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Working Around Upper Trap Pain

This could be me.

Thinking about going to Salem tomorrow for Halloween. Kind of early, I know, but Halloween night in Salem is like Mardi Gras, except everyone’s dressed up ten times stranger. Kudos to Salem PD on their crowd control on that night. Might go check out Professor Wunders’ School of Magic. Free pictures with the Wizard on stage and a magic glow ring. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Or maybe I’ll just go to a bar and watch the Pats game. Speaking of Pats, Gronk back? Talib didn’t travel with the team and that makes me sad. Anyway, here’s the actual article.

A common trend that I’ve seen recently is upper trap pain, other than the casual tightness that is typically seen in general population clients.

Without being able to feel exactly what each client is feeling, I’ve been going on the assumption that they’re feeling the effects of an upper trap strain. Think of “pulling” or “throwing out” your lower back, but to the muscles that hold your scapula in place. These fibers are typically overused and therefore susceptible to strain, whereas we do not see this same trend with the middle and lower fibers.

I’ve also noticed that these symptoms seem to be lingering and can last for several months if not addressed with proper rest.

There’s nothing more annoying than straining your upper trap and not being able to sleep comfortably. Except maybe people who drive slow.

Bridgewater Center whenever I need to get to work quickly.

An upper trap strain can be even more annoying if it limits your exercise selection in the weight room. Any exercise that places downward strain on the shoulders or requires upward rotation of the scapula is probably going to aggravate the muscle and slow the healing process.

To be honest, nothing but absolute rest will give the traps a break. Pretty much any movement of the arms is going to require some assistance from the traps, so the only way to ensure that you don’t use them is to lay in bed all day and never go to the gym again.

But if you’re reading this, you probably aren’t going to take a break, even if I recommend it.

I only know one speed, go.

In some cases, depending on the nature of the strain, the strain can be taken care of in only a few weeks. Other times, as I mentioned earlier, the symptoms prefer to hang around for a while, especially if you neglect to rest the muscle.

But since I know you’re still going to hit the gym, here are some exercises that are probably going to bother your traps. And here are some alterations that you can make to your program.

Pushups (and other free-moving-scapula exercises)

Ah, the pushup. Perhaps the king of bodyweight upper body exercises. Perhaps a corrective for people who have forgotten how to protract their scapulae.

Either way, they’re important to include in a program, but the upward rotation of the shoulder blade through the movement will cause problems, especially if you are already dominant in your upper traps.

By the same token, the landmine press and it’s variations will cause similar problems. Unfortunately, the benefit of these exercises is also the achille’s heel that will make them painful for those with trap issues.

Try replacing your pressing with floor presses.

Floor presses, unlike free-moving scapula exercises and bench variations, doesn’t seem to engage the trapezius as much. I find that this is because floor pressing makes for a tough, and unnecessary, time retracting the shoulder blades. Thus, the traps are in much more of a stability pattern, not actively adducting the scapulae.

Farmer’s Carries

More obvious than the pushup, the farmer’s carry is dependent on the upper traps to support the weight in the hands. In fact, farmer’s carries are often part of trap development programs, aimed at giving weak people big traps in an effort to make them look strong. Farmer’s carries can be an especially large problem because of the especially large weights that are commonly used.

Some may use farmer’s carries for the ankle, knee, and hip stability that comes along with walking around with heavy weights in your hands for long periods of time. In this case, try sticking with basic single leg work, done with a barbell squat or goblet squat setup. Holding heavy dumbbells by your side is the same whether you’re walking or doing Bulgarians.

Some may also use farmer’s carries as a conditioning tool. In that case, all I can say is that there are 1,001 other ways to condition yourself. Try using a jump rope or just running plain, old sprints.

Many use farmer’s carries to develop the grip and there are definitely options. Try 10 lb plate pinches. Plate pinches are significantly harder than they look and give you the opportunity to work the pinch grip, versus the crush grip that typical barbell and dumbbell exercises work.

Harder than this guy is making it look

Deadlifts and Rack pulls

Similar to farmer’s carries, any time your traps need to support a heavy weight in your hands, your upper traps will be recruited. Deadlifts and rack pulls are going to give you problems if your upper trap is aggravated.

Trap bar deads, sumo deads, rack pulls, and conventional deads will all irritate the traps. I’m going to recommend sticking with squatting and single-leg squat variations, as well as a variety of hip thrusts, leg curls, and glute-ham raises.

However, squatting may give you trouble if the upper traps are too sensitive to support a bar. Front squatting should work too.

Keep in mind that almost none of these bilateral lower body lifts can completely exclude the traps, except for maybe hip thrusts and the various knee flexion exercises. What they can do is rely more heavily on thoracolumbar extensors than scapular stabilizers.


Rowing variations may or may not irritate the upper traps, it depends on the person. A typical dumbbell row involves scapular downward rotation and minimal recruitment of the upper traps, except to assist in adducting the shoulder blades.

For this reason, I find that many people can row while nursing upper trap soreness.

However, like I said, any exercise that requires scapular adduction, that places a heavy weight in the hands, or that demands any kind of scapular stability may cause issues. If rowing is painful, I’d simply drop it from the program momentarily.

On another note, I don’t find that chins typically cause pain. Chins promote downward rotation of the scapulae and shouldn’t give too much of a problem. Try adding more chinups into your program, especially if rows elicit pain.

You can never have too many chins.

Preventing Upper Trap Strain

Preventing upper trap strain is easier than you think. First, fix your thoracic mobility. Poor thoracic mobility will lead to tight upper traps and weakened middle/lower traps. Loosening up the pecs, especially pec minor, can also be helpful.

Next, make sure those middle and lower traps are firing correctly. Try performing a few sets of prone YTI’s on all of your upper body days. Don’t forget the serratus anterior either. Pushups should do the trick.

Lastly, make sure that you performing exercises that retract and downwardly rotate the scapulae, like chin and row variations.

Funny enough, many of the exercises that can often bother sore upper traps are the same ones that can prevent strain in the first place, but only when done correctly. Obviously this isn’t a detailed, comprehensive list on how to prevent excessive upper trap soreness. Hopefully, though, it gets you thinking more about your thoracic mobility and scapular stability, and how important they are to overall health and performance.


Upper trap soreness is becoming a pretty common theme as of late in my studio. Due to the often tight, overworked nature of the upper trap fibers, many find themselves with pain despite the best of intentions to perform exercises correctly.

There are definitely a few things to learn here:

  1. Pain/hurting/injuries can always be worked around. Even an important muscular group like the traps can be worked around while maintaining a solid training effect.
  2. Posture is key. If you work out four days a week for, let’s say, an hour and a half each workout, you’re working out for a total of six hours every week. There are a 162 other hours in the week for you to work on your posture, especially if it’s of the forward-head variety.
  3. If you neglect your middle and lower traps, you will probably eventually have trouble performing pressing exercises, deadlifts, rows, and farmer’s carries. So don’t neglect them.

Happy October 19th! On this day in 1998, Mike Tyson got his boxing license back after he lost it for biting part of Evander Holyfield’s ear off, in case you needed something to celebrate.

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