If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me "so and so told me I have the hardest traps they've ever touched" ... well, honestly all I would probably do with it is bankroll an even more extravagant Woolies Dreamy Choc cookie habit than I already have (but how sick would that be!)
What I mean is, the upper traps would have to be the most massaged area of the body. But they’re still so tight all the time, amiright?
What makes this a tricky concept to get your head around is that our central nervous system can be a bit like a monkey with a cymbal when it comes to muscles. Either they don't feel like anything, or they feel tight.
Aside from out and out pain, there just aren't other warning bells to ring. Although there are several things that could be going on, often the only message we get is that feeling of 'tightness'.
So naturally getting massage after massage, aggressively rolling or trigger pointing, or constantly trying to stretch the area feels like the only solution.
This makes the upper traps kind of a cash cow for massage therapists - treatment always feels great but is never finished.
I’m not really interested in that - it gets repetitive and I’d rather be poking someone in the diaphragm or watering the plants. What I do get excited about is getting to the bottom of what is making each individual set of traps so tight, and working on a solution that will stick.
So how do we go about deciphering what that feeling is actually a sign of?
At the risk of oversimplification here - because there are also other factors - I’ve been trained to see muscles not just as “tight” or “not tight”, but to look for where they sit on a crossed spectrum between weak and strong, and long and short.
The upper traps are a textbook example of this. They may actually be weak and long, but often get diagnosed and treated as if they were 'overactive' and short. (Keeping in mind that all of these things can feel "tight.")
The most common diagnosis is that the upper part of the trapezius is overactive and the middle-lower part is relatively weak. I've got no bones to pick with that - in my experience, it's spot on for an outrageous percentage of the population.
Treatment plans usually involve a combination of hitting the upper trap with the myofascial release (massage/needling/trigger ball etc) and isolating the part of the trapezius between the shoulder blades for activation and strength work in order to offload the above.
Which is an excellent plan, and actually one of my go-to's as well. It’s simple and effective, won't hurt anyone and should benefit pretty much everyone.
However, there are cases where it falls short of getting the upper traps to calm their farm.
So here's where I'm going to weigh in :
There's nothing wrong with big, dirty, heavy-ay sets and reps for the upper traps.
There, I said it.
If the root cause of the problem is a weakness in the upper traps, the plan above may help some, but without their own strength work the upper traps won't get the gainz they're crying out for and that tightness will keep coming back. That word 'overactive' just means that they are working overtime because their load has exceeded their capacity. If reducing the load hasn't worked then we have to look at increasing the capacity.
There are a couple of misconceptions that I’d like to address here. The first one is the idea that if a muscle is tight or sore then it needs rest and we shouldn’t work it out. Or similarly, that if a muscle is tight then training will only make it tighter.
Let’s put those to bed, shall we? Because nothing could be further from the truth. Once we rule out strains or acute muscle damage, one of the first things we are going to do is load that muscle up. The way we load it will differ depending on the condition, but there are almost zero things that don’t benefit from picking heavy things up and putting them down again.
The second is this vague idea that shoulder elevation is inherently not good somehow and that 100% of our attention should be on keeping the shoulders back and down at all times. In reality, raising the shoulder up is only bad if you can't also lower it properly. Just like at any other joint, we want to be able to use the muscles' full range, and we want to be spending the majority of our time somewhere in the middle.
I know this can get very confusing when your physio or trainer is always nagging you to drop your shoulders. What we are trying to avoid is shoulders that are constantly stuck in an elevated position or shoulders that creep into an elevated position during other movements such as presses or rows - both of which can be a cause or a symptom of other issues.
So yes, tuck your shoulder blade into your back pocket while working out - but also maybe superset those presses or rows with a lil' dose of the gateway shrug: the banded shrug. (*** do we have a youtube channel vid of banded shrugs we can embed here??***) Or try some dumbell/kettlebell shrugs, snatch-grip shrugs, behind-body shrugs, clean pulls, snatch pulls, lean-away lateral raises, loaded carries as Zercher or suitcase walks, snatch-grip deadlifts etc.
We’ve been living the #shruglyfe this March, with our #muscleofthemonth upper trap workout : firstly some heavy sets of (my fave) the trap bar shrug, paired with an isometric overhead shrug hold for some nice movement variation, followed up by higher reps of “superman dunks” and farmers carries for accessory work.
Banded Overhead Shrug Hold
Trap Bar Shrugs
Farmers Carries with Shrug Hold