What does the Lower Trapezius do?
The Trapezius (trap) muscle sits on both sides of your back. It is broken up into an upper, middle, and lower portion, with each section of the muscle doing different things. The lower trap attaches to the scapula and the spine, it is extremely important in shoulder movement and stability. Working alongside the middle trap and rhomboids, its function is retraction and depression, drawing your shoulders back and down. As well as ensuring your shoulder blade moves correctly during upward rotation when lifting your arm up overhead.
My reason for writing a whole blog post on ⅓ of an entire muscle is that I often see issues arising due to its inability to be used when required during particular movements, and it is also commonly associated with shoulder injuries. Most people don’t know what it is or what it does, and when I show them exercises to correct any issues they have, it is usually followed by an “AHA” moment of realization as they feel the muscle work.
Due to the rate of shoulder injuries across sports, the lower trapezius has gained attention. Research has observed its strength, weakness, and activation timing in comparison to other muscles of the upper back, associating it with injury risk. The scapula alone has over a dozen muscles that attach to it, therefore muscular imbalances and scapula dyskinesis ( poor function) are likely not only attributed to a single cause. There are many muscles that contribute to scapula movement, the lower trap often works with others creating what is known as a ‘force couple’. Meaning two or more different muscle actions come together to limit or create one movement. Some of the muscles it commonly works with are the upper and middle traps, the rhomboids, the serratus anterior, the levator scapula, and of the rotator cuff.
Common injuries associated with the Lower Trap:
In most cases, people will not pay attention to the lower trap until an injury occurs in the shoulder or neck. There are many issues that can arise, but all of them tend to be linked similarly to the Lower Traps weakness and its inability to activate sequentially with other muscles during movement. I will call this ‘dysfunction’ for simplicity’s sake.
The most common pathologies that Lower Trap dysfunction is associated with are:
- Upper crossed syndrome
- Neck pain
- Shoulder bursitis
- Frozen shoulder
- Rotator cuff tears
Some of these issues gradually worsen over time, while others may occur suddenly due to an action or movement provoked by the ongoing dysfunction. It is not necessarily a case of cause and effect, as the nature of shoulder movement has many muscles acting on it, however, the lower trap has been associated with all of the above. For example, Upper Crossed syndrome is one of the most common issues people will experience, it is prevalent in modern-day society due to lifestyle habits and occupations forcing people to adopt poor posture. Upper Crossed syndrome is characterized by weakened lower trapezius, serratus anterior, and rhomboids, in conjunction with tightening of the pectoralis muscles, upper traps, and levator scapulae. This causes an individual to have shrugged and internally rotated shoulders (slouching), often leading to neck pain.
Injuries are always a risk when training with weights, this is even more apparent when the shoulder is in poor positions during movements. Arm movement requires the scapula to be held in the correct position to allow the humerus, rotator cuff and bicep tendons to move freely in the shoulder joint. A lack of Lower Trap activation when lifting or pulling overhead has been associated with an increased risk of impingement, tendonitis, and rotator cuff tears. To begin training your lower trap, it is important you know what it does and how to activate it appropriately.
Exercises for the Lower Trap:
The lower trap assists in the depression of the scapula, the exercises you do will need to imitate this action. Understanding how the scapula should move will help in maintaining shoulder strength and longevity. Below are a few of my go-to exercises, starting from what I find the easiest to the most challenging.
Wall Protractions and Retractions
Wall protractions and retractions are useful in order to practice the movement of the scapula before loading.
Hands-on a wall, push against it forcing your shoulders to roll forward while ensuring your hands remain in contact.
Drawing your shoulder blades back and down while ensuring your hands remain in contact with the wall.
All you need to do is slide your arms up and down the wall slowly while ensuring your back and arms remain in contact the whole time.
Y and W Arm Raises
The Y and W is a progression from the wall angel as you begin to use gravity for resistance and it requires the individual to be mindful of engaging the lower traps when moving their arms while ensuring the upper trap does not take over. This can be challenging to understand at first, but once the individual is able to grasp the movements with bodyweight they can easily be loaded to make them harder.
Using an incline bench, lift your arms up with your thumbs pointing to the ceiling. Ensure your shoulder blades are retracted throughout the movement.
Using an incline bench, draw the shoulder blades back and down while lifting the arms in a W shape. Slowly take the arms out away from the body before pulling them back in, trying to maintain the retracted scapula position you had in the beginning.
Once you have mastered the lower traps action in doing the above movements, you should be able to easily apply this same principle to other lifts. Doing exercises such as pull-downs, or pull-ups utilize the lower traps if done correctly. Ensuring the individual is able to maintain depression and retraction of their scapula in positions where the bar is closest to the body will begin to train the muscle, strengthening it. Ideally, once you are mindful of how this muscle movement occurs and the exercises that work best for you, targeting it should get easier and you may find that you do not need to do individual exercises to train it, rather just emphasize its actions into your current program.
Quite simply, the lower trap is a key muscle in shoulder stability and strength. Its influence on movement both in and out of the gym often goes unrecognized until an issue occurs. It is important to understand how its role in scapula retraction and depression allows for a full range of motion during movement of the arms as well as ensuring long-term shoulder health.
Clouette, J., Leroux, T., Shanmugaraj, A., Khan, M., Gohal, C., & Veillette, C. et al. (2020). The lower trapezius transfer: a systematic review of biomechanical data, techniques, and clinical outcomes. Journal Of Shoulder And Elbow Surgery, 29(7), 1505-1512. doi: 10.1016/j.jse.2019.12.019
De Mey, K., Danneels, L., Cagnie, B., Van den Bosch, L., Flier, J., & Cools, A. (2013). Kinetic chain influences on upper and lower trapezius muscle activation during eight variations of a scapular retraction exercise in overhead athletes. Journal Of Science And Medicine In Sport, 16(1), 65-70. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2012.04.008
Nunes, A., & Moita, J. (2015). Effectiveness of physical and rehabilitation techniques in reducing pain in chronic trapezius myalgia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal Of Osteopathic Medicine, 18(3), 189-206. doi: 10.1016/j.ijosm.2015.03.004
Park, S., & Lee, M. (2020). Effects of Lower Trapezius Strengthening Exercises on Pain, Dysfunction, Posture Alignment, Muscle Thickness and Contraction Rate in Patients with Neck Pain; Randomized Controlled Trial. Medical Science Monitor, 26. doi: 10.12659/msm.920208
Uthaikhup, S., Pensri, C., & Kawsoiy, K. (2016). Decreased thickness of the lower trapezius muscle in patients with unilateral neck pain. Muscle & Nerve, 54(3), 439-443. doi: 10.1002/mus.25014
Please note that the health-related information contained on this website is provided for general information purposes and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or for the care that patients receive from their healthcare professionals. This information is not medical advice, and for advice on your specific needs, you should always consult your medical practitioner.