Missing mobility that can help boost your pull-up workouts

Upper back, or thoracic, mobility is a key maintenance issue for the overhead athlete. The thoracic spine plays a vital role in keeping the shoulders out of pain and working correctly. A loss of mobility here can cause painful compression of the rotator cuff muscles or make your lat muscles have to work overtime for pull-ups. And if repping pull-ups isn’t your thing, consider the unattractive humpback you’re likely to develop if you neglect mobility work here!


While plenty of videos online show ways to increase thoracic mobility, it’s important that you first determine if you have a deficit. That way, you can monitor your progress and choose effective exercises. To measure your thoracic mobility, use the Seated Rotation Test.

Assessment: Seated Rotation Test

Sit with legs crossed in a doorway with one foot on each side of the doorjamb. Hold a dowel above your shoulders in an arms-crossed position. With your back straight, turn to each side as far as you can without leaning forward, keeping the dowel in touch with your collar bones and both shoulders at all times.

A passing score on the Seated Rotation Test is achieved when:

  1. the dowel touches the wall while remaining level in both directions, 
  2. the dowel stays in contact with the shoulders at all times, and 
  3. the movement is not painful. 


The Seated Rotation Test is a quick way to gauge your thoracic mobility. If you passed the test, any shoulder or overhead lifting troubles are less likely to be caused by a stiff upper back. 

If you had pain with the movements, seek out your physical therapist or athletic trainer for further evaluation before adding any new exercises to your program. 

If you failed the test but didn’t have pain, some corrective work is in order. Try the following progression: 

Prep: T-spine Foam Rolling

Prep work with a foam roller can do a lot of good before jumping into other corrective exercises.

Begin lying on your back with your knees bent, resting your mid-back on a foam roll with your hands behind your head. Slowly roll back and forth over the foam roller for two minutes, gently pulling your elbows down to the floor to increase the stretch. Do not let your low back arch during the exercise. 

After Prep work with the foam roller, continue with the Level 1 exercise below. Perform repetitions as described, and aim for one session before workouts and one session at the end of your day. Daily practice is key for making rapid changes to your mobility. Still, you can keep it quick with just the two exercises (Prep and Level 1). You’ll be ready to advance to the Level 2 drill when you no longer feel a good stretch, and you can move far enough into the movement that you create a straight line with your arms.

Level 1 – Open Book

Level 2 – Zenith Reach

Begin on all fours. Reach one arm up toward the ceiling, rotating your trunk to align your arms in a straight line (or as close to it as you can!). Pause briefly, then return to the starting position and repeat for ten repetitions on each side. Complete a third set of ten repetitions on the stiffer side. To achieve max reach, be sure to follow your arm with your eyes as you move.

Level 3 – Wall Sunrise 

Begin in a half-kneeling position with the front leg lined up next to a wall. Your arms shoulder be straight and together in front of your chest. Keeping your torso tall and down leg stable, rotate the wall-side arm in a semicircle along the wall until your arms form a straight line. Next, bring your arms back together, and repeat for ten repetitions on each side. Finally, complete a third set of ten repetitions on the stiffer side. To achieve max each, be sure to follow your arm with your eyes as you move.


Once you master the Level 3 exercise, most athletes can maintain their mobility by simply practicing that drill. At a minimum, put in the reps before upper body or overhead workouts and no less than three sessions per week. 

What if you don’t enjoy stretching or are stuck at Level 1 or 2? Just keep putting in the reps where you are. The simple act of doing some thoracic mobility work on a consistent basis can be enough to keep you out of pain and performing overhead lifts with ease. 

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