Neck Pain Exercises

Tight Upper Traps | Neck Pain Exercises | Upper Trap Exercises

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Tight upper traps

Tight Upper Traps | Neck Pain Exercises | Upper Trap Exercises

The upper traps are often demonized as the cause of neck and shoulder problems due to EMG studies that show high activity and altered ratios of recruitment. The question however is why they show high activity! We argue that this is rather due to weakness, fatigue, and pain as we place a lot of demands upon the upper traps during activities of daily living, especially if the upper traps have to compensate for a weak rotator cuff. Vigotsky et al. in the year 2015 also show that greater EMG responses do not imply greater motor unit recruitment and therefore “hypertrophic potential” cannot be inferred. On top of that Andersen et al. in the year 2014 have shown that high-intensity strength training improves the function of chronically painful upper trapezius muscles. In another video, we are going into more detail about why “tight” muscles have to be strengthened instead of stretched, massaged, and “released”. Watch the video below to learn more!

So how do we best train the upper traps then? Most people think of shrugs as the go-to exercise for the upper traps. However, shrugs are not the best exercise, as the fiber angle of the traps is not optimal in 0° abduction and the levator scapulae will have a high activity as well. Castelein et al. (2016) found that the activity of the levator can be reduced in the overhead shrug. To perform this exercise, face a wall with a distance of about a forearm’s length. Then place your arm into an overhead position against the wall and perform a shrug movement. In order to progress this exercise, the patient can use free weights and perform the same overhead shrug movement in the air. Be careful that the elbows are as straight as possible and that the patient does not compensate with the deltoids and the triceps.

Another great way to modify the classic shrug is described by Pizzari et al in the year 2014. They have shown that the upward rotation shrug at 30 degrees of should abduction produces higher upper, middle, and lower trap and serratus activity. To achieve this position you can either perform the classic shrug with between 2 cable pulleys or perform monkey shrugs. To perform the monkey shrugs, hold two dumbbells at hip height with flexed elbow and perform a standard shrug without altering the flexion angle at the elbow.

At last, there are several exercises that work the upper traps in a more compound way together with other muscles. Andersen et al. in 2008 have shown that simple lateral raises with a theraband or dumbbells have a high activation of the upper traps and from the study of Wattanprakornul in 2011 we know that abduction movements activate all 4 rotator cuff muscles to a similar degree.


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Vigotsky AD, Beardsley C, Contreras B, Steele J, Ogborn D, Phillips SM. Greater electromyographic responses do not imply greater motor unit recruitment and ‘hypertrophic potential’cannot be inferred. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2017 Jan 1;31(1):e1-4.

Andersen LL, Andersen CH, Skotte JH, Suetta C, Søgaard K, Saltin B, Sjøgaard G. High-intensity strength training improves function of chronically painful muscles: case-control and RCT studies. BioMed research international. 2014 Feb 23;2014.

Johnson G, Bogduk N, Nowitzke A, House D. Anatomy and actions of the trapezius muscle. Clinical biomechanics. 1994 Jan 1;9(1):44-50.

Castelein B, Cools A, Parlevliet T, Cagnie B. Modifying the shoulder joint position during shrugging and retraction exercises alters the activation of the medial scapular muscles. Manual therapy. 2016 Feb 1;21:250-5.

Andersen LL, Kjær M, Andersen CH, Hansen PB, Zebis MK, Hansen K, Sjøgaard G. Muscle activation during selected strength exercises in women with chronic neck muscle pain. Physical therapy. 2008 Jun 1;88(6):703-11.

Pizzari T, Wickham J, Balster S, Ganderton C, Watson L. Modifying a shrug exercise can facilitate the upward rotator muscles of the scapula. Clinical Biomechanics. 2014 Feb 1;29(2):201-5.

Wattanaprakornkul D, Cathers I, Halaki M, Ginn KA. The rotator cuff muscles have a direction specific recruitment pattern during shoulder flexion and extension exercises. Journal of science and medicine in sport. 2011 Sep 1;14(5):376-82.

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