The term Thoracic Extension is used quite often when referring to throwing and I’ve personally used this term in my eBook as well as multiple articles referring to the High Level Throwing Pattern. However, if you don’t cue thoracic extension properly and don’t fully understand WHEN and WHY it happens, your athlete may be leaking energy and losing velocity!
What is Thoracic Extension?
The Thoracic Spine is the second portion of the vertebral column located towards the upper and mid back area. It joins the cervical spine at the base of the neck and extends below the shoulder blades connecting with the lumbar spine. There are 12 thoracic vertebrae. The thoracic spine is part of the framework to support the body.
It is also an attachment site for the ribs as well as many muscles, small and large and helps to stabilize the body, keeping it upright and protect the vital organs. The T-spine has a specific range of movement of extension and rotation that will help with the high level movement patterns of throwing. BUT, if you force the t-spine extension too early, it will lead to a sequence error and a decrease in velocity!
What Does Thoracic Extension Look Like in Throwing?
Have you ever seen an athlete’s chest “puff out” during a throw? Have you ever seen that crazy backwards “C” during a pitcher’s delivery? This is caused by outstanding thoracic extension created by the hip to trunk relationship!
Baseball and Softball players require thoracic extension and rotation as well as strong trunk stabilizers in order to transfer force symmetrically from the lower extremities to the upper extremities. A lack of thoracic rotation, extension and/or trunk stability as well as a poorly timed t-spine extension can result in dispersed kinetic energy, decreased velocity and possible injury!
Thoracic extension will occur as the hips are opening up towards the target and as the arm moves into and through external rotation. You don’t have to force this movement! When the arm is moving into and through external rotation, the t-spine starts to extend, properly positioning the shoulder during the late cocking and acceleration phase of the throw. This happens due to the the activation of the scap stabilizing musculature (trapezius, rhomboids, levator scapula), serratus anterior and latissimus dorsi musculature during throwing will “set or stabilize” the arm into that position. This will not only help protect the shoulder during these movements, but also allow for more kinetic energy to be produced during the acceleration phase just from the activation of the scap stabilizing and latissimus dorsi muscle tissue. Of course the lumbo-pelvic complex plays a tremendous role in force production.
In the clip below, you will see slow motion video of myself throwing. You will see some crazy mobility/flexibility in my shoulders and spine, BUT, notice that as I bring my arm into and through external rotation, this is when thoracic extension starts to occur. At the same time, my hips are opening up towards the target. Understand that I am not actively forcing thoracic extension. I am simply retracting my right scap allowing my arm to move through its pattern while the hips open up towards the target. As a result, T-spine extension occurs.
Don’t Force Thoracic Extension!
When performing throwing drills try not to actively extend your t-spine. When you try to force thoracic extension, the body creates this movement way too early resulting in a loss of rigidity in the trunk and instability of the spine. You may also hyper-extend the lumbar spine before striding out to the target. This creates mechanical flaws with the t-spine and the lumbar spine. Below are two examples of t-spine extension. The first video shows an early t-spine extension with early lumbar hyper-extension and the second video shows a synced t-spine/lumbar spine extension.
Example of Forced T-Spine Extension
The athlete may be trying to scap load without knowing that they may also be extending the t-spine. Along with t-spine extension, lumbar spine extension/hyper-extension may also occur.
When the above elements happen, a loss of rigidity/stiffness in the spine occurs, which creates an instability of the trunk/core. If the athlete thinks about focusing on retracting the scapulae without extending the spine too early, will allow for longer energy storage and the ability to maintain a rigid/stiff core.
Example of Proper Timed T-Spine Extension
Remember, throwing is a hip flexion to hip extension movement. If you extend your hips too early, you lose the ability to generate force because the glutes/hamstring musculature have nowhere else to go except into hyper-extension. Thoracic extension needs to happen when the arm is moving into and through external rotation, while the hips are opening. If it happens before this, energy is lost, sequencing errors occur and velocity is decreased!