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Releasing Upper Trap Stiffness may be found in Strengthening and not Stretching

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 26 November 2019
Hits: 11543

I will be the first to admit I labelled the upper trapezius muscle as a problem muscle that needed to be weakened, more than strengthened. I always thought exercises like shrugs were to be avoided and could not see why anyone would ever want to target a muscle known for developing stiffness and trigger points with a strengthening exercise. I thought this was the fast way to developing chronic neck pain. However, over time I learned there is more to this muscle than many realise and I began to appreciate the importance of the upper traps during movement. I came to see how vital the strength of this muscle is to health of the neck and shoulder and how many of us are trying to weaken this muscle when what it really needs is to be strengthened. Just like the hamstrings, it is fair to say it has unfairly copped a bad rap for a long time and is really misunderstood. In this article I am going to share with you the things I learned the hard way and what the true role of the upper traps is. I will also show how to identify weakness, and most importantly how you can strengthen this muscle without aggravating your neck or shoulder.

What Is the Role of The Upper Traps?

I understand this article may conflict with many beliefs and may go against the grain of what we have been taught to look at this muscle as 'too tight' or ‘over active’ and the cause of their chronic pain. How many of us have had a massage the massage therapists tell us how they can feel or see that this muscle is knotted and tense, and go about trying release, loosen and stretch it. In the short term we often feel great but within a day or two everything goes back to the way it was. This is the classic example of stability and weakness creating stiffness.

Before diving into the article to explain this concept we need to explain exactly where the trapezius muscle is and what roles it plays with movement. This is a large muscle group that extends from the back of your head and neck to your shoulder.

It is composed of three parts:

  1. The upper trapezius
  2. The middle trapezius
  3. The lower trapezius

This muscle has many functions such as shrugging your shoulders, tilting, turning and extending your neck and pulling your shoulders back and down. Depending on which action you make is what determines which part of the trapezius is used more.

This muscle is primarily comprised of low threshold type 1 fibres. Meaning its role is more concerned with movements of low intensity over long period of time than producing huge force or power. An example of this would be the role it plays in maintaining the stabilisation of the scapula. This is important to understand with choices of exercise used to develop and improve its efficiency which you will see shortly. A great quote to keep in your mind throughout this article is shown below. This sums up the problems surrounding upper trapezius and why so many people remain in chronic stiffness for years.

Scapula Mobility & Stability

This is something many people are not aware of. We have covered the importance of scapula stability before you can check out in the article – 3 Key Things you need for optimal shoulder stability.

Far too often the upper trapezius is labelled as a problem muscle and just needs to be shut down, when in actual fact it acts as an upward rotator of the scapula working in tandem with the serratus anterior and lower trapezius.

The most common impairment associated with shoulder impingement is scapular related, and what muscle do you think also attaches to the scapula? The trapezius! This means that if the scapula is not positioned appropriately or moving efficiently around your rib cage as you raise your arm overhead, the upper traps will not function as they are designed to, resulting in stiffness and tightness. It is important to know that it must work with other muscles to create optimal stability and movement. Without assistance from serratus anterior and the lower trapezius the upper traps cannot produce upward rotation on its own, so finding ways to help these muscles work together is essential if you want to keep a healthy shoulder.

This is a classic example of why you can never blame a single muscle for a movement problem.

To give you a good visual of the role these three muscles play with this motion of the scapula we have provided a great picture below.

Problems we see with overhead movements when these muscles become dysfunctional are

  1. The scapula moving over the thorax instead of around it
  2. Excessive elevation of the scapula as the neck is pulled into rotation towards the head
  3. Lateral flexion of the neck and the trunk in opposing directions

The poor stabilising strategies during over-head movements create areas where joints have excessive mobility. And it is in these areas the body will create abnormal amount of stiffness to protect the joint, and this is where people will feel their pain. But these muscles are doing their job to protect you from more serious harm, so releasing the trigger point without addressing the poor stability that created it in the first place is futile.

Tonic & Phasic Muscles

I am not going to go into too much detail on this as we have covered this many times before in our articles about Posture correction. Check out the article – Why Posture is everything for getting rid of chronic pain.

The main thing you need to understand is that muscles are not designed the same way. There are Phasic muscles that are primarily concerned with providing movement and there are Tonic muscles more concerned with posture and stabilization. Dr Vladimir Janda was the first to establish this in his book “Assessment & Treatment of Muscle Imbalance” he explains great detail how tonic system muscles are prone to tightness or shortness, and the phasic system muscles are prone to weakness or inhibition.

As you can see from the chart above the upper trapezius is one of the tonic muscles that can easily develop short and tight over-activity. You will notice its partners in the role of stabilising being the lower trapezius and serratus anterior fall into the phasic side. This is interesting to note for these muscles are prone to weakness and inhibition so one could conclude their weakness may force the upper traps to work excessively. It is difficult to say for sure for it is hard to say if they upper traps worked harder due to weakness elsewhere, or the weakness elsewhere was created by the upper traps stealing their work.

If were to follow the Janda approach we would stretch and weaken the tonic muscles and strengthen the weak phasic muscles as seen in the picture of Upper Cross Syndrome seen in the picture below.

In many cases this may in fact work quite well, but in some cases it will cause problems and this is what I found with several clients and also with my own body. I had taken this information too far and now created a situation where my problem was weak upper traps, not tight over-active muscles. How did this happen?

I forgot that the upper traps needed strength just as much as any other muscle. If I neglected it and only ever tried to weaken it I was inevitably going to suffer with pain. What you need to do is find the source of the weakness or what started the dysfunction? In my case it was the training and exercises I was using but with others it was more their lifestyle habits.

What causes Upper Trap dysfunction?

All great health practitioners understand that finding the trigger or source of the pain and dysfunction. Many times we go through intense assessments, provide home exercises, stretches, stability drills for the client to do and after a few weeks the person has not changed much with their pain.

The reason nothing improved was that the REASON behind the trigger points creating all the problems had not been changed, and it in most cases it would be a DAILY ACTIVITY or movement we think nothing of creating all the trouble. Any corrective work will have little chance of success if the person continues to move with poor stabilising methods they had before.

Things you could look for are:

In the case of upper traps you need to look for repetitive habits involving the upper body.

  • How the person sits
  • How often they use a mobile phone or laptop looking down
  • Repetitive unilateral sports like tennis, cricket, baseball, hockey etc.
  • How they breathe – asthmatics and people with high levels of stress or anxiety will recruit the upper traps for respiration.
  • Gym exercises with excessive depression of the shoulders
  • Poor technique in the gym

In the gym I used to think it was the person who was overusing shoulder press exercises and shrugs who would have the tightest upper traps, when in reality it was the person who rarely did strength work for the shoulders, but countless hours of stretching instead who had the most tightness!

One thing we have been told from a very early age is to pull our shoulders back and down as this is great posture. This is such a bad instruction for the consequences of sustained back-gripping are that this will force the joints of your spine together and limit the ability of your thoracic spinal joints to bend forward and rotate as they are required during many movements.

Trigger points and pain will develop in your middle back muscles (rhomboids and middle traps) due to overuse which in turn prevents the scapula from achieving upward rotation. If these big adductor muscles continue to hold on tight you will have difficulty rotating your trunk and turning your head!

Excessive use of deadilfts, farmer’s walks, chin-ups and rowing movements can produce what is known as “Excessive depression of the shoulder”. This is exactly what I did and how I created a shoulder impingement in 2016. These are all great exercises but if they are wisely programmed into your workouts you can end up in serious pain just like I did.

This is where the upper traps will know develop trigger points and chronic stiffness, not from being short and tight, but long and weak! How ironic, for the exercises you thought were improving your posture were really causing you a stack of dysfunction!

Always remember this - stiff does not mean strong.

How to Identify Weakness in the Upper Traps

There is a couple of ways you can identify weakness in the upper traps.

Firstly a depressed shoulder is a giveaway as there is virtually no muscle tone in the upper traps and the clavicle will be almost perfectly horizontal.

From a front view you should see a slight downward angle of the clavicle in a healthy shoulder. If you do not see this you know that weakness of the upper traps is very likely.

Secondly you can test this via strengthening exercises. Recently I have observed the difference in strength in several female clients with pushing movements. They were able to generate considerable strength in horizontal patterns but very little with vertical movement. This lack of consistency exposes the weakness in the muscles used with overhead patterns and the upper traps being one of the main players.

It is interesting when you consider the rate of shoulder injuries in males versus females that it is significantly greater in the female population. Females generally present with greater mobility than males which can be a good thing if the joints are controlled, however it can pose huge problems when poor movement is combined with weak muscles. Click here to see results of a study about this.

This is where my mindset has changed from previous years when dealing with neck pain in female clients, especially those who have never spent time developing overhead strength. I am suspecting the stiffness in their neck and shoulder is more to do with weakness than overuse.

I must still test to be sure, but my mind is definitely moving this way. 

Removing Trigger Points

Start with addressing how the person breathes. This is extremely important to address first as it may save you a lot of time. Breathing plays a pivotal role in stabilization of the entire body and you will find in 90% of all neck pain cases a breathing dysfunction is present.

This is where they breathe too much by using their shoulders and neck muscles instead of the diaphragm! The trigger points are the result of the breathing they use to stay alive. In some cases this is all that we needed to change. See the article – Do you know how to breathe correctly for more detail on how to do this.

Once that has been addressed you can use simple self-massage techniques shown below to remove any trigger points that may be activated so your corrective methods have a chance of succeeding.

Remember this only works if you follow up with stabilizing strategies immediately.

Stabilizing the Scapula

This part can get very messy and be very frustrating at first so you must be patient. You must not skip this stage and go straight to the strengthening or you risk aggravating things and going backwards.

You can read more about the many other exercises we use for stability of the shoulder in the article – Top 5 Stability Exercises for a Winged Scapula

Before going straight to overhead movements I want to be certain the person can handle pushing in its basic form with horizontal pushing movements like push-ups and single cable press. One test I like to use to see if a weakness is revealed is the multi-directional single arm stability test seen in the video below

This test is quite difficult to do and integrates the entire body with a huge emphasis on shoulder stability. Mobility and stability are maximally challenged along with stability of the trunk and core. However this is a great test to use when you are not in as much pain but you know your shoulder is not stable or mobile enough to complete functional exercises or activities without aggravating your joint and going backwards.

Make note of any difference between right and left and if there is any pain or compensation.

Without doubt my favourite drill is the wall slides for lower trapezius and serratus anterior. I like to use this in the early stages of teaching a person overhead movement for they begin to understand the concept of the scapula wrapping around them instead of coming over the top.

Again this can be frustrating to learn at first but it sets the foundations for us to move to the next phase which is strength.

Strengthening the Upper Traps

Finally we are up to the stage of strengthening the upper traps. This will take more than just going to town with shrugs and military press exercises. I would still avoid the shrugs by the way, and use a more intelligent way of strengthening the shoulders which I will show you shortly.

You need a plan and this is a very delicate process if you are dealing with a person who has had neck or shoulder pain as you can easily stuff things up. You have to begin with very simple exercises that allow for great control and stability and avoid stirring up the trigger points again.

One of my first introductory exercises and one that will be used as a warm up for overhead movement is the Yoga Push up.

This is an excellent way to encourage thoracic extension, shoulder stability, and upward rotation of the scapula without needing to move your arms. Because it is a closed chain exercise it provides greater stability for the shoulder allowing more control and improved mobility at the thorax and often becomes a favourite exercise for people with neck pain.

As they improve you gradually progress to a slightly harder movement where we use open chain exercises to specifically target the upper trapezius.

Two of my favourite exercises for achieving this are shown below.

If you are able to execute these exercises effectively you can progress to a kneeling position with single arm barbell push. I really love this exercise as it helps you to really control the barbell and feel the scapula wrap around the body.

Once this is mastered I would try to progress to standing movement starting with an inverted kettlebell press. By holding the end of a kettlebell, the load won’t be as heavy, however, it increases the difficulty of challenging the shoulder’s stability, which is essential to build before improving strength. This exercise also challenges your posture and elbow and wrist stability. A great way to get confidence with overhead movement.

Now I am finally ready to push big loads overhead. This is where I will use integrated movements that allow my legs to assist the shoulders with the load. Not only is this much more efficient it avoids excessive load being forced into one area and gives my body more freedom to move and a chance to adapt and strengthen without stiffness.

The single dumbbell squat push and the barbell squat press with single arm also known as landmine exercises are some of my favourites to use. They both allow the scapula to wrap around the rib cage which we have discussed so many times in this article is vital to the health of the shoulder.

The Turkish Get-up is another key exercise I would certainly use in my programming and depending on the person I might introduce it before the strengthening exercises. It is such a complex movement so it can be difficult to learn but make no mistake it provides incredible benefits with stability and mobility of the shoulder.

Do Not Ignore the Legs

A quick word on why it is important to keep the legs involved once you move to serious loads overhead. If you have followed any of our articles or videos before you should know how important it is to keep the kinetic chain linked. When it comes to the shoulder it is vital for this joint is so vulnerable and unstable it needs as many things to help as possible to avoid dysfunction.

Many injuries can begin at the bottom and work their way up the kinetic chain and it is very common to see shoulder problems emerge after knee or hip injuries. The pelvis is a massive factor to consider and is often a catalyst behind many of the injuries we see. Below are two videos showing how to gradually increase the difficulty and adding the legs into the movement at the end.

There are way too many people who avoid training their legs and this is to their own demise. Apart from looking funny with little legs, developing muscles imbalance and also the chance of injury, they are depriving their body and muscles of the upper body of reaching their full potential by not training their biggest muscle groups.

When you train the legs before upper body exercises and in combination with using integrated movement you release a huge surge of testosterone which everyone knows is the single most important ingredient for growing muscle. Even with females this is important, although they do not produce as much as males which is why they cannot increase in bulk as easily.

If the base is weak, the whole structure is weak! You will find great ideas of how to strengthen the legs and the whole body in our Free Report below. Click here to get your copy.

Putting It All Together

As you can see the shoulder and neck are very difficult to work with as there is so many moving parts and pieces to consider. To give you a template of a workout for this reason is impossible as the only way to determine what to do is assess your body first and let the tests dictate what to do.

Two people with identical symptoms may need completely opposing programs. One may need stacks of mobility where the other it may be the strengthening exercises that are of more importance.

To help you out with this process we created a detailed shoulder pain report that provides with all the tests and exercises in a step by step format so you can finally get rid of your problems for good. To see more about what is included in this detailed report click here and to download instantly click the image below.

Summary

We have really covered a lot of information here and I do apologize for the length of this article but you can see that there is so many things to consider. Our assumption of the upper traps being short and tight is not always true, and just trying to massage it out or stretch it could be in fact causing you more trouble. Always look for the reason it became tight in the first place which in most cases is to do with HOW YOU MOVE! Using the simple assessments shown in this article will give you several clues as to where to look and what to do.

One last thing do not be afraid to strengthen this muscle. In fact I suggest you find a way to make it stronger than ever. All the people I have worked with who have incredible strength in their upper traps rarely suffer with neck and shoulder pain. This tells you something that is very important. I think our logic sometimes betrays us and because we feel pain in this area we avoid it. But maybe it is telling us it is weak and needs attention.

If you enjoyed this article, live in Melbourne and would like to organize a Free Consultation to discuss how we can help you improve your strength and movement fill in the form below and I will be in touch within 24 hours to schedule a time.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 14 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise. He has worked with professional athletes in Golf, Tennis, Basketball and Football but is known throughout the local community more for his work with injury prevention and rehabilitation.  Having participated at high level in many sports himself and also recovering from several serious injuries he has spent considerable time developing detailed assessments and programs to cater for injury and pain.

References

  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Shoulder & Scapula Injuries in Athletes - By Chris Mallac
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions for the Hip & Shoulder - by Evan Osar
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Stuart McGill
  • Back Pain Mechanic – by Stuart McGill
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Scientific Back Training – By Paul Chek