The upper trapezius elevates the shoulder while the lower trapezius depresses the shoulder, making them opposing muscle groups. However, they both also upwardly rotate the scapula, making them synergists too. We do many things throughout the day that elevate our shoulders, such as hunching over a desk or carrying a heavy bag. This can lead to dominance in the upper trapezius. When hunched shoulders become a normal posture, this can lead to abnormal movement of the scapula (scapular dyskinesis).
Dan Pope from Fitness Pain Free gives a great description of how the upper and lower trapezius work together and how imbalance in strength between these two can lead to shoulder impingement:
“Patients with impingement had on average greater recruitment of the upper trapezius and less recruitment of the lower trapezius when raising their arms overhead… this upper trapezius dominance can cause hiking or shrugging of the shoulder during overhead movement and decrease the ability of the scapula to rotate normally. Taking a look at where the trapezius originates and inserts (attachment points to bone) you can see that the upper trapezius will be responsible for elevating the scapula and rotating it upward as you elevate them arms overhead. The lower trapezius will be responsible for keeping the shoulder blade stable and keeping it from excessively elevating. The lower trapezius counterbalances the upper trapezius and allows the scapula to rotate normally. Lastly, if the lower trapezius is not doing its job correctly then the upper trapezius will do more hiking/shrugging as opposed to rotating the scapula normally as you raise your arms overhead.”
Try this YTU Pose Shoulder Circles to help keep your trapezius balanced from top to bottom:
Discover more solutions for shoulder pain.
Great description of the upper versus the lower traps.i read through everyone’s comments and really identify with Geoff from Canada.i live in Ottawa the coldest capital in the world and yes we all hunch our shoulders in the winter and drop them with relief in the spring!we all need to roll in the winter.
It wasn’t until I started doing yoga that I discover how my shoulders had been affected by years of bad posture, sitting down in front of a computer and flexing my spine and internally rotating my shoulders because I’m 5’8″ since I’m 15 years old and felt pretty awkward being this tall. it was such a blind spot, I knew I had bad posture but didn’t realize how much this interfere with the yoga poses I was trying to learn. I became obsessive with posture but by forcing my shoulders back not knowing exactly what to move or what muscle… Read more »
Thanks for the post – a reminder that the trapezius has multiple parts and hence mutliple actions – and it is important to keep them all in balance. As a person with “top heavy” trapezeii your post serves as an important reminder to activate the lower traps and help keep those scapulae anchored. Without this anchor it is difficult to gain stability in the shoulder joints and access the power that is possible with the arms overhead.
I love all of these shoulder exercises! And I absolutely love the analogy to plaque and our arm bones acting as dental tools to remove the plaque from our shoulders. I will be adding this to my daily regimen. So quick and easy. I know it will help alleviate the pain I get from the bursitis in my shoulder. Keeping the shoulders healthy is vital for good alignment in almost every yoga pose, and right now it’s my biggest problem. I get scared to use my left shoulder because of the pain that I could possibly get after, and this… Read more »
I started to skip this exercise so I could get to “the good stuff,” I now have a whole new appreciation for the shoulder rolls and muscles to actually look for while doing them. Thank you.
Thank you for this great ressources from Fitness pain free. I have encountered many clients in my practice that always overdue their upper trapeze fiber when ask to do overheads. I always went down the road of having the client relax the upper fiber with the balls in order to help that client but never consider actually strengthening the lower trapeze or even having them practice exercise that focuses on firing that muscle first in order for them to use it better when needed. Will add that to my tool box.
Thank you for this post. The actions of the different parts of the trapezius is very clear. It’s fascinating to start to understand and then liberating to feel the middle and lower fibers of the trapezius starting to help out so the upper can let go of some of the burden. It’s such a default pattern to shift.
I am currently suffering from pain in my left shoulder most likely due to tension in the trapezius. I am pretty sure that it was caused by huching my shoulders over my computer in class. That Dan Pope quote is detailed and informative and I look forward to checking out his website as a resource. The video of the shoulder rolling technique will come in handy when I try the technique to warm up and maybe roll out my knots with the YTU ball. Maybe practicing depressing the scapula and strengthening the lower trapezius will also help keep my shoulder… Read more »
Thank you Jill. I used to use this technique many times in my classes but knowing more about why we do this is going to make me do this in every class I teach 🙂 So beneficial.
This is the sort of issue I see in the IT field all the time. Another great article for the arsenal of defeating Trap pain.
This article was really helpful because it reminded me that what Ariel calls “vulture” posture, which can occur among anything from runners to bookworms, to weightlifters, is not merely a sign of dominance of pecs over posterior deltoid, and internal rotators of the shoulder over external, but also related to the scap stabilizers and the dominance of the upper over lower traps, which, as this article says, effects the free rotation of the scapula, and in turn can result in interference in the scapulohumeral rhythm. I need to focus,for myself and my clients on strengthening the lower traps, and anterior… Read more »
I have dealt with shoulder issues for all of my adult life, and while I have always blamed these pains on my history as a tennis and baseball player, I have recently found that it’s just as much a problem with my posture, and even more specifically with the constant over usage of my upper trapezius muscles in many of my daily activities. Yoga, and my growing understand of alignment, have shown me that I don’t have to live with these pains the rest of my life. And by maintaining a growing awareness of how I hold my traps and… Read more »
My poor trapezius take the brunt of everything happening in my body. Relax your shoulders is something that I can say repeatedly to myself and almost everyone I know. I regularly see the hunched shoulders and protruding chin. Thank you for reminding me that something as accessible as rolling the shoulders can make such a difference.
In these days more people due stress and the lack of excercise have movement restriction specially in the upper back and shoulders. This restrictions cause pain, that’s why is very important to practice excercises that release the tension on the shoulders like rolling the shoulders and move them in all directions.
I can’t learn enough about relaxing the upper trapezius, not only for myself, but also for my students. So many are contracted, and in some cases rock hard, in these “stress muscles”. I love how Jill teaches Bridge Arms in Prasarita Padottanansa. I have practiced all the variations from clasped hands, to using a belt with arms in external rotation, to holding a block as a spacer and even grasping the ends of a rolled up yoga mat. I was amazed at the result, especially when instructed to let the scapula “release” into elevation in order to relax the traps!!… Read more »
I do this segment of YTU a few times a week….While I can tell it’s a great exercise, I love learning about the “Why” part of it so thanks for filling that part in!
Thanks for this direct and informative blog. I think we are all guilty of “hunching” over, therefore having dominance in the upper trapezius.. I am so much more aware of my own posture now and find myself looking at the postures of people all the time. Depression of the shoulders has become a staple in my cuing to students. Those shoulders elevate all the time and the reminder to depress is key. It’s time to find balance!
I hear so much at yoga studios about “pinching shoulder blades,” but I hear very little about Depressing shoulder blades, thereby balancing the use of the trapezius. I think this is an important article about a very important and altogether abused muscle. My experience in my body is that my upper traps are overworked and riddled with trigger points, and my lower traps are very weak. I see a similar relationship in most of my students. I believe this is also tied to a weak serratus anterior. I absolutely love Dolphin Supinate for the awareness of the interconnection between the… Read more »
As a Canadian and with the cold winter breeze carving out the streets these days my traps and scapula are elevating my shoulders up around my ears as the chilled wind whips through my layers of clothing. I don’t think that we realize the consistancy that we hike our shoulders up in a sustained shrug for hours at a time. The wear and tear on on our poor bodies could end up in with an impingement (it even sounds sore!). With my knowledge and experience with YTU a nightly session with my therapy balls will be just as important as… Read more »
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Thanks for sharing my link, great write up!
That’s great Paula! Your class must be so thankful for you!! I love how just a few minutes on the therapy balls and a few YTU exercises helps us find a new and improved posture. 🙂
This was the focus of my classes all week last week. I notice during the previous week that most students were coming in hunched over and practicing downward facing dog in full congestion at the shoulders. I started the class in downward dog then took them thru the YTU therapy ball upper back series beginning at the upper fiber of the Traps. What a difference!! Oh, and the comments afterwards were liberating: suddenly the neck aches disappeared:-)