If you have muscle stiffness, shoulder or neck pain or tingling in your arms, you may have an issue with your trapezius muscle. Specific trapezius muscle exercises can help you overcome pain and restore function and comfort.
About a Painful Trapezius Muscle
The trapezius muscle is located in the upper back. It's shaped like a triangle and runs from the base of the skull to the middle of the spine — the thoracic spine. It spans the entire width of the shoulders. The muscle has a superior (upper), middle and inferior (lower) segment, and each plays an important role in the movement of the neck and shoulders.
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The trapezius muscle gets its name from the trapezoid shape it forms. It lies just beneath the skin and is the most superficial of the back muscles. It covers the area of the upper back, shoulders and neck. This is one of the widest muscles in the back and inserts at the spine, scapulae, ribs and clavicles.
Strong trapezius muscles are important to good posture, but they also come into play when you side bend or turn your head, raise and lower your shoulders or internally rotate your arm.
Identify Trapezius Pain
The superior region rotates the scapula and extends the neck. The middle part of the muscle retracts the scapula, while the lower part aids in the upper rotation of the scapula. These movements are intrinsic to throwing objects, such as a softball.
If you have pain in your trapezius muscle, it may be due to overuse, such as swimming or lifting heavy objects. Stress could be another cause, as you likely hold tension in a shrugged neck and shoulder area.
A long day at the computer may also be to blame. A study published in Pain Research and Treatment in March 2014 reported that about one-third of working-age adults are regularly bothered by neck pain, usually due to prolonged static positions — such as sitting in front of a computer screen. Many of these people have tender trapezius muscles, which correlates with their neck and shoulder pain.
Trapezius muscle exercises and trapezius stretches for pain may help when you're injured. Compromised trapezius muscles can cause stiffness, shoulder or neck pain, muscle spasms, tingling or numbness and decreased range of motion in the shoulders or neck.
Trapezius spasms and pain is a common cause of tension headaches that are throbbing, affect both sides of your head and wrap around to the top of the head and forehead regions.
Trapezius Muscle Exercises
Some of the most effective exercises for your traps are the shoulder shrug and rowing actions, explains a June 2016 review in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. Scaption, a movement that involves lifting the arms from the sides in a slightly forward alignment, also uses the trapezius. Here are some simple exercises that can strengthen and stretch this muscle.
Move 1: Reverse Fly
Reverse flyes are an effective way to target the middle trapezius. The muscle is responsible for helping your scapulae squeeze together and push upward toward your neck, explains the American Council on Exercise.
- Stand and hold a dumbbell in each hand.
- Hinge forward from your hips at least 45 degrees. Allow the dumbbells to hang down toward the floor.
- Inhale and open your arms to the sides of the room while squeezing your shoulder blades (scapula).
- Exhale and slowly bring the weights back to the start position.
- Repeat for one to three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions.
Move 2: Narrow Push-up
The Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation published a small study in 2019 showing that a narrow push-up, with the hands about shoulder-distance apart and the elbows held close to the body as you lower and lift, works the trapezius too.
- Get into the top of a push-up — a plank position.
- Place the hands shoulder-distance apart, which is more narrow than a traditional push-up
- Bend your elbows to form a 90-degree angle
- Extend the elbows back up to the start position
- Perform 10 to 12 repetitions for one to three sets.
Stretching can also help relieve muscle pain due to excess stress and tension in the trapezius muscle, explains St. Luke's Health System.
Move 3: Seated Upper Trapezius Stretch
The seated upper trapezius stretch is an effective way to release tight muscles in the trapezius muscle.
- Sit on a table and grasp the edge with the left hand. Alternatively, stand with both feet firmly grounded.
- Drop your head to the right side and gently apply pressure with the right hand.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
- Do about 10 repetitions, holding each for approximately five counts.
If you have trapezius pain, check with your doctor before you add any exercises to your workouts to ensure they won't worsen your symptoms.
- Advances in Clinical and Experimental Medicine: "Quantitative Anatomy of the Trapezius Muscle in the Human Fetus"
- Pain Research and Treatment: "Association Between Neck/Shoulder Pain and Trapezius Muscle Tenderness in Office Workers"
- International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy: "A Systematic Review of the Exercises That Produce Optimal Muscle Ratios of the Scapular Stabilizers in Normal Shoulders"
- Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation: "Outcomes of the Lower Trapezius Muscle Activities During Various Narrow-base Push-up Exercises"
- St. Luke's Health System: "Head Tilt"
- Drayer Physical Therapy Institute: "Seated Upper Trapezius Stretch"
- American Council on Exercise: "What Is the Best Back Exercise?"