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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Thoracic Spine Considerations When Assessing Arm Carriage

Proper arm carriage is often a subject of debate within the running world.  Some believe an ideal carriage exists.  Others may see the idiosyncrhactic form of some elite runners and determine that arm carriage doesn't matter very much.  I would posit that the debate about proper mechanics cannot take place until fully assessing the athlete to determine WHY the arm carriage might need changing.  With coaches often in charge of dozens of athletes at once, knowing where to look first can be the difference between successful and unsuccessful interventions.  For on-the-fly assessments, the T-spine is one the most critical places to begin.

Correction of arm mechanics requires an assessment of thoracic spine (T-spine) function and dysfunction.  Of course, a complete body assessment is paramount, but for ongoing follow up corrections in a coaching setting, the T-spine will provide early warning signs of more global dysfunction.  Structurally, the thoracic spine is the only major joint system in direct contact with four other major joint systems (cervical spine, scapulae, lumbar spine, and glenohumeral).  The T-spine receives and transfers input with many critical areas of the body (and I have only mentioned joint systems without getting into its contact with other organs).   As such, it behooves us to consider its capabilities when correcting upper body form issues. 

Here are some things that we consider related to T-spine function and dysfunction when assessing the arm swing.  Also note the fact that something looks good doesn't make it efficient if it is incongruent with what is happening globally.  While there are a myriad of causes behind why an arm swing may be inefficient, the list below helps guide our follow-up correctives, especially in a large group or team setting.   

Cervical spine -  One cardinal rule for segmental screening and assessments is to always consider one joint above and below.   Since many dysfunctions proceed from the "top-down" we must know what the T-spine might be reacting to.  Someone with a history of neck and/or jaw issues may present with an inefficient looking arm swing as an evolved mechanism for pain avoidance.  We must have a sense of these global issues before thrusting limb corrections upon the athlete.  Fortunately, these issues can work themselves out with proper exercise technique and corrective measures in other areas.  However, it is sometimes necessary to enlist the services of a skilled medical provider to address persistent problems in this area.

Posture - Someone with a hunched upper back (kyphosis) will inevitably have some type of restriction elsewhere.  Sometimes the posture is fine at rest but changes when the athlete is in motion.  Occasionally, the athlete will "work things out" to accommodate the postural flaws.  How we address the posture will vary from athlete to athlete, but it is important to recognize that posture, not the arm swing, may be the cause of technical inefficiency. 

Tissue quality - Tissue-based restrictions (i.e. knots, lesions, resting tension) in the upper back often force the arms to compensate with visually unappealing movement.  The services of a skilled manual therapist are invaluable to help create lost mobility in the T-spine so the arms can work most efficiently.   Nevertheless, in the absence of manual intervention, diligent work with foam rollers, tennis balls, and other “ghetto” soft tissue implements can not only help prevent tissue-related problems, they can also offer a self-assessment for an athlete.

Breathing mechanics – Poor diaphragm mechanics force the upper back to do more breathing work than it is designed to do.  While the role of the diaphragm may not be apparent in the running stride itself, misuse of the diaphragm at rest can force the muscles around the T-spine and ribcage to contribute more to breathing than is appropriate.  This pattern leads to its own set of problems that can ultimately manifest themselves in arm carriage inefficiencies.

Rotation – Clearing clinical minimums for upper quarter rotation assessments gives the runner the best chance to use his/her arms properly.  Without awareness that full range of thoracic rotation is available, the arms could take it upon themselves to create more rotation than is needed in the running stride.  This doesn’t mean we stop cueing certain runners to avoid crossing their midline with the arm swing; instead it means we lay the soil for the superficial corrections by ensuring we meet the functional minimums for the surrounding area. 

Summary

A global approach is needed as the thoracic spine is a critical juncture for guiding the arm swing in the running stride.  Visually “incorrect” form may be the body’s most presently efficient way to swing the arms given the restrictions elsewhere in the body.  Giving the thoracic spine the consideration it deserves before undertaking superficial form and technique interventions gives any technical form interventions the best chance of standing up to pressure under the duress of a race and under the demands of performing thousands of repetitions during any single run. 

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