14 Mar UPPER TRAP TRAINING: BUILDING AN UPPER BACK THAT IS STRONG AND FUNCTIONAL
The Big Picture:
- A misinterpretation of upper-crossed syndrome has led clinicians to believe that the “overactive” upper trap should only be stretched and never strengthened, but they neglect to realize their vital contribution to effective upward rotation and allowing athletes to be strong in the overhead lifts.
- Performing shrugs is simply not an efficient way to work the upper traps, as solely training in this partial ROM will not effectively improve your performance.
- In order to effectively train the upper traps, the barbell NEVER fails and specific exercises shown below will drastically improve your performance!
- Train the upper trap to enhance shoulder stability, increase your Olympic lifts, and build a back that is truly strong and functional!
The Upper Trap: Friend or Foe?
Current dogma in the fitness and physical therapy communities’ rage about the evils of the upper traps. Being labeled as “chronically tight” or “too strong,” this muscle is the common source of blame for athletes with neck, back, or shoulder pain.
In reality, there is no such thing as being “too strong” and this dogma of upper trap dysfunction needs to leave the fitness world.
WHY do we always stretch the upper trap?
Heavily popularized in the late 1980s, Dr. Vladimir Janda introduced the term “upper-crossed syndrome”. Associated with forward head posture, thoracic kyphosis, and rounded shoulders, upper-crossed syndrome is characterized by weak deep neck flexors, middle traps, and lower traps, and “tight” pectorals, levator scapulae, and, you guessed it … upper traps.
Although this syndrome does occur quite frequently, this has been interpreted far too literally. Many recommend that since “tight” upper traps contribute to poor posture, they must ALWAYS be stretched and NEVER strengthened. But that is not truly the case….
The function of the upper traps.
Looking at the big picture, the term “upper traps” represents just a functional section of the actual muscle, the trapezius. Consisting of the upper, middle, and lower fibers, the trapezius muscle globally functions to retract the scapulae. Although we commonly associate the upper traps with their most popular motion, scapular elevation (a.k.a. shrugging), it is often forgotten that along with the lower traps and the serratus anterior, it completes the trifecta as a scapular upward rotator!
Efficient scapular upward rotation is KEY to adequate shoulder mechanics, and most importantly overhead lifting. Without sufficient strength of the upper trapezius, Olympic lifts such as the overhead squat, clean & jerk, and snatch cannot be performed with any progressively heavy loads.
The fitness and rehab worlds have already done a great job at addressing the lower traps and serratus anterior. Exercises such as the lower trap raise, serratus punches, and scapular wall slides have now entered mainstream as corrective exercises to promote efficient upward rotation. However, because it is always “stretched” and rarely strengthened, strengthening the upper traps is far too often overlooked.
Time to start shrugging! … wait.
Although scapular elevation may be the most common way to train the upper traps, there is a fundamental problem with this mentality. Shrugs only train the upper traps through a partial ROM. So if you ACTUALLY want to make your neck and upper back “feel tight,” go right ahead, solely performing hundreds of shrugs will do the trick!
If you want to train the upper traps in a more efficient manner, it’s time to work them in a way that promotes their most vital function, UPWARD ROTATION.
Lifting overhead is paramount for strong upper traps.
The best way to strengthen a muscle without compromising flexibility is to ensure the primary exercises take that muscle through its full ROM. The snatch, overhead press, and clean and jerk do exactly this.
At the initiation of the first pull from the ground, the upper traps are fully lengthened. As the trainee forcefully shrugs the bar upward, the upper traps begin to contract and shorten. Then, as the bar begins to pass the head, in combination with the serratus anterior and lower traps, the upper traps further contract and shorten to promote effective scapular upward rotation until the bar is overhead. Overhead lifting takes the upper traps through a full ROM and will, therefore, promote maximal strength without sacrificing flexibility.
The best way to promote stability in the shoulder joint is to train the upper traps isometrically in their fully shortened position, full shoulder flexion and upward rotation. Exercises such as the overhead squat and bottoms-up kettlebell waiters walk do exactly this. In the overhead squat, the upper traps must fire hard to stabilize the shoulder joint while the trainee performs a deep squat. In the bottoms-up kettlebell waiters walk, the trainee must not only maintain full shoulder flexion and upward rotation while walking, the instability component of holding the kettlebell upside down further enhances the movement.
The Bottoms-up Kettlebell Waiter's Walk represents a great exercise to promote shoulder stability and enhance your overhead lifts. The serratus anterior, lower trap, and upper trap must contract isometrically to maintain full scapular upward rotation. Holding the kettlebell upside down further enhances the movement by creating an aspect of instability. You can perform these for distance or for time, and as a warm-up to overhead barbell work, or as a finisher to get a good upper trap pump!
A good way to hypertrophy a muscle is to isolate it while performing its TRUE function. While the traditional shrug may not be optimal, with just a slight variation we can turn the shrug into a more effective exercise for the upper traps. One can accomplish this by performing the shrug while the shoulder is already in an upwardly rotated position. Doing this puts another scapular elevator, the levator scapulae, a muscle that is more commonly associated with shoulder dysfunction, at a mechanical disadvantage. Shrugging while the scapulae are upwardly rotated, therefore, effectively targets the upper traps while minimizing levator scapulae activity. Two variations of this method include the front rack hold shrug and overhead single-arm dumbbell shrug.
The Front Rack Hold Shrug is a great exercise to effectively isolate the upper traps. Load the bar as if you were performing a front squat, then shrug the shoulders as high as you can while maintaining a proper chin tuck. This exercise works best for 3-4 sets of 8-15 reps to promote upper trap hypertrophy and increase your overhead lifts!
The Overhead Single-Arm Dumbbell Shrug is a great supplemental exercise to isolate the upper traps and promote overhead stability. Press a dumbbell overhead with a neutral grip and then further press towards the ceiling with the elbow locked. Perform for 3-4 sets of 8-15 after overhead barbell work to enhance upper trap function.
In order to effectively train the upper traps, the barbell NEVER fails. Strengthen with overhead presses, clean and jerks, and snatches, enhance stability with overhead squats and bottoms-up kettlebell waiters walks, and isolate the upper traps the correct way with front rack hold shrugs and overhead DB shrugs.