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Is not training your traps a mistake?

Early on in my training I was told by a very knowledgeable physiotherapist that I should not train my upper trapezium and I should focus on my lower trapezium and to do this with all my clients. This is because it is believed by many that we all have overactive Upper Trapezius. As I was starting out and as this was the general consensus I did as I was taught and did not question it. Over the years working with many clients I started to notice that many of my clients that complained about sore musculature around the neck and shoulders mostly seemed to have, tight overactive levator scapulae muscles and underactive upper traps not overactive. So if the traps are underactive how can they be causing the pain?

In an overactive tonic muscle you may well expect discomfort but in a muscle that does not show these symptoms and still exhibits pain there must be something else causing it. At first I thought a referral pain from the levator scapulae, but the referral paten when using trigger point therapy did not back this up. There was discomfort from the levtor scapulae but this seemed to be localized. Looking into this further, another common attribute of the clients was tight pec -minor and poor posture, by this I mean shoulders slumped forward. Which is common in people with desk jobs.

So, my clients complaining of pain in their traps have on inspection underactive traps and overactive levator scapule, tight pec –minor and poor posture. If you look at the photo of the pec- minor you’ll see if that becomes tight it pulls the arm and ‘shoulders’ forward. If the ‘shoulders’ are being pulled forward to that degree it could be a neurological pain, a nerve only needs to be elongated less than 4% of its length before it registers pain, and only 10% before structural damage starts to occur, so any nerve being stretched by poor posture could be the root to the pain instead of the upper trapezius muscle fibers, which are soft, flexible and adaptable. The nerve in question is the supra scapular nerve.

So it would make more sense if the pain was from the traction of the supra scapular nerve. This little nerve emerges off the upper posterior branch of the brachial pleus and runs through two points where it could cause issues, the supra scapular notch and around the spine of the scapular as it inervates the infraspinatis muscle. When the scapular is protracted as when slouched over a computer these points can 'pull' on this nerve at its origin. As the supra scapular nerve is roughly only about 10cm long (give or take) from its origin off the plexus too the scapular notch, this means only a pull of less than 0.4cm (give or take) is needed for this nerve to register pain, obviously there is some sliding and gliding of the nerves to accommodate this movement but if you drop your shoulders forward and down when slouching, they move a lot more than 0.4cm, so a deep dull diffuse upper shoulder and neck pain, is more likely to be the supra scapular nerve than tight upper traps.

Lets look at the job of the traps when our arms are in an overhead position.

The Acromion process

The acromion process is a bony protuberance that extends out over the top of the head of the humerus (the large bone in the upper arm) when the shoulder is relaxed .

The term “shoulder impingement” refers to the compression of the muscles and other soft tissue structures between the head of the humerus and the acromion process. It can occur when the humerus is raised overhead without a sufficient compensating change in the position of the scapula that gets the acromion process out of the way.

When the trapezius is actively shrugged, there is an important change in the orientation of the scapula. The active trapezius contraction shifts the acromion process up and to the inside, maintaining good clearance between the humerus and the acromion process.

The scapula is rotated up and out of the way by the trapezius contraction, and this rotation is made possible by the activity of the serratus anterior. The serratus attaches to the medial (toward the center of the body) border of the scapula and wraps around the ribcage to attach in front at several places on the ribs under the chest muscles. It pulls the scapula forward around the ribcage. The serratus anchors the lower aspect of the scapula so that when the traps pull the top of the bone upward and medial, the serratus pulls the bottom of the bone down and lateral, and the acromion process rotates back toward the neck, away from the humerus as it comes up overhead. This preserves the space between the humerus and acromion. The shrug at the top of the press and a strong serratus act together to avoid shoulder impingement in healthy shoulders. So without trap activation you’ll likely get shoulder impingement when working overhead. A very important reason to have active traps!

Also the traps take pressure off of the neck, not add it.

The majority of the upper trapezius muscle fibres attach on to the distal third of the clavicle and due to the orientation of the clavicle when these fibres contract they rotate the clavicle medially. This can assist in elevating the lateral superior angle of the scapular by rotating the clavicle and drawing the lateral end of the clavicle upwards rather than acting directly on the scapular. This rotation of clavicle rotation also helps compress the sternoclavicular joint, and is a rather useful, beneficial and often overlooked action of the upper traps, this compression of the sternoclavicular joint by the upper traps fibres allows a transfer of the load from the arm and shoulder away from the neck and its cervical facet joints and down through into the collar bone, into our sternum and rib cage. If you look at any sports man where neck protection is needed they will have a large set of traps, boxers, rugby players and so on.

So active traps protect the neck and the shoulders. I have worked with some of my clients who have been told they have overactive traps and I have had wonderful results, firstly by ascertaining they don’t have overactive traps, and if they don’t my first step is to almost do the opposite of what they thought they should do and actually get the upper traps firing, this does have to be done in a way that minimises the activation of the levator scapulae. I also have needed to loosen both the Pec -minor and the short head of the bicep which I do using trigger point therapy. I then give them one or more of 3 exercises depending on their ability.

My conclusion is that under activation of the traps can cause just as many issues than overactive traps, and you should ascertain if you have overactive traps and not just believe it, after all everybody is different and it would make no sense that we all had overactive traps.

Please contact me for any information in this blog or any fitness, diet and health advice.

Ross Styles Celebrity Personal Trainer London

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