Your fan-shaped trapezius muscles are divided into three sections: the upper, middle and lower fibers. And although it's tempting to think of shoulder shrugs as the go-to trapezius exercise, they work the upper traps.
If you want to work your lower trapezius, the exercises you choose will be a little different.
The Lower Trapezius Action
Your lower trapezius muscles have an important job — bringing your shoulder blades down and together, then holding them there against the pull of other muscles.
In more formal language, that means the lower trapezius action includes rotating, adducting and depressing your shoulder blades, and they also counteract the upward pull of your upper trapezius fibers. The lower trapezius also assists with thoracic extension, an important part of your ability to maintain appropriate posture and mobility in the shoulder joint.
If you're too tight in your upper trapezius fibers and too weak in your lower trapezius, these exercises may be useful to restore balance. It can be tricky to diagnose and treat postural and movement problems on your own, though, so when possible it's always good to recruit a fitness or medical professional for some hands-on help.
These exercises for your lower trapezius are roughly arranged from easy starter options to more challenging workouts you can make part of your everyday gym routine.
Lower Trap Exercises
These exercises are selected from a range of effective lower trapezius exercises identified in a June 2016 systematic review, published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, which identified several exercises that produced an ideal balance of lower trapezius action against the contraction of the upper trapezius; and from an April 2018 study that was sponsored and published by American Council on Exercise.
1. Prone Flexion
This motion was one of the best performers in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy study. Practice this motion using one arm at a time:
- Lie face-down on a flat weight bench; extend your left arm straight down to the floor, palm facing in.
- Bring that arm straight overhead in line with your body, thumb pointing up, as if you were trying to form the letter "I." Focus on a smooth, controlled motion and on drawing your shoulder blade down and in toward your spine.
- Lower your arm back to the floor.
Repeat on the other side.
2. I-Y-T Exercise
This exercise builds on the prone flexion exercise just described, and was by far the best performer in the ACE study.
- Lie face-down on a flat weight bench and extend both arms straight down toward the floor, palms facing in.
- Extend both arms straight overhead, in line with your body, to form the letter "I." Lower your arms back to the starting position.
- Extend both arms at a 45-degree angle overhead, forming the letter "Y." Lower them back to the starting position.
- Extend both arms out to the side, palms facing down, to form the letter "T." Then lower them back to the starting position to complete the repetition.
3. High Scapular Retraction
To get a feel for this motion — another excellent option listed by the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy — put your nose to a wall; extend both arms straight up the wall, and walk your fingers as high as they'll comfortably go. Then pinch your shoulder blades back and down, drawing your hands back down the wall in one movement.
Once you've got the motion down, add some resistance by holding the ends of a resistance band draped across a pull-up bar, or anchor the middle of the band in the top of a door. (You might have to kneel, facing the door, to make the latter option happen.)
This is a classic case of, "Hey lower traps — you have one job. Now do it." But it's also much harder than it might seem.
4. Bent-Over Row
If you're looking for lower trapezius exercises you can work into your everyday gym routine, the bent-over row was the best performer in that category in the ACE study.
- Stand with feet hip- to shoulder-width apart, one dumbbell in each hand. Soften your knees and hinge forward from the hips, getting as close to horizontal as you can while still keeping your back flat.
- Keep your elbows close by your sides as you lift the weights up. No need to put your elbows through the ceiling — keep the motion smooth and controlled, and stop within a comfortable range of motion. A conservative target is to stop when your elbows break the plane of your back.
- Keep your shoulder blades drawn back and down, chest up and out, as you lower the weights back to the starting position.
5. Lat Pull-Down
A staple of gym back workouts, the lat pull-down also placed very well for lower trapezius activity in the ACE study.
Adjust the lat pull-down machine's weight stack or weight plates to your desired amount of resistance.
Take the handles in an overhand grip (some machines also accommodate a neutral grip) and pull them down with you to the machine's seat.
Tuck your knees under the knee pads and sit up straight —
shoulders back and down, chest up and out. This is your starting position.
Maintain this posture as you pull the machine handles down toward the top of your chest. No need to actually touch your chest — depending on the width of your grip, you might only be able to bring it down to about chin level.
Stay seated, knees tucked under the pads, as you extend your arms back upward to complete the repetition.
How Many Sets and Reps?
If you're doing lower trap exercises for therapeutic reasons, your physical therapist will tell you how many sets and repetitions to do — usually high repetitions at low resistance (if any), with several sets spread out through the day.
If you're in more of a gym mindset for exercises like the bent-over row and the lat pull-down, then one to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions each is the standard starting point. You can always add more, as long as you avoid overtraining and remember that every muscle group — even your lower traps — should have at least one rest day between focused workouts.
- International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy: "A Systematic Review of the Exercises That Produce Optimal Muscle Ratios of the Scapular Stabilizers in Normal Shoulders"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE-Sponsored Research: What Is the Best Back Exercise?"
- ExRx.net: "Trapezius (Lower Fibers)"
- ExRx.net: "Lever Front Pulldown"