So there I was yesterday standing under 140kg about to drop into my 6th set of squats. I retracted my shoulders to pull in on the bar as always. When my lower traps cramped so hard that they felt like they were being torn from my spine. Today even nodding my head is painful, when moving my hips or my shoulders I feel like I’m being kicked in the back. When you’re injured it really makes you aware of just how many movements are effected by just one muscle.
This has got me thinking about the dangers of poor function in the traps and retractors and its relevance to your life and your lifts. Now I do a lot of work on my retractors and lower traps more to help maintain my posture.
Here’s the what, where and why of the lower traps and my top tips for training them right.
What and where are your lower traps?
Your lower traps are the bottom third of the large trapezoidal muscle the runs from the base of your skull (occipital ridge to those in for the technical stuff) down your spine to just lower than half way near the final rib (T12). From this origin they run out to the top section of your shoulder-blade (Spine of scapula). See Pic.
What do the lower trapezius muscles do?
They are there to help stabilise and move the shoulder blades when the spine is fixed. The lower traps specifically help to depress and retract the shoulder blades, Pulling them back and down. This is important because it helps to anchor or root the shoulder in position keeping it safe. If you think about your shoulder-blade as the root of a tree, and the arm as the trunk. Without the root firmly settled and stable, the trunk in turn will be weak and unstable. Therefore if your lower traps are dysfunctional or weak, so is everything else you do involving your arms. Pressing, pulling, dead lifting, curling, even squatting, . It all gets better and your numbers will go up if you work on your lower traps. Sounds great right?
Why train lower trap muscles?
1)Because the chances are you’re not using them correctly on your other lifts
2) They will improve your posture no end. As you read this sit up straight, pull your shoulders back towards your spine, and down. What’s happened, you look proud, shoulders broader, chest bigger, more confident.
3) Your numbers in the gym will go up. Being able to sufficiently stabilise the shoulder blades is crucial to all of your big lifts bench press, pull ups, dead lifts and squats. Even down to bicep, triceps and deltoid work. Whenever you have a load on your arms no matter how your moving it, your shoulder-blade is the base of that support. Fix it down well and your arms will be brutally strong.
4) Strong traps and stable shoulder blades will help keep you injury free.
How do I train lower trapezius muscles?
I’m a firm believer in learning movements one step at a time. No matter how big or small they may be. Countless times I’ve seen trainers and trainees with the best intentions trying to hit their lower traps and completely missing the mark. Its important learn how to fire these muscles on step at a time. Otherwise you train yourself into further dysfunction. By this I mean that if you have dominant muscles which tend to become over involved in certain movements, unless you really pay attention to progressively re training your movement patterns. You will only strengthen your dysfunction.
The thing that I see going wrong most of the time is this. When we’re trying to train properly and set our shoulders in the right position before a lift. It’s vital that you can not only retract the shoulder blades, but also DEPRESS them. You can see from the picture below the rhomboids which allow you to retract your scapula will also pull them up, not down. To add to this, most people will be upper trap “dominant” because of their lifestyle, stress and training habits. So these too will serve to pull the shoulder blades back and UP.
The Lower traps and rhomboids need to work synergistically to set the scapula in the right position. This takes time and attention.
When starting a vertical pull for instance it almost always happens that the pull is initiated with a bend of the elbow and not depression and retraction of the shoulder blades. Any vertical or horizontal pull should begin with a strong retraction and depression before the load is moved any further. Lets look at a simple sequence I suggest you use for any pulling movement.
1) Retract the shoulders
2) Depress the shoulders
3) Lock into that position
4) Create tension by pulling apart on the bar/handle
5) Perform the concentric movement ensuring contraction and stabilisation throughout
6) Perform the eccentric contraction retaining scapula position throughout
The same can be said for the bench press, often the shoulders are not set, therefore the arms aren’t stable meaning your max load is lower than it potentially could be and you’re in danger of injuring yourself badly.
In a squat the shoulder blades should be retracted and depressed hard, elbows under the bar and you should be trying to snap the bar over your back. Try this the next time you squat and marvel in how much more stable it feels. As oppose to the shoulders back and elbows up approach. Which only really seems to promote thoracic flexion and a far riskier and often weaker squat.
With dead lifts, work with a lighter weight and before you break away set your shoulders correctly, engage the lats and rear delts too. Imagine your bending the bar around your body which will help to maximise tension. Then drop in trying to hold this position. It feels great.
In order to train the lower traps you have to start small. Once you’ve mastered contracting them, you can then progress to loading them but DO NOT RUSH forward on this. Your time now will save you a lot later. Depending on your level of weakness/dysfunction this would usually be how I progress my clients into the correct movement pattern.
Basic skill 1) Wall retractions – Leaning against a wall facing it with your arms out in front of you and elbows locked, as though you’re going to do some push ups against it. Shuffle your feet back and lean into the wall, your shoulder angle should now be greater than 90 degrees. Allowing your body weight to assist you, retract your shoulder blades pulling them back and DOWN. I you feel that your shoulders are rising towards the end of the movement keep trying. Be patient, eventually you will learn to feel and contract it enough to pull down. Be careful not to arch your back.
Once you’re confident that you can really connect with the target muscle, move on to progression A.
Progression A) Single arm trap raises.
Now this is a common exercise which is always done incorrectly. To begin with don’t use any load whatsoever.
Lying prone on a bench at around 45 degrees or higher to start with. (the lower the bench the harder it will be) Hang your arm over the side relaxing it straight down. Use the skills you learned on the wall to retract and fully depress the shoulder-blade. Once you have secured this position begin to raise the arm out in front and slightly to the side of you. Aim for 1.15 on a clock face. Ensure that your shoulder blade stays firmly locked in place. Perform the movement slowly and in a controlled manner, it’s about the contraction when learning how to train a muscle. Not the speed or the weight.
Raise it as high as you can, contracting the lower traps hard before returning to the start position trying to maintain scapula position. Relax and reset the position before each rep. Repeat for 8-10 reps to begin with up to a max of about 15 after a week or two.
Progression B) As above with both hands. The lengthening lever as you raise your arms acts as the load here. So don’t worry about it being hard.
Progression C) As above only adding small weight plates or extremely light dumbbells.
I would do these exercises 3/4 times a week, it’s always good to use them as part of your warm ups for all sessions.
There is much more to postural and movement deficiencies than the small fraction of it that I’ve described above. The human body is a wonderful thing and there’s an awful lot going on around each joint at any given time. There will be tightness, weakness, dominance, injury and nervous interactions which can affect everything I’ve just written about. These are my opinions and there are always variables but I hope that reading this may help you in some way.