Why Sitting Is Killing Your Athletic Performance.

PART 1: The Thoracic Spine. 


The thoracic spine (the mid back) is a complex and largely misunderstood area of the body. When it comes to performing big global functional movements such as running, squatting, reaching, pulling and throwing the thoracic spine is the ‘core’ in generating good quality motion. It is the link between the lower limbs and the upper limbs, and as it happens it plays a huge role in setting good positions for both the legs and arms. It plays a role in most planes of movement- twisting, bending and extending. Unfortunately, we abuse this area of our spine (as with many other areas) by slouching our way through life. Try this, sit in an upright position bring with your shoulders gently back, now take both arms and lift them up over your head, feel for the ease of the motion. Now slouch in your chair, and try lift your arms up over your head. Feel the difference? It is very difficult to have full shoulder range of motion (ROM) when you are slouched through your thoracic spine.  Here is another example, slouch into a bad posture and take a slow deep breath, try taking that same deep breath in an upright position. Huge difference isn’t it.  You can try this test with many areas and usually you will find a noticeable difference in ROM (try rotating the neck in a good and bad posture) The anatomy of the thoracic spine is extremely complex, and as you have worked out already it plays a role in shoulder movement and breathing, it also sets the position of the head and neck and can affect pelvic position.

The Problem

A new term has evolved in our society- the sedentary athlete. This term describes the person who sits for most of their day but is still training before or after their sedentary job. This is the problem. Don’t get me wrong, I would rather be a sedentary athlete than just a sedentary person BUT if you are training and you are struggling with improving your form or are struggling with repetitive injuries this should be the first place you should look at changing. A great quote I have heard is ‘muscles change what they do, based on what they just did’. In the context of the thoracic spine and shoulders, if you are slouching through your day, shoulders are rounded, back muscles are switched off you cannot reasonably expect to be able to get the most out of them during training. This would be the same as thinking a formula 1 car sits in the shed all day, has a few revs of the engine and then starts a race. Luckily with a bit of self-drive and a push in the right direction you can manage these issues through your day.

The Solution

Three simple solutions can help reduce thoracic and shoulder tension through your day.

  • Learn to stack your body correctly. Head over chest, chest over pelvis. When you do have to sit, sit in a ‘stacked’ position. Make sure you are not creating a curve in your back. Bring your shoulders slightly backwards to take pressure off your shoulder muscles and mid back. What is more important than stacking your body correctly, is constantly varying your position. Sit, kneel, stand, sit on a fit ball, sit leg crossed if you can. Try aim for 4-5 different desk positions through your day. Don’t let your body adapt to any one position for too long.
  • Sit only when necessary. There are many times through our day that we sit for no real reason. Why do we need to sit to talk to a work colleague or friend? Why do we need to sit to eat lunch if we have just been sitting for 4 hours before hand? Limit unnecessary sitting. If we think honestly about how much of our day/week/month is spent sitting it is scary. Use this link to try work out how much sitting you are actually doing through your day. http://www.juststand.org/tabid/866/language/en-US/default.aspx
  • Daily body maintenance. Kelly Starrett (highly renowned physical therapist) advocates 10-15 minutes of self-body maintenance every day. It can be done all at once or it can be accumulated through your day. I prefer to accumulate 15 minutes through my day as it allows me to mobilize and stretch during every work hour. Following are my favourite thoracic and shoulder mobility exercises that I do every day.
  1. Brugger Relief Position

“Images reproduced with permission from www.erepsonline.com’’

     2.  Pec stretch

“Images reproduced with permission from www.erepsonline.com’’

      3. Cat Camel

“Images reproduced with permission from www.erepsonline.com’’

       4. Prayer Stretch

       5. Bretzel

 ‘’Images reproduced with permission from www.erepsonline.com’’

These stretches will help unwind the sitting we do through our day. Make this a habit, set yourself a 30-day challenge to stretch and self-mobilize every day.


We often don’t associate our daily body positions with our athletic movement. The thoracic spine takes a beating through our average work day and this area is vital for optimal athletic mobility and strength. When it comes to shoulder pain or neck pain the thoracic spine is a big player. The up side is that it can be easy to modify what we do day to day. We are lucky in these modern times that information is so accessible. YouTube is a great resource to learn some simple stretching techniques or learn some yoga or Pilates. There are plenty of great article and books around that have a wealth of great knowledge that you can incorporate into your lifestyle (a few things I recommend are listed below). The link that we often miss when trying to improve our athletic endeavours is thinking about what we are doing when we aren’t training. This is where we can make the biggest difference.

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Daniel Rothenberg

Daniel Rothenberg is a Sports Chiropractor with a Masters of Chiropractic and Masters of Exercise Science majoring in Strength & Conditioning. He works closely with a range of athletes in Brisbane and Ipswich.