How to Fix Your Tight and Painful Upper Traps

We get comments like this all the time…

“There are always knots in my traps”

or…

“My traps are super tight, and I cannot stretch them enough”

Along with these complaints, there’s also stacks of research implicating the upper traps as the driving force behind shoulder pain.

But we should stop thinking of the upper ‘Trap’ as a four letter word.

It’s not the bad guy in the relationship… It’s just misunderstood!

This article will shine some light on this common complaint, and give you a better plan to fix the issue.

First…What is the Trapezius?

The trapezius has 3 distinct groups of muscle fibers that align in different directions. This divides it into upper, middle, and lower sections.

Based on their origin, insertion, and fiber orientation, when working alone (no muscle ever works in isolation, but muscles do play more dominant roles) each section plays a different responsibility in stabilizing and moving the scapula.  Considering individual muscle actions:

  • The Upper Trapezius elevates the scapula, which creates a shrugging motion.
  • The Middle Trapezius retracts the scapula, or squeezes the shoulders blades together.
  • The Lower Trapezius depresses the scapula, which pulls is the scapula down.

But often left unrecognized, is how trapezius works synergistically with other muscles to produce more complex movement patterns.  For the trapezius, it’s got an important role in rotating the scapula upwards.  Essential to any action that requires lifting the arm.

See below how the upper trap, lower trap, and serratus anterior work together to pivot the scapula. This is important to maintain space within the shoulder joint (i.e.-avoid impingement), but also create a stable position for the arm.

Related to this balance, the upper trap is often blamed for overpowering the balance of the other shoulder stabilizers (ref, ref), which leads to shoulder pain and faulty movement of the scapula—a condition called scap dyskinesis.

Dealing with Pain and Stiffness

Pain and stiffness of the upper trap is a common complaint, often paired with high stress and long work hours.

Notice that any mall or airport these days has a booth staffed with massage therapists ready to work on those tight trap pain points.

The underlying issues behind this pain and stiffness is diverse, not to mention complex and controversial, which we will almost certainly tackle in future articles.  But for now understand that the unpleasant sensations are perceptions.

They’re formed by messages traveling to the brain from the body, which the brain then translates into feelings of discomfort, tightness, or pain.

Techniques such as massage, foam rolling, and stretching can effectively alter those perceptions.  Which is a good thing, because it often means relief from nagging discomfort.

However, these are usually temporary changes, that don’t necessarily address the stimulus—leaving pain to return once again later on.  

The point being, if you’ve had a long and stressful work week, find some relaxation with a massage.  Or if you’re feeling tight after a long flight, a massage ball may be useful.

But if these are regularly scheduled things to deal with chronic pain and tightness, you’re barking up the wrong tree.  

It’s time to look at the underlying causes to the recurrent problem.

Carrying the Load

The usual suspect for the faulty upper trap is the everyday desk posture, which can mean that can be either shortened or lengthened for hours at a time. Or heavy workouts can make the traps knotted and sore, especially if they include an overload of heavy pulling exercises.

While correcting posture and workloads can lessen the symptoms, there are bigger and often unaddressed things underlying the issue….

That is the the upper trap has a weak supporting cast.

As discussed earlier, the action of the upper trap combines with the serratus anterior and lower trapezius to create upward rotation of the scapula.

The serratus anterior and lower trapezius are notoriously weak and lack proper neuromuscular control.  With these muscle groups underperforming, something has to step in to carry the load. That is the upper trapezius, which must overwork to makeup for the inability to create upward rotation.

So rather than continuing to hammering the upper trap with mobility, try working on building a better movement system.  A system where muscles effectively move together, contracting and lengthening in coordination with each other.  Specifically for the upper trap, this means improving the balance for upward rotation of the scapula.

How to Create Better Balance

When working with people on Crossover Symmetry, there’s often the tendency to shrug with many of the exercises.  That’s because the upper trapezius is doing what it’s been told to do… carry the load.

The first step is recognizing that it’s happening.  Pause at the end of the movements, check into your position, and relax the shoulders down.  At first it feels awkward or even impossible, but overtime the need to reposition will lessen. And with work, strength and motor control will improve and shrugging will be easier to recognize and correct.

In this Crossover Tip we show some some easy correctives for the shrug when using Crossover Symmetry: [LINK]

But if you continue to struggle with the shrug, or find yourself in discomfort without your Crossover System on hand to fix it, here are some additional correctives to try out…

(Notes: For the Thoracic Flexion & Extension exercise work on the movement of the scapula around the rib cage).

(Notes: For the Prone Sphinx, when reaching the scapula should rotate around the body, moving under the armpit.)

(Notes:  For the L-Sit, keep the sets short, but the intensity high.  Drive the shoulder blades down and around the body.  Rest when you feel shoulders lifting up into the ears.)

The Upper Trap Fix

So next time you feel like your upper traps are tight, skip the stretching and give them a dose of movement.  

Doing things like Crossover Symmetry will work the muscles that both oppose and complement the the upper trap, which will create feedback to the whole shoulder complex to be more active where it’s needed, and to relax where it’s not.

And over time this new found strength and balance will lend itself to better shoulder function and the elimination of tight traps and painful shoulders.

But stop trying to stretch the problem away!  Instead use exercise to strengthen and create a different motor program for your shoulders.  

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