The Upper Trap Conundrum

Do your upper traps feel like they could always use a massage?

Are you beginning to think that your upper traps might actually be a demon sent to torture you?

This could be a post you’ll want to read.


At this year’s Perform Better 1-Day Learn-by-Doing seminar, I had the chance to hear Sue Falsone speak. Her topic for the day was The Nervous System: What Do You Really Need To Know? Every time I hear Sue Falsone speak, she gets me thinking about stuff that is always immediately relevant to working with circus artist-athletes. The following is one such example.


Not too long ago, I spotted a post on the Book of Faces wherein several people were cursing their upper traps. It’s not uncommon.

“Tight”, “overactive” upper traps.

What often accompanies complaints of tight, overactive—and possibly hellspawned—upper traps is self-massage using a lacrosse ball, stretching or manual therapy.

And, of course, “we’ve gotta get your lower trap to fire more!”

Disclaimer: I have been guilty of saying this in the past, even though I know it’s not technically accurate.

Confounding variables

Here’s the thing: Trapezius—the whole thing: upper, middle, lower—is innervated by one nerve.

Cranial nerve XI, the spinal accessory nerve, for the nerds in the house.

One. Nerve.

That means that, strictly speaking, you can’t have one part of the trap—say, the upper trap—firing more than another part—say, the lower trap—because the whole muscle gets its neural input from the same nerve. If a signal comes into the trapezius to fire, the whole thing fires.

However,

…delving a little deeper into biomechanical geekery…

Let’s say, just for the sake of example, that you have strong lats. Those strong lats likely have quite a bit of stiffness. At rest, they probably exert a bit of a downward pull on your scapulas, which, in turn, creates a bit of pull on the muscle fibers of your upper trapezius.

Inside each skeletal muscle fiber there is what’s called an intrafusal fiber. Intrafusal fibers detect the rate and amount of length change in a muscle. They are literally proprioceptors. When the intrafusal fibers detect a length change, it sends a signal to the spinal cord that results in a return signal telling the muscle to contract.

Yes, muscles respond to stretch by contracting.

Now, if a muscle—or in this case, only certain fibers (upper trapezius) within a larger muscle (the trapezius)—finds itself in a stretched position pretty much always, then the intrafusal fibers will always be telling those muscle fibers to contract.

This means those muscle fibers will have more resting tension (tone).

But wait, there’s more!

The body is remarkable, and it is anything but static. Always engaged in a cycle of breaking down and building back up. Remodeling, as it were, based on the regular demands placed upon the system.

If we have these upper trapezius muscle fibers existing in a constant state of partial contraction, your body will assume that’s how you want things to be and will lay down extra collagen in order to make those lengthened upper trap muscle fibers stiffer and more robust.

Great, body. Thanks.

So, what’s an intrepid circus artist-athlete to do?

Popular options have included self-myofascial work with a lacrosse ball or thera-cane or some other instrument of self-massage. Also popular are the skilled hands of your favorite manual therapist.

All good options.

You may find, however, that if the only thing you do is self-massage and/or have manual therapy done, that annoying upper trap stuff just keeps coming back to haunt you.

Before we talk potential strategies for solving the upper trap riddle, let’s look a bit more closely at what might be going on…

This is a blog post on the internet. This is not a replacement for having a professional take you through an assessment.

The following is general, as opposed to individualized for you.

Here are a few things for us to consider:

Posture.

Posture is, by and large, a misunderstood and, at times, over-emphasized concept.

For example, there isn’t really a very strong correlation between static posture and dynamic shoulder mechanics.

However, if your static posture involves your upper trap muscle fibers being in slightly stretched…all day long…that’s going to have an influence on those fibers (as outlined above).

This, by the way, is yet another example of how the “shoulders back and down” cue that we all thought was so great…just isn’t.

Note that up to this point, we have only been discussing the situation where the upper traps are on stretch. It is also possible for the opposite to be true: the muscle fibers of the upper traps can be short and tight. That’s a different situation to be addressed at another time. For now, I’m focusing on the former because the overwhelming majority of aerialists and circus artists that I work with present with downwardly rotated scapulae at rest.

Recall that good overhead motion requires, among other things, upward rotation of the scapula. Starting from a position of relative downward rotation is like starting a race from ten feet behind the starting line.

As Falsone points out in her book, it’s extremely difficult to have an efficient movement pattern that starts from an inefficient position.

Changing posture often requires a combination of different training (to change the balance of resting muscle tone), a mindful effort to shift from the undesirable position into the more desirable position (without overdoing it) and diligence (because change takes time).

Is this you? You could screen yourself: look at yourself in the mirror. Downwardly rotated scapulas often shows up as a really flat clavicular angle.

A what? A clavicular angle.

Your clavicles are your collarbones.

Ideally, from your neck out towards your shoulders, they slope upwards at somewhere between 6 to 20 degrees. If yours look flat, your scapulas may be downwardly rotated. (As always, getting a pro to look at this is more helpful).

Training.

Let’s say that your training regimen consists of training in your circus-art-of-choice plus “conditioning” made up of all the most popular and traditional circus “conditioning exercises”. If that is the case, chances are your body is strong in some ways and not so strong in others.

Consider the shoulder (since that’s what we’re talking about): for many circus disciplines, there is a lot of vertical pulling going on. Climbs, pull-ups, possibly some chin-ups, more climbing and more pull-ups.

For the handbalancing crowd, there is obviously a lot of vertical pressing/pushing.

And, in all likelihood, we get some horizontal pushing included when we do push-ups.

What circus training tends not to include is a lot of horizontal pulling. This deficit doesn’t help to balance out the forces at play around the shoulder joint.

If the overall balance of inputs for your shoulder are telling the muscle fibers of your upper traps to be one way, then that’s how they’re gonna be (in this case, lengthened, stiff and annoying).

In fact, what is most often the case is that muscles such as pec minor, subclavius and scalenes get stiff conspire with really stiff lats to keep the scapula down. You know, back behind the starting line.

All of which puts the fibers of the upper trapezius on stretch.

Getting back to the ‘what to do about it?’ question

As mentioned above, a common train of thought revolves around getting the lower trap to ‘fire more’.

Interestingly, “upper trap” and “lower trap” form one half of an important force-couple. The other half of this dynamic duo (yes, duo: now that we’re clear on upper and lower trap as being parts of just one muscle, the trapezius) is your serratus anterior!

Let’s have a big round of applause for serratus anterior!

Not only do these extra stiff upper trap fibers make for achiness and annoying tension headaches, they also tend to interfere with optimal scapular mechanics with overhead motion.

That’s right: if your “upper traps” are all jacked up, chances are you could benefit from improving how your scapulas move!

Here is a three-part strategy for getting those scapulas moving and upwardly rotating better—and making sure they continue to do so, in spite of your circus training!

All-fours belly breathing

The video is kind of boring to watch, but here’s how it goes:

  1. Hands slightly ahead of shoulders, knees slightly behind hips.
  2. Inhale through your nose and arch up into “cat” position.
  3. Actively press the floor away from you with your hands so that you feel your shoulder blades wrap forward around your ribcage.
  4. As you round up through your back, you can also tuck your pelvis under. This will help to put some length into the lats.
  5. Exhale through pursed lips. Exhale all of the air.
  6. Maintain this position.
  7. Inhale through your nose again and feel your arched spine fill up with air.
  8. Exhale through pursed lips. Exhale all of the air.
  9. Do 5-10 breaths in this position.

1-Arm Serratus Slides with a med ball

  1. There are other versions of this exercise, but I am liking the one-armed version after hearing about it from Eric Cressey.
  2. This is all about getting your shoulder blade to move as your arm goes up—not about getting your arm all the way overhead.
  3. Keep your ribs down and your core engaged throughout. Press the ball into the wall throughout.
  4. Exhale on the way up. Through pursed lips. All the air.
  5. If you find this challenging, I recommend also pausing at the top to do one complete breath cycle before pulling your elbow back to the start position.
  6. Be mindful of not dumping your shoulder forward at the bottom.
  7. Speaking of the bottom…try not to let your elbow go below armpit height.

It’s important to note that these first two exercises represent preparation for the real work. The breathing exercise helps to shift the balance of muscle tone (i.e., where you’re carrying tension) and the med ball slides help to get your body into the habit of upwardly rotating your scapula as you move your arm overhead.

To ‘lock this in’, so to speak, requires strength work.

So, we take the same movement pathway and train it with resistance. My current favorite is the half-kneeling landmine press.

  • This position provides a close-to-full overhead range of motion that is easily adjusted based on where your current capabilities are at.
  • And it makes it easy to emphasize and reinforce the correct movement mechanics.
  • And, the half-kneeling position integrates core engagement with the shoulder strengthening.
  • Awesome sauce.

So there you have it. Simple, but not easy. General, but customizable.

Seriously, if you suffer from ongoing “upper trap” shenanigans, this may represent a part of the “solution” for you…and I’m pretty confident that most people will only benefit from doing any, or (ideally) all three, of these exercises. However, it took time for the collagen to build up in your upper trap fibers and it took time for your body to develop the postural and/or training habits that created this situation, so it’s going to take some time for it to get better.

And, for the love of all that is good and circus-y, if you are still doing any variation of “shoulders back and down”, stop.

That’s all for now.

~Mike

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