Activating the Lower Traps

August 10, 2011

Muscles connecting the upper extremity to the ...

Image via Wikipedia

What are the lower traps and what do I mean by activate? This is by no means an exhaustive, comprehensive post, but this should give you a general idea.

There are three parts of the trapezius muscle: the upper fibers (used to bring your shoulders to your ears), the middle fibers that bring your shoulders up and also inward, just like the rhomboids, and the lower fibers (that pull your shoulder blades downward.) If you will, try a little exercise with me for a minute: pull your shoulder blades down. Kind of an odd feeling, isn’t it? When was the last time you remembered performing this kind of action? Probably not very recently, as we don’t spend a good deal of time with our shoulder blades back and down….unless we’re doing a good stretch because we’ve been sitting at the computer for too long.

Now, lift your shoulders towards your ears – fairly easy? This action is performed readily when the “fight or flight” syndrome is engaged; pulling our shoulders towards our ears is a protective mechanism. What else feels tight when you hold your shoulders there? Well, if you hold your shoulders there long enough, you might feel several things

  • tightness at the base of your neck
  • a pain or pulling in your rhomboids or that vague area somewhere “in between my shoulder blades”
  • your chest feels sore from contracting
  • you begin to feel a pulling soreness along your rib cage

and several other things. What happens all too often is that the “shrug mechanism” is seen in a lot of people’s posture today. Our more sedentary lifestyles coupled with movements that encourage a protruding head and neck and arms forward posture have led to an epidemic of sorts of “bad posture”. I say “bad” because really, what we get is altered posture due to muscle compensation.

This is one of the reasons I do not advocate anyone (except bodybuilders who are training for size and symmetry) include shrugging movements in their weight training regimens. Most of us, who train for function and stability (and even those of us training for size) need to be focused on the middle and lower fibers of the trapezius.

When the upper traps are chronically activated, this can lead to dysfunction in the form of the lower (and possibly middle) traps becoming weakened to the point of “sleeping”. This term is used not in a literal sense but to describe the problem of muscle imbalances caused by the upper traps being chronically activated, which causes the lower trapezius muscle fibers to not fire properly.

What to do: Activation Exercises

First off, as stated in several previous posts, you must first stretch what is tight. In this case, that can be several muscles: the pectoralis major and minor muscles (chest), levator scapulae and scalenes (muscles in the neck) are the ones I would stretch first. These can be accomplished with a doorway stretch (at 90 degrees to hit the pec major and with the arm extended to hit serratus and pec minor) and the specific stretches for levators as seen in the previous post: The Flutist’s Pain Points

Once the tight muscles have been stretched (also called autogenic inhibition – or static stretching) one can move into activation exercises: which could also be called active-isolated stretching. This is done by a process called Reciprocal Inhibition which uses agonistic and synergistic muscles to dynamically move the joint into a range of motion. These stretches are done for 1-2 sets of each exercise and hold each stretch for 1-2 seconds for 5-10 repetitions.

Activation Exercises

The lower and middle traps are vital for shoulder stability, so doing exercises to ensure they are doing their job is vitally important. The first rule of strength training form is to retract and depress the shoulder blades. This not only ensures that the middle and lower traps (as well as the rhomboids) are active and functional, it inhibits upper trap, levator and other compensatory muscles from taking over. Use this motion any time during the day as an exercise on its own, and then use it during strength training sessions to make sure your shoulder girdle is stable and lower traps are activated.

Some excellent exercises for activating the lower traps (and rhomboids – as by now you can see they can be synergists) are wall slides, soup can pours, Face Pulls, Prone lower trap raises and LYTP’s. The primary movements, as discussed before, are Adduction (retraction) and depression. This website lists some excellent exercises, shows their movements and gives more anatomical descriptions.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a few suggestions on some exercises you can do to “wake up” those lower traps. For a warm-up, I might do something like this:

  • Active Pectoral Chest Stretch (major and minor – 90 degrees and extended) 1-2 setsx5-10 reps each. Hold 1-2 sec.
  • Wall slides 1-2 sets of 5-10 reps
  • Arm circles 1-2 sets of 5-10 reps
  • Scapular pushups or dip shrugs 1-2 sets of 5-10 reps
  • LYTP’s on stability ball or bench
  • Prone lower trap raises on incline bench

By now, your lower traps should feel a pleasant “burning” or tingling sensation, letting you know that the muscles are beginning to fire. After this, I would probably follow up with a few rotator cuff exercises to help with shoulder stability. In fact, Diesel Crew has put out an excellent circuit for “shoulder rehab” that you might want to check out. You can sub it in for the circuit above. (Always check with your doctor or a qualified medical professional if you have any shoulder injuries, issues or concerns before attempting any of these exercises.)

(By the way, I LOVE the pull up retractions!) And flutists (and other musicians) you should pay special attention to this video! These are great exercises to perform before practicing, or any other time of day you want to counter balance the effects of playing your instrument.

From there, with whatever workout I was doing, I would make sure to include exercises that engage the lower traps and throw in one or two exercises to help strengthen the shoulder girdles, my favorite exercise being face pulls. These are very easy to do incorrectly if the shoulder blades are not depressed and retracted.


The list goes on…

There are lots and lots of exercises to increase shoulder stability and when you make a regular habit of incorporating these activation exercises into your programs, you will not only see increased stability, but an increased range of motion, a possible decrease in pain and a possible improvement in upper thoracic posture.

Make sure to include lower trap activation exercises in every warm-up if not each workout! Please let me know how these exercises worked for you and your own experiences!

2 Responses to “Activating the Lower Traps”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    awesome video .. im a physical therapy student and these are great exercises! helped me do a project! thanks!


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