Trapezius stretches are an effective way to alleviate neck, shoulder, upper back, and middle back pain. The prevalence of pain and tightness in the trapezius muscles has been increasing due to factors such as stress, poor posture, and work habits. These issues can lead to various problems including headaches, trigger points, restricted shoulder and neck movements, and shoulder blade instability. However, incorporating trapezius stretches into your routine can make a significant difference. Let’s begin with an overview of the anatomy and function of the trapezius muscle, as well as the common causes of tightness and pain. If you want more detailed information, you can refer to the dedicated section on trapezius pain.
Trapezius Anatomy & Function:
The trapezius is a broad muscle that originates from the upper spine, starting at the base of the skull and extending down to the lower thoracic spine. It fans out and attaches to the collarbone and shoulder blade. The trapezius muscle can be divided into three parts: the upper trapezius, middle trapezius, and lower trapezius. Its main role is to help maintain posture and stabilize the shoulder blades, providing a stable base for movement. Functionally, the trapezius muscles allow us to:
Bend our necks sideways and backward and twist our necks to the side.
- Lower our shoulders against resistance, such as pushing up through our hands when standing up from a chair.
- Raise our arms above our heads.
- Perform throwing motions.
Causes of Tight Trapezius Pain:
Tight trapezius muscles have become increasingly common, primarily due to the following causes:
- Poor Posture: Chronically tight trapezius muscles are often a result of poor posture. Spending extended periods slumped over a desk or slouched on a sofa while using screens can lead to tightness in the trapezius muscles.
- Stress & Anxiety: Our shoulders tend to accumulate tension when we experience stress or anxiety. This tension gradually causes the shoulders to tighten and move toward the ears, with the trapezius muscles carrying most of the burden.
- Trigger Points: Tightness and trigger points in the trapezius muscles are closely connected. Small, hypersensitive nodules develop in the trapezius fascia, particularly above the shoulder blade. You can often feel these knots by running your fingers over the affected area.
- Having overly tight trapezius muscles can result in neck, shoulder, and upper back pain, as well as tension headaches. Therefore, it is crucial to know how to properly stretch the trapezius muscles. For more information on common causes and symptoms, refer to the dedicated trapezius pain article.
How to Stretch the Trapezius:
There are various ways to perform trapezius stretches, and here, we will explore seven of the most effective spaces that can be done in different positions to target different parts of the muscle. Whether you need a stretch to do at the office, want to relieve chronic tightness, or simply wish to loosen up your trapezius muscles, you’ll find suitable options here. The best part is that you don’t need any special equipment, and all of these stretches can be done at home.
Start with shoulder rolls as they help warm up and loosen the muscle before performing full stretches. Follow these steps:
- Sit or stand in a comfortable position with good posture.
- Roll both shoulders back and down, then forwards and up in a circular motion.
- Begin with small circles and gradually increase their size.
- Spend 30-60 seconds on this exercise, then repeat in the opposite direction.
Chin tucks, also known as cervical retractions, are essential for relieving neck and trapezius pain. They help realign the neck and alleviate tension in the upper traps while combating a forward-poking chin posture. Additionally, they can loosen the joints in the lower neck and upper back.
Here’s how to perform chin tucks correctly:
- Sit or stand upright with good posture.
- Slowly draw your chin in towards your neck without tilting your head.
- Imagine your chin is sitting on a shelf and slide your chin along the shelf, as if giving yourself a double chin.
Hold the position for 3 seconds and then relax. Repeat this exercise 10-15 times.
- Imagine a piece of string pulling up through the center of your head to maintain an upward head posture and keep the back of your neck long.
- Initially, perform chin tucks in front of a mirror to ensure proper technique. It may feel slightly unnatural at first, and people often tilt their heads or draw their shoulders back instead of solely tucking in the chin.
Upper Trap Side Bends:
Side bends are effective stretches for releasing chronically tight trapezius muscles. They can be modified to target different parts of the muscle and help relieve trapezius trigger points and knots. It’s important to start gently with these head tilts to avoid discomfort in your neck.
Here’s how to perform upper trap side bends:
- Sit upright in a chair with good posture.
- Tilt your head to one side, bringing your ear down towards your shoulder.
- Keep your eyes and nose pointed forward.
- Hold the position for 3 seconds and return to the starting position.
- Repeat to the other side, aiming for 10-15 repetitions each way.
Progression: Increase the stretch slightly by placing your hand behind your back as shown in the previous exercise and maintain that position throughout.
Upper Trap Head Tilts:
Head tilts are the next stage after side bends if you’re looking for stronger stretches for the upper trapezius. Take it slow initially to avoid aggravating any neck or trapezius pain.
Here’s how to perform upper trap head tilts:
- Sit upright in a chair with good posture and hold the bottom of the chair with one hand.
- Tilt your head to the opposite side, bringing your ear towards your shoulder.
- Anchoring your shoulder down by holding the bottom of the chair helps increase the trapezius stretch.
- Place your free hand over the side of your head (towards the back) and gently pull your head further over for a stronger stretch.
- Once your head is tilted to the side, turn your head to look down towards your hip to feel a deeper stretch in the traps.
Combine progressions 1 and 2 for an even stronger upper trap stretch.
Top Tip: If you don’t have a suitable chair to hold onto, you can sit on your hand to anchor the arm down.
Middle Trapezius Stretch
The middle trapezius stretch is an excellent exercise that targets both sides of the muscle simultaneously. As your muscles relax, you can modify the stretch to increase its effectiveness further.
Here’s how to perform the middle trapezius stretch:
- Sit or stand with good posture.
- Place your hands and forearms together as shown.
- Draw your shoulders and shoulder blades forward until you feel a stretch along your upper back.
- Hold this position for 15-30 seconds and repeat the stretch 3-5 times.
- Interlace your fingers and draw your hands forward until you feel a stretch across your upper back.
- Increase the stretch by bringing your chin down towards your chest.
- Top Tip: You can target different fibers of the trapezius muscle by varying the angle of your arms or the height of your hands.
Sideways Child’s Pose
The sideways child’s pose is a variation of the traditional yoga child’s pose that provides a wonderful stretch for the trapezius and upper back muscles.
Follow these steps to perform the sideways child’s pose:
- Kneel on all fours with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your feet.
- Slowly sit your buttocks back onto your feet, allowing your chest to come down to the floor.
- While holding this position, gradually slide or walk your hands out to the side to stretch your tight trapezius muscles.
- Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, then move your hands to the other side and repeat.
- Return to the starting position and repeat the stretch 2-3 times on each side.
- Progression: To enhance the stretch in the middle and lower trapezius muscles without moving your body, take a couple of deep breaths while holding the stretch.
Massage Ball Stretches
If you’re seeking ways to target trapezius trigger points or knots, massage ball stretches are perfect. If you don’t have a massage ball, you can use a tennis ball, lacrosse or hockey ball, racquetball, or even a golf ball. There are various stretches to target different parts of the trapezius muscle, but let’s start with the basics and progress from there.
Important Note: Avoid rolling the ball over bony areas like the shoulder blades or spine; instead, focus on rolling through the trapezius muscle.
Follow these instructions for the massage ball stretches:
- Stand with your back against the wall and place the ball behind your back, targeting the knot or tight area in the trapezius muscle.
- Lean back into the ball to apply gentle pressure and stretch the trapezius.
- For a knotted trapezius muscle, hold the pressure for 30-60 seconds. For a chronically tight trapezius, roll the ball in small movements (up/down, side/side, or circles) for 1-2 minutes.
- Progression: To increase the stretch through the trapezius muscle without moving your body, raise both arms either in front of you or to the side. This dynamic stretch adds a lovely sensation to the trapezius muscles.
Upper Trapezius Stretches With Ball
When using the massage ball for upper trapezius stretches, there are several methods you can try:
Upper Trapezius Stretch 1:
- Lie on your stomach and rest your head on one hand.
- Use the other hand to roll the ball gently around the base of the skull and the side of the neck.
Upper Trapezius Stretch 2:
- Lie on the floor and place the ball underneath your upper traps.
- Move the ball to the trapezius knot and apply gentle pressure by pushing into the ball. Alternatively, roll the ball around for a more general stretch if your trapezius is super tight.
Upper Trapezius Stretch 3:
- If you have a super tight trapezius at the top of your shoulder, lie on the floor in an open doorway. Your head should go through the door, and your shoulder should be aligned with the wall.
- Place the ball between the wall and your upper trapezius muscle. Scoot closer to the wall to apply pressure through the tight or knotted trapezius muscle.
Upper Trapezius Stretch 4:
- Stand by an open doorway and bend at the waist so your shoulder is aligned with the wall.
- Place a ball on the top part of your trapezius, between your neck and shoulder. Lean into the ball and hold the upper trapezius stretch.
Middle Trapezius Stretch With Ball
To stretch the middle trapezius with the massage ball, move the ball down to the area between the shoulder blade and spine, avoiding bones.
Here’s how to perform the middle trapezius stretches with a ball:
- Place a ball between the wall and your middle trapezius muscle.
- Lean into the ball and apply gentle pressure to the tight area.
- For the middle trapezius trigger point release, hold the pressure directly on the trapezius knot.
- For a more general middle trapezius stretch, bend and straighten your knees to roll the ball up and down through the muscle.
Lower Trapezius Stretch With Ball
To stretch the lower trapezius with the massage ball, move the ball down over the lower part of the rib cage.
Follow these steps for the lower trapezius stretches with a ball:
- Stand with your back against the wall and place a ball between the wall and your lower traps.
- Bend and straighten your knees to roll the ball up and down, stretching through the lower traps.
- Lower traps trigger points or knots are less common than in the upper or middle traps. If you encounter them, hold the pressure through the ball over the trigger point instead of moving the ball.
What Else Can Help?
Trapezius stretches should not be done in isolation. It is essential to work on posture and muscle strength to prevent the muscles from tightening up again and causing ongoing pain. Alongside these trapezius stretches, consider incorporating the following exercises:
Upper Back Stretches: Tight trapezius muscles are often linked to upper back tightness and stiffness, so it’s crucial to stretch the thoracic spine as well.
Scapular Stabilization Exercises: Target the lower traps to improve shoulder blade strength and control.
Improve Your Posture: Implementing proper posture techniques can be beneficial, especially if you sit in front of a screen for long periods. Check out our top tips for improving posture.
If you’re experiencing trapezius muscle pain alongside tightness, there are several other strategies you can implement alongside trapezius stretches to help, such as massage, adjusting your sleep position, and using heat therapy. You can find more information in the “Trapezius Pain: Causes & Treatment” article.