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If you spend several hours a day sitting at a desk, you may get to the end of the day with a stiff neck and aches to your upper back and shoulders.
This is common. But what could be causing it?
In this article, we’re going to address some of the likely reasons for this discomfort along with some of the best upper trap exercises to strengthen this weak traps, leading to a better posture and a reduction in aches and pains.
What Causes Tight Upper Traps
Your traps muscle is a large flat muscle to the back of your upper body that runs from the base of your skull, down across your shoulder blades ending at your middle back.
When your traps become tight, you’ll notice tension and a dull ache to the back of your neck and your upper traps.
Two of the most likely causes resulting in this discomfort could be a weakness to the traps muscle or having overactive upper traps.
Let’s look at these in a bit more detail.
When Your Upper Traps Are Overactive
When your upper trap muscles are overactive this means they’re doing more work than they should to help stabilize your shoulders.
The muscles around your neck and top of your back are in a constant state of contraction.
When this happens, you may have symptoms like soreness to the area and to the back of your neck, tension headaches, and a reduced range of motion where you can’t seem to move your neck and shoulders freely.
Your upper traps are what’s known as a tonic muscle and that means they help to maintain your posture for a long period of time.
The lower traps are the opposing muscle and classed as a phasic muscle and they engage to help you perform rapid and powerful movements.
If you sit at a desk all day, the upper traps start to overwork and essentially shut down all other muscles, specifically the lower trapezius muscles.
The more time you spend in this sedentary position the further the imbalance becomes with the discomfort increasing.
The upper traps can pull on your shoulder blades resulting in shoulder pain and can also contribute to poor posture.
The best way to correct overactive traps is to perform isometric exercises using light weights and stretches to encourage the upper traps to relax.
This is important before working out as when the upper traps remain engaged, this will likely prevent you from doing certain upper traps exercises with proper form.
When Your Upper Traps Are Weak
When the upper trapezius muscle is weak, this is usually because of lack and exercise and muscle imbalances.
It’s worth noting that this can also lead to tightness and the muscle becoming overactive.
What this means is that an overactive upper trap doesn’t necessarily equate to it being strong.
If you have an imbalance to the different portions of your traps, this could cause overcompensation of certain muscles.
In some cases, it can also lead to shoulder impingement.
This is where the tendons of the shoulder joint become irritated and inflamed.
It can be hard to tell whether your upper traps are weak or overactive.
Recommended Reading – 7 Best Lower Trap Exercises For Posture And Improved Body Positioning
A good way to determine if you have weak upper traps is to look at your collar bone (the clavicle).
If it’s horizontal this is a sign of a depressed shoulder, so your shoulders take on a slouched or rounded position.
Ideally, the collar bone should be angled and sloping downwards as it nears your middle chest.
Whether your upper traps are weak or overactive the root cause of this can be any of the following:
- Poor posture where you remain in a static position for long periods with your shoulders rounding forward.
- Stress can cause your shoulders to become tense leading to overactive traps.
- Muscle imbalances between the opposing muscles like the lower or mid traps.
- Poor mobility to your shoulders can lead to your upper traps becoming overactive.
- Doing little to no exercise can cause your upper back muscle to become weak.
Best Upper Trap Exercises & Stretches To Relieve Tension & Strengthen Muscles
In the case of weak upper traps, you’ll want to focus on strengthening exercises to address any muscle imbalances and poor posture.
On the other hand, for overactive traps, isometric holds and stretches will help to disengage the muscle helping it to relax.
Exercises For Weak Upper Traps
The exercises below are designed to help strengthen the upper traps and surrounding muscles.
Single Arm Landmine Shrug
Sometimes called the unilateral barbell shrug, this is one of best exercises for strengthening the upper traps.
It involves having your working arm positioned at an approximate 30-degree angle.
This different plane of motion, when compared to a regular dumbbell shrug exercise, puts your scapula in the best position for isolating your upper traps.
How To Do The Single Arm Landmine Shrug:
- Anchor the end of a barbell into a landmine attachment or wedge into the corner of a room.
- Stand at the free end of the bar so that it’s positioned in front of you.
- With your feet shoulder-width apart take of the end of the bar with the hand closest to it.
- Stand upright and ensure your working arm is around 30 degrees away from your upper leg. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your arm extended shrug your shoulder towards your ear.
- Pause at the top of the movement and squeeze your upper traps.
- Use control to lower back to the start and repeat.
- Make sure to complete the same number of reps on both sides.
Half Kneeling Landmine Shoulder Press
This is a good alternative to a regular overhead press exercise.
The half kneeling position helps to encourage good lumbar and thoracic spine alignment which can contribute to better thoracic mobility.
Pressing the barbell overhead recruits the upper traps to help elevate your shoulders.
How To Do The Half Kneeling Landmine Shoulder Press:
- With the barbell loaded into a landmine attachment or secured into the corner of a room, kneel just at the end of the bar.
- Take your left foot and position it in front of your body so your now in a half kneeling position.
- Take hold of the end of the barbell with your right hand.
- From here, press the barbell upwards.
- Hold at the top before lowering back to the start.
- As with the landmine shrug, be sure to perform equal reps on both sides.
Seated Single Arm Overhead Press
This is one of the best trap exercises for minimizing stress on your neck and shoulder muscles.
It does this by providing additional support and stability making it easier to control the movement.
As your upper traps get stronger you can progress to a standing variation.
Aside from working your delts, it engages your upper traps which recruit to help stabilize you throughout the movement.
How To Do The Seated Single Arm Overhead Press:
- Start by sitting on the edge of a bench.
- Place your free hand flat on the bench for support.
- Hold a lightweight dumbbell in your working arm with an overhand grip.
- Bring the dumbbell to shoulder height, keeping your elbow bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Brace your core and then press the dumbbell straight up and overhead.
- Extend your arm as much as possible but don’t lock out your elbow.
- Lower slowly back to the start and then repeat.
Trap 3 Raise
When performing the trap 3 raise, your upper trap muscles will engage as your lift your arms and initiate scapular retraction.
This is also a great exercise for activating the lower traps which can be underactive in some people.
How To Do the Trap 3 Raise:
- Set the back rest on an adjustable bench to anywhere between 60 and 75 degrees.
- Stand behind the bench and bend your torso forwards until it’s almost parallel with the floor.
- Rest your free arm on the back of the bench and hold a light dumbbell in your working arm.
- Completely relax your working arm allowing it to hang down.
- To initiate the movement, retract your shoulder blade as though shrugging it towards the ceiling.
- Keeping your arm straight, raise the dumbbell straight up until the arm is in line with your upper body.
- Pause for a second then lower back to the start.
- Protract your shoulder blade so it drops back down and then repeat.
Seated Cable Scapular Retraction
This movement won’t actually target your upper traps, but it will recruit your lower and middle trapezius muscles.
This helps to ‘waken’ these muscles up and reinforces their use.
When all parts of the traps work together efficiently, this can help prevent any part of this muscle from becoming weak.
It’s a short range of motion exercises that designed to encourage a good mind to muscle connection when your squeeze your shoulder blades together.
How To Do the Seated Cable Scapular Retraction:
- Choose the desired weight on a lat pull cable machine and attach a straight bar.
- Sit down and take hold of the bar with both hands using a shoulder width, overhand grip.
- Keep your head and chest up, with your back and arms straight.
- Instead of bending your arms to pull the bar towards you, use control to slowly draw your shoulder blades back as far as you can manage.
- Hold for a second before reversing back to the start.
Exercises For Overactive Traps
This next group of exercises are to help relax and release overactive trap muscles.
So, it’s important to remember these are designed to help ‘switch off’ the upper traps when they feel tight and knotted.
When done with proper form, they can also help to relax the shoulders and levator scapulae (a neck muscles that helps to lift the shoulders).
Scapular Retraction & Protraction
This is a bodyweight exercise that involves bringing your shoulder blades together (retraction) followed by moving them away from each other (protraction).
These subtle movements are important for maintaining proper shoulder mechanics, stability, and range of motion.
Understanding scapular retraction and protraction is crucial for various exercises and activities involving the upper body.
How To Perform Scapular Retraction & Protraction:
- Start on the floor on your hands and knees in a tabletop position.
- Make sure your hands are under your shoulders and knees under your hips.
- Keeping your arms locked out squeeze your shoulder blades together so your body lowers slightly towards the floor.
- Hold and then push through your hands and bring your shoulder blades apart as far as possible.
- Take time to pause at the top and bottom of the movements.
Seated Scapular Depression
This is an excellent exercise to help promote good shoulder health and prevent things like shoulder impingement.
It’ll engage rhomboids, serratus anterior, and lower traps and by doing so helps to promote better muscle balance which helps to relieve tension and tightness to your upper traps.
How To Do The Seated Shoulder Depression:
- Sit on the edge of a bench or chair, keeping your back straight and feet flat on the floor.
- Place both hands down by your sides so they’re in line with your hips and set back a little.
- Now push through your hands keeping your elbows locked out throughout.
- This movement depresses the shoulder and helps to relax the upper traps.
- Squeeze the muscles to the middle of your back and hold this position for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times. Work your way up to 1 minute.
Wall slides are a mobility exercise that will work the muscles surrounding the shoulder blades and the upper traps.
When done often, they’re a great way to promote better shoulder mobility and good posture.
How To Do Wall Slides:
- Stand with your back against a wall.
- Raise both arms and position them against the wall in an L shape. Your elbows should be in line with your shoulders with the back of your hands pressed against the wall.
- Push your glutes, upper back and core into the wall.
- From here slide both arms up.
- Go as far as you can while keeping your upper body in place. Aim to lock out your elbows if you can but don’t force it.
- Hold briefly before sliding your arms back to the start and then repeat.
Incorporating these upper trapezius exercises into your shoulder workouts can be instrumental in enhancing strength and alleviating overactivity.
By focusing on these specific exercises, you can help to balance out the different portions of the trap muscles and shoulders.
This in turn can help to encourage a more upright posture and boost your shoulder health.
It’s important to note that the exercises designed to promote relaxation of overactive traps should be used in conjunction with strengthening exercises.
This is because while they may provide quick relief, this will likely be temporary so it’s a good idea to focus on building well-developed traps.
Another good way of helping to relax your upper traps is to focus on increasing strength to the lower traps.
This will help to address any muscle imbalances and prevent the more dominant part of your back muscles from taking over.