How Men Over 40 Can Build Better Rotational Mobility

Author, fitness model, and trainer Kirk Charles, NASM-CPT CES, knows that as you get older, life can get more complicated. But that shouldn’t prevent you from being on top of your game. He’ll help to answer the tough training questions that come with age so you too can be Fit Beyond 40.

a person sitting on a table: If you're over 40 years old and you're feeling stiff when you rotate, try the spiderman to thoracic rotation exercise to hone your mobility.

© FluxFactory – Getty Images
If you’re over 40 years old and you’re feeling stiff when you rotate, try the spiderman to thoracic rotation exercise to hone your mobility.

Last week I was playing with a friend’s dog and tossing a ball around. I’m a righty and threw the ball maybe twenty times or so with no problem. I tried to throw lefty on a lark, and I felt a twinge in my mid-back when I loaded up to launch the ball. I wasn’t in pain, just uncomfortable—but it was just enough to remind me that I needed to spend some extra time working on my thoracic spine mobility. Something like this never happened 20 years ago, but now, just mindlessly tossing a ball in my fifties was apparently leading to pain.

What’s thoracic spine (t-spine) mobility? It’s sometimes the forgotten part in the body’s rotational equation. When you think rotational movements, you think of your abs and obliques actively twisting you. But above your abs and obliques (and below your neck, or cervical spine) lies what’s known as your “thoracic spine.” This area of spine, and the surrounding muscles and joints, is supposed to be mobile, allowing you to twist from side to side before having to create core rotation. But everything from tight pecs to weak muscles between your shoulder blades to a general lack of movement can lead thoracic spine mobility to diminish over time.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, I haven’t taken my typical yoga classes where I would get most of my rotational t-spine work. However, there’s one useful exercise I do with my clients who don’t do yoga, especially those who are golf fanatics: the Spiderman lunge to thoracic spinal rotation. This is an invaluable exercise, especially for the old guys like me who like rotational sports (golf, tennis, baseball—any activity where there is twisting involved).

To start, go into a plank position, making sure to brace your core and squeeze your glutes and shoulder blades together. From the plank, step your right leg forward and place your right foot outside of your right hand. Then, laterally raise your right arm to reach straight up toward the ceiling by rotating your shoulders and mid-back. Rotate your head to look toward the ceiling, in line with your extended arm. Pause in this position for a few breaths, then bring your right arm back to the floor. Lastly, return your right leg and foot back to the starting plank position. That repeat the same sequence with your left leg and arm. That’s one rep on both sides of the body.

This movement is fairly common for those who do yoga, but I’ve found my older clients may struggle with a few things. Many older men struggle to bring the right foot up to the level of the hands. This could be due to hip, groin, and/or hamstring injuries, or inflexibility and immobility. To compensate, many will bend the back knee toward the floor and/or raise from a flat hand position to the fingertips. For those cases, it’s better to start in an elevated plank where your hands are higher than your feet (i.e. plank on a step, yoga block, chair, etc.) to keep the back knee fully extended and palms flat on the floor.

Secondly, when raising your arm toward the ceiling, ideally your hips to remain stable, while only rotating your shoulders, mid-back and neck. Opening up (rotating) the hips to raise the arm toward the ceiling could be due to shoulder, thoracic spine (mid-back), and/or neck injuries, immobility and inflexibility. In this case, only rotate the shoulders, mid-back, and neck as much as comfortably possible (no straining) without rotating the hips. Your arm may not be vertical to the ground, but that’s better than rotating your hips in an attempt to get more rotation. The purpose of this exercise is to build core power and mobility. As time goes on, you’ll likely get to a place where your arms can go straighter up.

For the older guy, it’s best to start easy with this exercise. Work on 4 sets of 5 repetitions on each side of the body to begin. When your arm is raised toward the ceiling, hold that position for at least 3 seconds. As you get better, work on sets of 10 repetitions with a pause at the top of 8 to 10 seconds.

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