Upper Traps – friend or foe?
Are the upper traps to blame for all things shoulder/neck related? Are they the reason for poor posture? Are they the reason that some people like cats more than dogs?
If you’ve spent much time in the realm of strength & conditioning or physiotherapy (physical therapy for Americans), you’ve likely heard that the upper traps are responsible for: neck pain, shoulder pain, poor posture, world hunger. Okay that last one is exaggerated but the point stands that the upper traps seem to be at fault for a lot stuff.
Let’s start off with a quick review of the traps:
The trapezius is a muscle that runs along your upper back/neck, with origins along your spine and insertions on your collar bone and tons of scapula (spine of scapula & medial border). Its quite a large muscle that has three components – upper, middle, and lower. The upper trap is what most people associate to their traps and its main function is elevating the shoulders (plus rotation of the shoulder blade). In contrast, the middle and lower traps are ignored in the vast majority of the population but have a lot of function to retract, depress and rotate the scapula.
As I mentioned, the upper traps get pointed to a lot for problems. I’m sure we’ve all experienced some capacity of a sore shoulder/stiff neck where your upper traps were sensitive to touch. Whether you woke up and it was sore, a long day of driving, or just from sitting at a desk, most people have experienced some neck and shoulder issue. In a lot of cases this goes away quickly, but for some it can be a real chronic issue.
The upper traps often get pointed to for the blame due to their tenderness when being touched, but I think this is unjustly.
Physios will see people who experience neck pain or shoulder issues and the upper traps will get pointed to as being hyper active and need to be “released” or “lengthened” (words that will get discussed in a different article). In general, people will get some massage on the traps, taught how to stretch their neck/traps out and probably encouraged to keep their shoulders retracted. For some people this will alleviate the issues as they have no changed their habits and allowed things to calm down. However, in my experience this just diminishes the pain or temporarily alleviates it instead of eliminating it permanently.
You see, I don’t think the upper traps are to blame always in this scenario. Instead, we need to direct focus to the other musculature surrounding the neck, thoracic spine, and scapula and the positions these people spend time in. For a lot of people in the scenario above, their general upper back musculature is under developed and the upper trap is working over time and just not strong enough to handle the job.
Instead of trying to get the upper traps to stop working, we need to modify these people’s habits, positions, and help to strengthen all of these muscles.
For many of the people experiencing chronic issues with the upper traps, it is beneficial to discuss changing their resting posture – just temporarily at least. As we discussed in this article, there is no right posture, but there are a lot of postures that provide different stresses. If the one you are in now is causing issues, find a new one! Try to figure out a few position that decrease your symptoms and rotate through them.
While modifying your positions, aim to try and reduce your overall stress. Many individuals who deal with neck/shoulder issues have a lot of what we can sympathetic activation. For these people, doing things such as deep calming breaths or journaling can pay off big time and help reduce the symptoms they feel.
As you’ve worked on decreasing the symptoms, we now want to start strengthening up your muscles to assist this process. Doing movements like rows, pulldowns, etc. that target the upper back muscles is very beneficial. Below we will list a variety of different options.
Its important to note that as you do this, you might find that you initially have more stiffness in the back/neck muscles and its important to not freak out. The muscles are starting to be challenged and over time as they get stronger this will diminish and you’ll experience less issues over all. However, if you are not confident that you are doing these movements right, film yourself and watch the videos. If that doesn’t reassure you enough, reach out to someone for help – a great resource is clinicalathlete.com where you can find a provider who will be well versed in what you are dealing with.
1 arm row – half kneeling
This is a great general strengthening exercise for the upper back muscles and one that people can often do well with minimal coaching
Half kneeling 1 arm pulldown
Similar to the above, this variation people can often pick up and begin getting good results with while not needing a lot of hands on guidance.
Chest supported row – one of the best strength building exercises for the upper back, we are able to really focus in on the upper back by having the chest supported and not requiring use to work in something such as a bent over row. As well, the bench offers feedback as you can feel if you are excessively arching or not.
Band pull aparts
A great exercise for target more of the mid and lower traps, plus the posterior delt.
Many individuals struggle with sufficient external rotation strength in their shoulder, so this can help to strengthen that while also working on shoulder retraction.
Use these options while are working on environmental factors that could be causing your issues. If you have any questions or need some guidance, reach out!
Move well, lift heavy, stay healthy,
The Strength Therapist