Get Your Traps Out of Your Ears

Get Your Traps Out of Your Ears

It seems a lot of the fitness community remains in a state of reverie for the mountainous, python-like upper traps sported by enthusiasts everywhere.Unknown They are the functional cushion for your back squats. They make you look mildly badass in your tank tops. They also have potential to be problematic if you’re not careful.


Rhomboids and mid-and-lower traps

These are two largely discounted members of the group of muscles responsible for (among other things) scapular movement. Both play a large role in the maintenance of a pair of solid, healthy shoulders, yet a massive number of people neglect their upkeep.


A brief example of an action this pair of muscles is responsible for, is retraction of the scapula, also cued as “pinching” your shoulder blades together. It is easy to walk around in public and visually pick out any number of people – fitness junkies or otherwise – with their shoulders rolled forward, upper back hunched over, upper traps so high it just makes your neck hurt to look at, and palms either occupied with a cellphone, or facing totally backwards (see the picture below for proper anatomical position).

This overly frequent problem that is weak or under-active lower traps and serratus anterior can lead to a host of problems both chronic and immediate: injuries to the rotator cuffs, subacromial impingements (ouch, and more common than you might think) and unstable overhead positions, for example. As long as these muscles remain weak or under-active, the upper traps will continue to compensate, and the problems will persist.

Force Couples

A force acting on a body has two effects, one to move it and two to rotate it. A force couple is a system that exerts a resultant movement, but no resultant force.

What does this mean for the shoulder?

In a force couple, the force generated by one muscle requires the activation of an antagonistic muscle so that a dislocating force does not result (Nordin & Frankel, 2001). As you can see on the image below, several muscles aide in the movement of your arm during elevation.

Particularly important for this discussion is the fact that the mid and lower traps are the primary stabilizers during abduction of the arm. What happens if we have an overactive muscle is that we break the force couple relationship. This is when abnormal movement patterns begin to occur and we increase our risk of injury.

Two muscles that are particularly important to target are the Serrates Anterior and the Lower traps 

  • The serratus anterior is the only muscle that rotates the scapula forward, along the shape of the rib cage. Having full strength and motor control of this muscle is extremely important in order to have optimal stability over head.
  • The lower traps act as one of the main stabilizers as the arm reaches 90 degrees.

note: The deltoid is NOT A PART OF THE FORCE COUPLE mechanism, but over recruitment of the deltoid can also lead to impingement.

There are, however, a number of fixes.

  1. Pull

Single arm dumbbell rows, barbell rows, pendlay rows, seated cable rows, resistance bands (think: face pulls, more rows, shoulder “Y”s and “T”s – keep your shoulder blades down and back!).

Note: Whichever exercise you chose, make sure to keep your shoulders down and back. DON’T allow your traps to do all the work, and focus on really recruiting your rhomboids and keeping your scapulae down. 

Face Pulls:

Wall angels

  • Keep your entire posterior FLAT against the wall-
    • This includes your butt, lower back, mid back, upper, the back of your head
  • Keep your neck neutral and face forwards
  • Slowly try and work your arms up the wall whilst maintaining contact at all of the points mentioned above – the backs of your hands should be brushing the wall
  • Note: the model in this picture is insanely mobile, and if you don’t get there right away, that is A-OK! Keep working at it, but only go as far as you can while maintaining contact and good position (no arching your back!!)


2. Work on your pecs 

Stretching the pecs will allow you to improve your internal rotation, which is often restricted in most people. Our every day habits such as sitting down, eating, driving, typing are all done with forward shoulders and forward head, which increase the tension and shorten our pecs.  A simple way to stretch out the muscles that may be tight and responsible for some of your internal rotation is illustrated below.


A straight arm will target the serratus and pec minor, while an arm bent at 90 degrees will have your pec major feeling *fantastic*. Think about retracting (pinching) your shoulder blades back and DOWN!

3. Push up Plus

This one is a personal favorite for the serratus anterior! slide_43

Of course, habits take time to break. In due time your shoulders, back, neck, and training will thank you!


Written by: Jamie Brynn Hamilton,

in collaboration with Stefanie Cohen




A recent study suggested that 2/3 female lifters, and 1/3 male lifters prefer sumo over conventional. Has any of you sumo-ers been blamed of “cheating” because of preferring this technique? I certainly have. People claim that sumo is easier than conventional all the time, without taking into account hip structure, femoral angles, muscular tension and energy systems.

The main claim I hear is that sumo is easier because it requires less range of motion to complete a lift. This is not entirely false. Sumo deadlift has approximately 25% less range of motion than a conventional deadlift. This difference however matters very little when it comes to a one rep max- MAJOR KEY. Your muscles have more than enough energy stored to produce 8-10 seconds of maximal effort contractions, which is approximately how many seconds a deadlift grind last for. Range of motion would matter, if we are talking about deadlifting for maximal REPS.

Other factors like the shape of your pelvis, orientation of your hip socket and femur will determine your hip range of motion AND the amount of muscular tension you can develop by placing your legs in different positions. Refer to my older articles for more info on this! If you don’t know which style works better for you, you don’t really need an advanced measurement system. Simply try both methods and see which positions feel stronger for you.


Knee moment is 3x higher in sumo than conventional, this just means that Sumo’s hit your quads harder. EMG studies found that there is 10% more activity in your spinal erectors in conventional, so this form is harder on your erectors. My favorite quote by Greg Nuckols is “You miss a lift because you were too weak through your very weakest part of the movement”. This is applicable because if you do prefer sumo over conventional, maybe you need to strengthen your back, and if you prefer conventional, maybe you can incorporate more exercises to strengthen your quads.

In conclusion, NEITHER ONE IS HARDER THAN THE ORDER!!  If sumo were truly easier than conventional, why would Eddy Hall chose to pull conventional when he broke the world record deadlift at 1100 pounds?



By: Stefanie Cohen, SPT

Bench plateau? Try changing your bar path

Bench plateau? Try changing your bar path


After reading McLaughlin’s book, which is probably one of the best resource for the bench press I have ever encountered, I ran across one of Greg Nuckols article, where he talks about some key points from this book. He does a great job going over the biomechanics of the bench a lot more in depth than I will cover in this article so if that is something that interests you I highly recommend you check it out!

McLaughlin pointed out a really good observation about the difference in bar path between novice and advanced lifters. He showed that both groups lower the bar using a similar pattern, almost a straight line, but the path changed dramatically during the ascent. Novice lifters move the bar straight UP THEN BACK, while advanced lifters do the opposite. They move the bar up AND BACK right off the bat and finish the lift by pressing almost in a straight line up.


                                                      Image property of Greg Nuckols- Strength Theory

He pointed out that elite lifters were able to add pounds to their bench, with no real change in total force output. This is done by  changing their bar path by shortening the moment arm, which is the distance from the bar to your shoulder in the frontal plane (from your armpit to an imaginary line that drops straight down from your hand at the point that you hold the bar). You can accomplish this by decreasing the distance between the bar and your shoulder faster during the ascent part of the lift. This doesn’t necessarily change the amount of work you are doing, but its simply a more efficient way to push.

bar path

In conclusion, McLaughlin noted in his research that elite lifters didn’t increase their maximum force output that much year after year, but the ones that continue making the most progress where the ones that make adjustments on their bar path.

The “total work” done won’t necessarily change, as this is defined as the VERTICAL distance that the bar travels, and not the total distance. This is not a question about reducing work or decreasing range of motion but rather about finding a position that will be the most efficient to bench press in. 


Stefanie Cohen,  SPT