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The upper traps

Woman flexing back musclesAnd you ask, what is a trap and why do I need to relax it?  The trapezius, “trap,” muscles are large muscles in your back that extend from the mid-back up your neck and over your shoulders.  The traps are separated into three different areas: upper, middle, and lower traps.


Many times in physical therapy, at the gym, or even doing everyday tasks, I see people carrying the weight, tension or stress in their upper traps.  There are simple ways to be able to know if this could be you:

  • Headaches/ Pain: your traps attach to the back of your head and can cause tension headaches, dizziness, sharp pain in your eyes, or shooting pain down the arms.

  • Poor posture: When you are not thinking about it, your shoulders can be scrunched up, not relaxed (away from your ears). Especially if you sit at a desk all day!  

Overuse in the upper traps can be caused from weakness in other muscles in your body, most commonly the rhomboids and lower trap, along with the latissimus dorsi, “lats.”  The best way to begin to engage these muscles instead of the upper traps is to relax your shoulders and then push back by squeezing your shoulder blades together as if you are trying to squeeze something in between them.  

Hint: While pushing your shoulder blades back, don’t squeeze and elevate your shoulders, but instead, squeeze down.  Lat pull downs at the gym will help strengthen this area so it becomes more natural.  Just make sure that your traps are relaxed (farther from your ears) throughout the movement.  This technique can be very important while carrying heavy things and will help prevent injury by using the correct muscle for the task.

If you enjoy working out and getting stronger, becoming more and more aware of how you use your traps will improve your results in the gym.  I see people unnecessarily use their traps in a variety of exercises: lat pull downs, rows, bicep curls, tricep dips,etc.  This mostly happens when (a) someone is unaware that they are using the wrong muscle or (b) someone is using too much weight for the muscle they are trying to train, so they end up compensating with their upper traps.  Hey, there’s no shame in picking up the lighter weight in order to avoid overusing the wrong muscles!  

Just remember: relax and push back!

The Theracane can help release tightness and knots in your traps.  Stretches can help relieve tension in the muscles.

Danielle Gershon, ACSM Certified Personal Trainer