The upper trapezius (G. trapeza, four-sided or four-legged table.) refers to the uppermost section fibers on the trapezoid-shaped muscle pair known as the trapezius.
The upper trapezius fibers span from the top of the upper back to the base of the skull, and act on the scapula and cervical spine, with their biggest role as the prime mover in scapular elevation.
Classified as part of the superficial posterior axioappendicular (extrinsic shoulder) muscle group, the upper trapezius lies superficial to the splenius, semispinalis and levator scapulae.
The upper trapezius fibers originate from the lower rear part of the skull, and along the cervical spine until the 7th cervical vertebrae.
From this broad origin, the parallel-oriented fibers upper trap fibers run inferolaterally and converge on the far end of the clavicle. The upper fibers, along with the rest of the trapezius, form a radiate muscle shape.
The upper trapezius is what people associate with the trapezius. This makes sense. They jut up from the shoulder and are visible both the front and back. But they’re really just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak: The middle and lower traps make up the majority of the trapezius.
- Upper traps
- Upper trapezius fibers
- Upper fibers (of the trapezius)
Origin, Insertion, Action & Nerve Supply
|Insertion||Lateral third of the posterior aspect of the clavicle|
*Note: “Upper cervical” movements refer to movements, which only takes place at the atlanto-occipital and atlanto-axial joints (i.e. two uppermost joints of the cervical spine. Whereas, “cervical” movements refer to movements of the entire cervical spine. For example, “upper cervical extension” is just cocking the head back while keeping the rest of the neck fixed; “cervical extension” is shifting the entire neck back
Note: The chart below only includes the exercises that most directly target the upper trapezius (i.e. shrug variations).
Exercises that work the upper traps more indirectly include neck exercises involving extension or lateral flexion, as well as any Olympic-style lifts involving shrugging (i.e. all jump shrug, clean, snatch, high pull or hang pull variations).
Also, the exercises below are the same as those for the levator scapulae, except for the exercises involving elevated arms (i.e. overhead shrug variations, scaption with shrug, and forearm wall slide). These kinds of elevated-arm movements eliminate any activation of the levator scapulae or rhomboids, which is desirable if you want to isolate the upper traps.
- Hex bar shrug
- Behind-the-back shrug
- Overhead shrug
- Standing shrug
- Seated shrug
- Overhead shrug
- Scaption shrug
- Behind-the-back shrug
- Kneeling (or half-kneeling) unilateral overhead shrug
- Unilateral stirrup shrug
- Bilateral stirrup shrug
- Standing shrug
- Seated shrug
- Calf machine shrug
- Inverted shrug
- Forearm wall slide (with overhead shrug at top)
Stretches & Myofascial Release Techniques:
- Ear-to-shoulder upper trapezius stretch
- Ear-to-shoulder upper trapezius stretch (with arm abducted/externally rotated)
- Arm-behind-back upper trapezius stretch
Self Myofascial Release Techniques
When using these techniques, give special attention to the trigger points labeled TrP1 and TrP2 in the image below.
- Lacrosse ball
- Backnobber II
- Overactive/Short Upper Trapezius: The upper trapezius is overactive and short in people with upper crossed syndrome (UCS). The scapular elevation seen in UCS facilitates the upper trapezius (and levator scapulae). This causes synergistic dominance of the upper trapezius over the already-inhibited lower trapezius and serratus anterior during scapular upward rotation, resulting in limited overhead range of motion and shoulder impingement. Another contributor to upper trapezius overactivity in UCS is forward head posture. The upper traps must work extra hard to constantly keep the head extended at the atlanto-occipital joint to counteract the forward translation of the lower cervical spine. This can lead to neck and shoulder pain, tension headaches and eventually disc and nerve issues.
- Inhibited/Lengthened Upper Trapezius: This is less common that overactive/short upper trapezius, but it occurs frequently enough to warrant mention. As Tony Gentilcore has pointed out, the upper trapezius can become stretched out and weak from a disproportionate focus on exercises that put you in scapular downward rotation. When this happens, scapular upward rotation is impaired, since the upper trapezius is involved in this movement. This leads to poor overhead range of motion and increased risk of impingement and related rotator cuff injuries.
- If you have overactive/short upper trapezius, do the following:
- Avoid direct upper trapezius exercises.
- Stretch and release the upper trapezius and levator scapulae every day. Be sure to stretch release them before lifting as well. The more overactive the upper traps are, the more they’ll throw off your movement pattern and increase the risk of shoulder/upper back injury on any upper body exercise.
- Note: If you have prominent forward head posture, it’s probably smarter to just release the levator scapulae. Don’t stretch it, since it’s likely already excessively lengthened.
- Do more exercises to strengthen your lower and middle trapezius. These fibers tend to get weak and long when the upper fibers are overactive.
- Do more exercises to strengthen your deep neck flexors. These muscles flex the upper cervical spine, whereas the upper trapezius extends it. As such, they are weak and long when the traps are tight and short, resulting in a forward head posture. Start off with lying chin tucks. Then progress to standing chin tucks, quadruped chin tucks, and finally, chin tucks against a resistance band.
- Since upper crossed syndrome is probably the root cause of your tight/short upper traps fibers, you’ll have to address the other muscle imbalances underlying that. See how to fix upper crossed syndrome (article coming soon).
- If you have inhibited/excessively lengthened upper trapezius, do the following:
- Strengthen the upper trapezius with exercises that don’t involve the scapular downward rotators. This is done by isolating the upper traps using shrug variations where the arms are elevated. I recommend starting with the forearm wall slide (with overhead shrug at top) and the scaption with shrug. Once you get those down, add in an overhead shrug variation of your choosing.
- When the downward rotators are dominant, the other upward rotators (i.e. serratus anterior, lower trapezius) will be weak. So you must strengthen them as well. See serratus anterior exercises and lower trapezius exercises.
- If you don’t have any particular imbalance in the upper trapezius and will be training them directly, then consider the following upper trapezius exercise tips for improving your technique:
- Don’t roll your shoulders when you shrug. First off, it’s dangerous for you shoulders. Second, it takes the focus off your upper traps. Just elevate the shoulder blades and lower them straight down.
- Embrace a moderate stretch for about 1 second at the bottom of the rep on shrugs.
- Raise your shoulders as high as possible on each rep, and hold it at the top for about a second. If you can only shrug your shoulders through a one or two inch range of motion, the weight is too heavy.
- Don’t lean forward when you shrug. This shifts the focus away from the upper traps, onto the rhomboids.
- Use weight lifting straps if your grip starts to give out on heavier sets.