Levator Scapulae: Functional Anatomy Guide

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By Alex
Last updated on

Levator ScapulaeThe levator scapulae (L. levator, elevator ; scapulae, shoulder blades.) is a strap-like muscle in neck and shoulder region.

It acts on the scapula and cervical spine, and as its name reveals, its most prominent role is scapular elevation.

Classified as a superficial posterior axioappendicular (extrinsic shoulder) muscle, the levator scapulae is situated deep to the upper trapezius and splenius capitis, and superior to the rhomboids.

It originates from the top four neck vertebrae and inserts on the medial border of the scapula, just above the rhomboid minor’s insertion.

Its fibers have a parallel orientation, spiraling slightly as they travel inferolaterally from origin to insertion. They form a relatively long and flat muscle belly that gives the muscle its strap-like shape.

Also Called

  • Levator scap
  • Lev scap
  • Rear neck

Origin, Insertion, Action & Nerve Supply

Muscle Levator Scapulae
Origin Transverse processes of the cervical vertebrae (C1-C4)
Insertion Medial border of the scapula (from the superior angle to the spine of the scapula)
Action Unilateral or bilateral contraction, with cervical spine fixed:

  • Scapular elevation
  • Scapular downward rotation

Unilateral contraction, with shoulders fixed:

  • Cervical lateral flexion (ipsilateral)
  • Cervical rotation (ipsilateral)
Nerve Supply
  • Dorsal scapular nerve (C5)
  • Anterior rami of cervical spinal nerve (C3-C4)


Note: There are no exercises where the levator scapulae is the target muscle (and even if there was, there would be no reason to do it, since isolating the levator scapulae is pointless, if not harmful for most people).

That said, the following chart only includes shrug variations, since they have the greatest amount of indirect levator scapulae involvement (although the upper trapezius is actually the target muscle).

Other exercises that train the levator scapulae indirectly include: neck exercises involving cervical lateral flexion and Olympic-style lifts involving shrugging (i.e. any jump shrug, clean, snatch, high pull or hang pull variations).

Barbell Exercises:

  • Shrug
  • Trap bar shrug
  • Behind-the-back shrug

Dumbbell Exercises:

  • Standing shrug
  • Seated shrug

Cable Exercises:

  • Shrug
  • Behind-the-back shrug
  • Unilateral stirrup shrug
  • Bilateral stirrup shrug

Machine Exercises:

  • Standing shrug
  • Seated shrug
  • Calf machine shrug

Bodyweight Exercises:

  • Inverted shrug

Stretches & Myofascial Release Techniques:


  • Standing levator scapulae stretch
  • Seated levator scapulae stretch

Self Myofascial Release Techniques

When using these techniques, give special attention to the common trigger points shown in the image below.



  • Backnobber II
  • Lacrosse ball

Common Issues:

  • Overactive, But Excessively Lengthened Levator Scapulae: The levator scapulae becomes excessively lengthened, but is still overactive, in those with upper crossed syndrome (UCS). The scapular elevation and scapular downward rotation associated with UCS facilitates the levator scapulae. However, the lev scap does not become short like most overactive muscles. This is because UCS also entails forward head posture, which increases the distance between the origin and insertion of the levator scapulae, putting in an excessively lengthened position. Being in this chronically stretched out state actually causes the muscle to become even more overactive and tighter in order to create protective tension: It constantly eccentrically contracts in its lengthened state to prevent the head/neck from moving further forward, since the deep neck flexors that normally keep the head back are inhibited. Levator scapulae overactivity can lead to other problems or injuries, such as neck and upper back pain, and limited neck range of motion. It can contribute to scapular anterior tilt, which inhibits scapular upward rotation. Poor upward rotation reduces overhead range of motion and can lead increased shoulder impingement and rotator cuff injuries.

Training Notes:

  • If you excessively lengthened yet overactive levator scapulae, consider the following:
    • Avoid any shrug variation where your arms are hanging down.
      • This does not necessarily include exercises like the overhead shrug (if you can do it pain-free with proper technique) or scaption with shrug, which can actually help you activate and strengthen your upper traps if they’re being synergistically inhibited by the lev scap.
    • Do not stretch your levator scapulae. Remember, it is already in a chronically lengthened state, which is part of the reason it’s tight. So even though stretching it might feel good in the short term, it’s potentially detrimental in the long run.
    • Release the levator scapulae using the techniques shown above.
    • Release and stretch your sternocleidomastoid muscle (the big muscles on front of neck) and suboccipital group (the muscle group at the intersection of the skull and neck).
    • Immediately after releasing the levator scapulae (and the sternocleidomastoid/suboccipitals), perform any chin tuck exercise variation to activate and strengthen the deep neck flexors. Over time, this will help eliminate the imbalance between these muscle groups and improve your forward head posture.
    • Avoid overhead exercises if they cause you any pain. Do high-incline presses instead for your heavy shoulder exercises. If you can do overhead movements without pain, it’s a good idea to release the levator scapulae before starting your sets. This will improve scapular upward rotation and improve overhead range of motion.
    • The above information can be used to significantly improve levator scapulae dysfunction. However, to completely and permanently eliminate the problem, you need to address the root cause, which is often upper crossed syndrome. For details, read how to fix upper crossed syndrome (article coming soon).
  • If your levator scapulae is overactive and short – not excessively lengthened (i.e. you don’t have forward head posture) – then most of the information above is still relevant. However, in this case, it’s okay to do levator scapulae stretches. They can be useful for pain relief and helping return the short muscle to a more normal resting length.
  • If have don’t have any type levator scapulae dysfunction, consider the following:
    • There’s no need to avoid shrug exercises.
    • It’s a good idea to occasionally release and stretch your levator scapulae, sternocleidomastoid and suboccipital group, to maintain proper functioning of these muscles since they can so easily become overactive.
      • This type of maintenance work (in addition to other mobility work like thoracic extensions) is especially important if you sit for extended periods using a computer, playing video games, etc.
Alex from King of the Gym
Hey! My name is Alex and I'm the founder and author of King of the Gym. I've been lifting weights seriously since 2005 in high school when I started a home gym in my parents' basement. I started writing about fitness in 2009. Then, in 2014, I got into writing home gym equipment reviews and I haven't looked back. My current home gym is in my own house and it's constantly growing and evolving. My goal is to help you build the home gym of your dreams! Read more about me here.

3 thoughts on “Levator Scapulae: Functional Anatomy Guide”

  1. Thank you so much for this article. It has helped me fix my shoulder problem of two years where physios and chiros have failed! Thank you

  2. Busy with my CPT course at the moment. These functional anatomy articles that include exercises and included information are a GODSEND. THANK YOU!!


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