Your "traps" or trapezius muscle is a large muscle of your upper back that actually has three functional parts.
1. The upper traps (what most people actually refer to when they say "traps") which elevate the scapula.
2. The middle traps that retract the scapula.
3. The lower traps that depress the scapula.
All fibers also take part in rotation of the scapula along with other muscles to support the weight of the arm.
Most people have highly overactive upper traps due to holding tension by "shrugging" the shoulders as well as using poor movement mechanics in exercises like overhead presses. Think of how long some people sit with a hunched posture and elevated shoulders. The amount of tension that builds up is insane!
As a result, the middle and lower traps are underdeveloped causing dysfunctional movement in the shoulders.
Outside of poor movement, this can lead to shoulder and neck pain, as well as tension headaches.
To fix this we need to regain functional control of the scapula by balancing the development of all fibers of the trapezius muscle. This means decreasing tension in the upper traps while increasing activation of the mid and lower traps.
The Upper Trapezius
Here we're going to stretch, apply myofascial release, and activate (yes activate) these upper fibers to decrease tension.
Both stretching and self-myofascial release help to decrease unnecessary activation of the upper traps caused by shrugging and poor mechanics. However, at the same time, we want to activate the upper traps properly under controlled conditions in order to bring blood flow to the muscle and put it through its full natural range of motion.
Stretching and muscle fiber release
A doorway can be used as an anchor point for a small object (like a lacrosse ball) to be used to dig into the traps and search for tight spots and places of tension.
Likewise, you can use a barbell or a dowel (if available) to do the same thing.
Activate the upper traps in a controlled environment
I absolutely love using cables or bands to do this on a slight angle as it helps to better activate the upper traps without jamming up your neck or shoulder. The weight of the cables or tension of bands helps give an active stretch on the way down as a bonus.
The Middle and Lower Trapezius
Here we want to increase activation in order to improve our ability to retract and depress the scapula, thereby preventing the "shrugged" shoulder posture.
Below are a few examples of exercises I personally like to use.
The goal of each of these methods is to regain control of your scapula by balancing out the functions of the trapezius muscle. Outside of this, being more aware of your posture when you're not exercising will do wonders for decreasing tension. Do not let those shoulders shrug up!
I recommend spending 5-10 minutes daily working on all aspects of your traps. Balance stretching and myofascial release with proper activation.
A program may look as follows:
- upper trap stretching (20-40s per side)
- upper trap myofascial release (20-40s per side)
- lateral shrug (10-15 reps per side, multiple sets if necessary)
- reach, roll, and lift (10-15 reps per side, multiple sets if necessary)
- YTA's (10-12 reps, multiple sets if necessary)
To your good health,
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