Tight Neck and Shoulders? Giving This Muscle a Rest Might Do the Trick

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Decrease the size of your trapezius muscle by adjusting your workout to target other muscles and adjusting your diet to prevent additional muscle gain.
Image Credit: Cavan Images/Cavan/GettyImages

Sure, being strong and having sculpted shoulders can inspire self-confidence. But if your neck is feeling stiff or achy, your workout may be focusing too much on your trapezius — the muscle that runs from the base of your neck and along the tops of your shoulders — according to Harvard Health Publishing.

When your overly developed trapezius muscle causes you grief, re-evaluate your upper-body workouts and adjust to deemphasize your traps and target the other surrounding muscles to help bring your body back into balance.

Why Your Trapezius May Be Tight

Your trapezius is divided into lower, middle and upper sections, according to their position on your body. While any part can grow stronger than the others, the upper portion is usually the most noticeable, says Sam Becourtney, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York. That's the part located along the top of the shoulder, connecting the neck and shoulders.

"All three of these muscle groups have a slightly different role and function," Becourtney says. "But most commonly, the upper traps are likely to develop to become the largest and be the most visible based on their attachment points and positions that require their engagement."

Why Are My Traps So Big?

For some, larger traps are a part of their strength or physique goals, Becourtney says. But for others, it may be unintentional. Shoulder shrugs, rows and Y lifts will all target your trap muscles whether you intend to grow these muscles or not.

Even if you're not intentionally training your traps, if they're too strong, they can end up taking on the majority of the work during other moves, Becourtney says. Lateral raises are a common example. Although lateral raises are meant to target your shoulders, the trapezius can take over if your form is off — you want to keep your shoulder blades down and back.

"To be clear, this does not mean that you should never use your upper trap muscle, because it certainly is required to lift your arm overhead," Becourtney says. "Rather, you should just be careful to not overuse this muscle group when that is not the intent of the exercise."

Your day-to-day activities may also be contributing to extra trapezius engagement. Carrying heavy items at your sides (like a briefcase or grocery bags), lifting items overhead and looking at a screen for long periods of time are all reasons you may be over-engaging your trapezius.

Risks of Overactive Trap Muscles

As with all muscles, there is some risk to having overactive traps: muscle imbalance. Muscle imbalances happen when certain one muscle is stronger than others surrounding it. In the long run, this can cause pain or injury, as the overly developed muscle ends up compensating for weaker ones.

When it comes to the trap muscles specifically, many people have larger upper traps, which can hinder their ability to perform day-to-day activities, like reaching for a glass on your top kitchen shelf, Becourtney says.

"This can be problematic, because the upper and lower trap muscles are designed to [work together] with a third muscle (serratus anterior) to rotate [the shoulder blade], which is necessary to lift the arms overhead," he says. "If there is an imbalance here, it can lead to potential shoulder or neck pain as well as impaired function when attempting to perform activities overhead."

Decrease Your Trapezius Muscle to Restore Balance to Your Upper Body

If you're starting to feel an ache in your neck and shoulders, start by eliminating trap-dominant exercises from your usual routine, Becourtney says. Avoid exercises, like shoulder shrugs or farmers walks, which are geared toward trap hypertrophy (growth in muscle size and strength).

As you exercise, maintain a good posture, which is a constantly changing posture, Becourtney says. And make sure you move around as much as possible throughout the day. Even set reminders on your phone or computer to encourage you to get up.

"We want to avoid being stuck in the same position for excessive periods of time," he says. "More specifically, if possible, we want to avoid positions where our head is forward and our shoulders are shrugged up to our ears, because this can overwork the upper trapezius muscle."

Whether you're experiencing pain or not, if you want to balance out the appearance of your upper body, focus on exercises that will develop the surrounding muscles, including your shoulders, chest and middle back, like lateral raises, bench presses and rows, Becourtney says.

Physique is all about proportions. So if you can grow the muscles around your traps, they'll stand out less compared to the rest of your body.

Move 1: Lateral Raise

Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Shoulders
  1. Stand with a slight bend in the knees, core engaged.
  2. A dumbbell in each hand, let your arms hang extended at your sides with a slight bend in your elbow, palms facing toward you.
  3. Raise your arms out to the side of your body to about shoulder level, keeping your elbows slightly bent throughout the movement. Focus on keeping your shoulders down and back to prevent them from rising toward your ears.
  4. With control, lower the weights back down to the starting position.

Move 2: Bench Press

Activity Barbell Workout
Body Part Chest
  1. Lie on a flat bench, facing up and gripping the barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Press your feet into the ground and your hips into the bench as you lift the barbell off the rack.
  3. Slowly lower the barbell to your chest, bending at the elbows.
  4. Once the barbell reaches chest height and your elbows dip slightly below the bench, press your heels into the ground to raise the barbell back up.
  5. Return the barbell to starting position, elbows extended but not locked.

Move 3: Bent-Over Row

Activity Barbell Workout
Body Part Back
  1. Grip a barbell with palms facing down so that your wrists, elbows and shoulders are in a straight line.
  2. Lift the bar from the rack or floor, bend forward at the hips and keep your back straight with a slight bend in your knees.
  3. Lower the bar toward the floor until your elbows are completely straight, then pull it toward your sternum while keeping a flat back.
  4. Slowly lower the bar to the starting position.

Are you on track to achieve your fitness goals? Download the MyPlate app to keep tabs on the number of calories you burn during your workouts and stay motivated.

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