"I keep stretching, foam rolling, massage gun-ing, ALL THE THINGS...and my upper traps are STILL tight. WHY!?"
I've been there. I remember sitting in class during PT school, stretching my upper traps CONSTANTLY. I was regularly applying pressure to a "knot" I felt, was spending money on massages every week, and still never felt permanent relief. In fact, it got worse.
It was a vicious cycle of stretch, slight improvement, back to the same discomfort minutes later—massage, temporary relief, discomfort again the next day. Any relief was always fleeting.
I've learned several things that have finally provided lasting changes in my upper trap/neck pain. Many of these things may be the opposite of what you've learned, but try to keep an open mind! My suggestion is to give them a go for a couple of weeks and see what happens. Because my guess is, you've also tried the stretching and massage and still haven't found relief. So what do you have to lose?
1. Lay off the stretching and MOVE
When we feel tight in a muscle, we immediately want to go to stretching. It seems intuitive.
But from my experience, stretching only provides temporary relief and can sometimes even make the problem worse. Hang with me.
There's a paradigm shift that totally blew my mind and made a world of difference when I struggled with chronic pain all over my body.
It's that tightness is never the problem that we need to treat; it's the symptom of some underlying dysfunction.
So treating tightness by stretching will only provide temporary relief.
Tightness in muscles is your body's way to protect you. It's like getting a scrape on your arm—a scab forms over the scrape as a way to protect the vulnerable skin. The problem isn't the scab; it's the healing scrape (gross example, sorry). By picking the scab, you will delay the healing of that skin. Tightness is the same way. By continuing to stretch, you're picking at the scab, so to speak, rather than allowing that (probably inflamed) muscle to heal.
What I've found more beneficial is to move your neck and shoulders often. Motion is lotion, and the more connected you can get to your muscles, the faster your body will be able to heal.
Think shoulder circles, gentle head turns, and cat/cow. Do these frequently throughout the day. 4-6 repetitions are all you need.
2. Ditch the idea that you should press your shoulders down and back to have good posture.
"Shoulder down and back" was a posture cue that came from a good place. It actually comes from the idea that many of us are tight in our upper traps and that we should lengthen them to "turn them off."
Many times, you will over-correct and over-lengthen your upper traps, which continues to perpetuate the problem. It's like stretching a piece of fabric that has tears in it. Stretching that fabric won't mend it; it will just make the tears worse. Your muscles are the same way. When a muscle is inflamed, over-stretching it continues to spiral you in that inflammation process.
3. Re-think the way you are training your shoulders/arms
Many traditional shoulder exercises actually place more force through the upper traps than they do the shoulders. A lateral raise is a good example of this. A lateral raise actually biases the upper traps more than the shoulders. I calculated the forces through my shoulders and my upper traps at the end of a lateral raise holding a 5lb weight:
Upper traps: 155lb
This has to do with the length between the weight you're holding and the joint it's affecting. But even if you haven't been taught physics, you can see that this exercise works the upper traps more than the shoulders.
To more effectively target the shoulders, tip this exercise on its side!
4. When you lift your arms to the side, ditch the shoulders down cue
Let's put the two previous tips together. Take an exercise, like a lateral raise, that biases the upper traps and then drop your shoulders, so the upper trap is even more lengthened.
When a muscle is lengthened, it has MORE mechanical advantage. So by dropping your shoulders in a lateral raise, you're biasing the upper traps even MORE.
It's like stretching and launching a rubber band. The more you stretch it, the further it will go. Our muscles are the same way. The more they are lengthened, the more advantage they have. So although our intention is to stay OUT of our neck during shoulder work by dropping the shoulders down, we are actually doing the opposite and placing MORE work through the upper traps.
6. Support your elbows when desk-working
Simple but effective tip! Place pillows under your elbows to make sure the weight of your arms isn't continuing to pull/aggravate your upper traps while you're sitting.
7. Improve breathing mechanics
When we are stressed, we tend to breathe using our accessory muscles, including your neck and upper traps. Day after day, breath after breath, these muscles can begin to fatigue and become overused. Overuse leads to weakness, which leads to tightness and pain.
You could see how, in this circumstance, the issue isn't the tightness. The root issue is the breathing mechanics. So if you address the tightness by stretching but don't address the breathing mechanics, the tightness will continue to linger. If we improve breathing mechanics, we allow the upper traps/neck to heal.
As you breathe, allow your rib cage to inflate in 360 degrees. Try wrapping a towel or resistance band around your rib cage and feel the rib cage expand into the towel or band. It takes practice and repetition, but soon it becomes automatic.
So remember that stretching and massage will never fully resolve your upper trap tightness/pain/discomfort.
You have to improve how you're exercising, posturing, moving, and breathing to resolve any dysfunction in the upper traps permanently.
I'm spending the whole month in Levo addressing shoulder issues in our workouts!! Learn how you can truly move the needle with your fitness goals, without being held back by annoying joint pain. You can try Levo for 5 days for free! Click here to learn more.