Tennis is a full-body sport that demands strength, coordination, conditioning, and flexibility. For optimal performance, tennis players must possess good range of motion in both their upper and lower body. However, did you know that thoracic spine (mid-back) mobility also plays a crucial role in tennis strokes and serves?
Watch a tennis great like Serena Williams or Roger Federer. Notice the impressive amounts of upper body rotation and arm extension when they’re lunging for those balls? These movements depend on a flexible thoracic spine and without that flexibility, tennis injuries occur. Read on to learn about the basics of the thoracic spine and how to both improve your game, and prevent tennis injuries with good thoracic spine mobility.
Anatomy of the Thoracic Spine
- The human spinal column consists of 33 non-fused vertebrae. The 12 thoracic vertebrae form the middle segment of the spinal column. They start at the end of the cervical spine (C7) and end just before the start of the lumbar spine (L1).
- Place your fingers on the back of your neck. Keeping them in the center, move them down until you hit that first big bump. Feel that large bony protuberance? That’s C7, or the last of your cervical vertebrae. Your thoracic spine begins right below that anatomical marker.
- Like other vertebrae, your thoracic spine protects your spinal cord. Connection with the ribs makes your thoracic vertebrae unique and serve as an anchor for the rib cage.
Physiology of the Thoracic Spine
- The thoracic spine moves in many directions: flexion, lateral flexion, extension and rotation.
- A healthy thoracic spine can actively flex (bend forward) about 35 degrees and extend (bend backwards) a maximum of 25 degrees.
- Each individual thoracic vertebra rotates about 3 degrees. Total thoracic spine rotation is typically 30-35 degrees.
- The primary large muscle groups responsible for movement of the thoracic spine include the erector spinae, trapezius, rhomboids, pectorals, and latissimus dorsi.
How Thoracic Spine Mobility Affects Your Tennis Stroke
For tennis players, thoracic spine rotation and extension are key to a competitive game. Great serves require athletes to maintain proper shoulder alignment and scapular (shoulder blade) positioning, both of which rely in part on thoracic mobility. In fact, the shoulder only achieves its full overhead reach when the thoracic spine extends.
Again, watch one of your favorite tennis stars as they serve. Notice how they twist at the trunk, until they’re almost facing the court behind them? That shows the importance of thoracic rotation. Now watch when they toss the ball into the air. See how high and far back they reach with their serving shoulder and arm? That range of motion is only possible through thoracic extension. Restrictions in thoracic mobility often lead to impaired scapular and shoulder motion during the serve. This contributes to both less power in the serve and an increased risk for injury.
Thoracic range of motion is also critical to ground strokes. Optimal rotation in ground stroke leads to an increased capacity for power. This is where the kinetic chain concept of motion comes into play. When a player hits the ball, there is an energy transfer that occurs from the ground up through the legs until the player’s racket makes contact with the ball. If motion is restricted in any of the areas along that pathway, including the thoracic spine, then the force exerted on the ball diminishes.
However, when thoracic mobility is ideal, this leads to an overall improved range of motion and especially rotation during the ground stroke. This in turn results in a harder hit on the ball. Essentially, both the forehand and backhand strokes require optimal reach and power. Covering the court and connecting with those hard-to-reach balls requires peak thoracic mobility.
How Lacking Thoracic Spinal Mobility Can Lead to Tennis Injuries
In addition to improving tennis performance, thoracic spine mobility can prevents tennis injuries. Guess what happens when motion is limited in one part of the body? Another nearby body part overcompensates. Less motion in the thoracic spine leads to too much movement in the lumbar spine. The frequent result? Low back pain, inflammation, and/or lumbar disc issues.
A prospective study by Hjelm et al. on injury profiles in junior tennis players concluded that the majority of recurrent injuries occurred in the lumbar spine. If you picture the amount of spinal extension needed for a serve, it’s easy to see why. When the thoracic spine lacks the necessary extension to reach the ball, the lumbar spine hyper-extends. Over time, this results in increased pressure and compression on individual lumbar vertebrae and can lead to injury.
Stiffness in the thoracic area also affects the shoulders and neck. Lack of necessary motion in the thoracic vertebrae often causes hypermobility or pain in the shoulders and abnormal scapular movement patterns. In turn, these abnormalities can lead to rotator cuff tendonitis or shoulder impingement, common tennis injuries. The cervical spine attempts to compensate for restricted thoracic movement too, which can result in neck injuries.
Test Your Thoracic Spine Mobility
Seated thoracic rotation test (Gray-Cook’s):
While sitting cross-legged and facing a door jamb until your leg touches, place a long bar (a PVC pipe, a broomstick, etc) over your shoulders and in front of your neck. Now, cross your arms over your chest placing each hand on the opposite shoulder. This will secure the bar in position. Rotate your right shoulder toward the wall. Does the bar touch the wall? Repeat with the left shoulder. Does the bar touch the wall? If you fail to touch the wall on one or both sides, try a thoracic spine rotation exercise to improve your tennis game. Need more assistance? Check out this video demonstrating the test.
Standing thoracic extension test:
Recruit a friend or family member to help for this one and have them stand looking at you from the side. While standing tall with good posture and your feet shoulder width apart, lift both of your arms straight overhead. Your arms should line up with your ears and palms should face forward to start. Now, reach back with your arms as far as you can, trying to arch through your mid-back region, while letting your head follow. Do your shoulders reach beyond your heels? If the answer is no, read on to learn how to improve your thoracic extension. To watch a similar version of this test in action, check out this video.
Exercises to Improve Thoracic Spine Mobility
1. Latissimus Dorsi Myofascial Release
2. Overhead Thoracic Extension
Sit on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat. Place the foam roller just below your shoulder blades and perpendicular to your spine. Lie back on the floor and over the roller. Extend your arms straight up toward the ceiling at a 90 degree angle from your body. Slowly extend them back toward your head, as far as you can reach. This will end with your arms close to the floor (see below). Try not to arch your low back too much throughout the movement. You can move the foam roller to in between the shoulder blades for the second or third set. Perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
3. Quadruped for Thoracic Rotation/Extension Combo
Get down on the floor on your hands/elbows and knees. Rock back on your heels. Now, place you left hand on the back of your head with your elbow pointing out. Next, lift your left elbow up toward the ceiling as you rotate your torso to the left as far as you can turn. Make sure to follow the motion with your eyes and head (see end position below). Return to starting position. Repeat with the right hand on the back of the head. Perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions per side.
4. Cat-Cow for Thoracic Extension
While on your hands and knees on the floor, slowly curl your spine upward to form a hump until you resemble a frightened cat. Hold for a second. Then, release your position and reverse the motion, arching your back downward until your spine resembles a sway-backed cow (this is the position that encourages thoracic extension). Hold for a second. Repeat. Perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
Tennis players require optimal mobility of the thoracic spine for peak performance and to prevent injury to other nearby joints and muscles. Proper extension and rotation of the thoracic spine leads to improved power and reach in both the serve and ground strokes. This mobility is required to reduce the risk of shoulder, cervical, and low back injuries. By checking for deficits in thoracic mobility and utilizing exercises targeted at improving range of motion, tennis players can improve their games and diminish their injury risks.
Written by Lauren Schnidman, DPT