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Using Exercise to Get Rid of Upper Trap Tightness and Pain

The upper traps– muscle that is often complained about in our clinic and for many of our remote clients. This muscle or what should be thought of as a group of muscles (since the trapezius has 3 sections), is often a source of pain for people with persistent neck pain or shoulder pain. In this blog post we will discuss the anatomy of this muscle, what it does, why it is important, and give you a few exercises to help get rid of the persistent tightness or pain you may feel in your neck and shoulder region.

The Trapezius muscle is broken up into three parts, the upper, middle, and lower trapezius. Each is thought to be a prime mover for different motions at your scapula (shoulder blade). In other words, the trapezius muscle helps move and stabilize your scapula, which is crucial to be able to lift your arm above your head and achieve full range of motion. Many people only think about the upper trapezius, but in reality, the trapezius spans throughout a large portion of your upper back and neck. This allows it to play a role in several movements at the shoulder.

Movements for each part of the trapezius:

Upper: elevates, retracts, and upwardly rotates shoulder girdle (scapula & clavicle)

Middle: retracts shoulder girdle

Lower: depresses, retracts, and upwardly rotates shoulder girdle

Can exercise be helpful in reducing my upper trap tightness and pain?

The effects of exercise and pain have been researched heavily. Not only can exercise help reduce pain at the shoulder, but it can improve function of the shoulder as well. Marinko et al. reviewed research relating to the effects of exercise on a painful shoulder, finding positive outcomes for both pain and function. Additionally Belevy et al. reviewed the effects of exercise on sensitivity in those with chronic pain. Exercise was shown to decrease pain sensitivity and increase pain threshold. These findings were suggested to be best applied to local regions as opposed to regions far away from the site of pain. Just these two studies alone provide evidence to create interest in performing exercise to help reduce your upper trapezius pain and tightness.

Exercise for the upper trapezius:

The most common exercise fitness professionals and therapists give to clients to work the upper trapezius is the shoulder shrug. You have probably performed this exercise at the gym, and many people can load a fair amount of weight on a bar or with dumbbells when performing this exercise. So your ego and trap both benefit. Although the upper trapezius is not the only muscle activated during the shrugging motion (see the picture below), it is a primary mover and has high levels of muscle activation during the shrugging motion– making it an exercise that can be specifically used to improve neck pain.(3)

So if we take into consideration the points above, we should exercise the upper trapezius to promote reduced sensitivity locally at the muscle. The shrug is great for upper trapezius activation and can improve shoulder functional capacity. This is a great place to start for those of you with neck and shoulder pain!(4, 5)

The shoulder shrug exercise: best way to perform?

Normally people perform the shrugging exercise with their arms by their side. This is totally fine, but some recent research has looked at performing the movement with different levels of shoulder abduction (lifting your arm out to your side). EMG results, which measure muscle activity during the movements, indicate that there is actually more activation when performing a shrug away from your side.

Referencing the chart above, you can see how muscle activity was greater for your upper trap when performing the shrug at 90° and 150° of shoulder abduction. When comparing the shrug performed at your side compared to overhead, the overhead position may be better at improving activation of other scapular muscles in addition to the upper trapezius.(4)

Try performing the following exercise variations to help enhance scapular muscle function and reduce the pain in your upper trapezius.

Exercise Variation List:

  • Shrug
  • Shrug at 30° Shoulder Abduction
  • Shrug at 90° Shoulder Abduction

Shrug at 150° Shoulder Abduction (Overhead Shrug)

As far as dosing goes for performing the shrug, you can try a few different methods. You can start by performing the shrug with near max effort (80-90%) and perform isometric holds of 10-15s. You could also use a moderate weight and perform 8-12 repetitions of the shrugs. Even shrugging with no weights can be beneficial, as long as you focus on squeezing and activating the upper trapezius muscle in the various positions. Try any of these methods as a means to start!

For more specifics on how to load this exercise, treat your neck/shoulder pain, and get clarity about your situation, a consultation would be our recommendation. We offer both remote and in-person sessions from our office within Salt Lake City, UT. Click the link below to schedule a visit with us, or reach out via email, call, or DM with any questions!

Book a Session Here!

We hope this helps to get you started on treating your upper trapezius pain or tightness!


Peak Pursuit Team


Dr. Drake Griggs

Peak Pursuit Performance & Rehab

We Help Active Adults In The Salt Lake Area Overcome Injury And Reach Peak Performance, Avoid Unnecessary Time Off, All Without Medications, Injections, Or Surgery.