinal flexion. Be prepared for a serious upper back pump!
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Here’s a variation on that movement using a medicine ball instead of the GHD.