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. 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.
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.
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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSoHeSjvIdY
- 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!
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