Last week we talked about tight Pectoralis Minor muscles and how when they are tight and/or short they can tip the shoulder blade forward causing rounded shoulders and winging of the lower tip of the shoulder blade. Today we are going to discuss the Lower Trapezius muscle which does the opposite action. It tips the shoulder blade back and down helping to glue it onto the rib cage and stabilise it when doing activities such as lifting a cup into the cupboard.
What are the signs and symptoms of a weak low trap?
If your low trap is weak you will probably have rounded shoulders or winging of the shoulder blade or both. This is actually really common because so much of what we do hunches our bodies forward such as sitting at a computer, sitting on the couch, lying on our side at night in bed, and so on. If it is functionally weak you may get sore shoulders when hanging the washing, putting dishes away into high cupboards or perhaps after walking the dog. If any of this is sounding familiar then read on!
How do I test if I have a weak low trap?
To properly test if you have a weak lower trapezius muscle you should see someone who can perform the test for you such as a Clinical Myotherapist, Clinical Pilates Instructor or Physiotherapist however you can get a rough idea by doing a simple test at home.
First of all find a light weight or something from the pantry with a little weight in it. Next lie face down on your bed to one side so that your arm dangles off the side towards the floor. Your head should rest on the back of your other hand. First without the weight see if you can take your arm all the way up into a ‘v’ shape with your arm roughly at head height and with your thumb facing towards the roof. If you can, next take the small weight and repeat. Then do the same routine on the other side. If you struggled with either of these exercises by way of not being able to complete the test or ending up with some tightness or pain in your shoulder during or after then it is highly likely that you have a weak lower trapezius muscle. This means that this muscle is not helping you with normal activities of day to day living, which is not what we want!
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Why is my low trap weak and what can I do about it?
There are several reasons why the low trap muscle might be weak. As we discussed last week, a tight or short pec minor muscle can inhibit the low trap from doing it’s job properly, that could be one reason. Secondly it could be a lack of signals getting through to initiate the muscles performance. Thirdly it could be a nutiritional inaedquacy from malabsorbtion or poor diet. It could also be that your body is not in the right postural place for the low trap to engage properly in which case we call it a motor control issue and not a true weakness. All of these causes can be assessed and discussed by professionals such as Clinical Myotherapists. We can also refer on if there is a test or problem outside of our scope of practice.
There are a few good exercises you can try at home or at the gym. They are good exercises to do regardless if you have a weak low trap muscle or not and should be combined with a push exercise and a squat for general strength gains according to government health guidelines.
A couple of simple exercises to strengthen your low trap muscle
This exercise we already discussed in above under the heading “how to test your low trap strength”. Simply lie face down over a ball, on the edge of your bed or come onto your hands and knees. Then raise your arm into a ‘v’ shaped position about level with your head height with your thumb pointing towards the roof. You should feel your shoulder blade slide down your rib cage and slightly inwards towards your spine.
If this is too difficult try the same arm action either side lying or standing to lessen the pull of gravity. If it is too easy add a hand held weight, start with low weight and work your way up until you find what is right for you. You should aim to do between 10 and 20 repetitions before you start to feel fatigued or can no longer lift your arm with good technique.
As a variation you can also do it with your elbows bent against a wall as pictured below. Simply slide arms up and down the wall keeping the shoulder blades glued to the rib cage surface but allowing them to slide up and down. The shoulder blades should move up as your arms go up and down and your arm goes down. Try to keep your mid back on the wall the whole time as well.
Here at Waverley Myotherapy Clinic we recommend using a undulated periodised approach to strength training because research has shown quicker strength gains over time. For more detailed information on this please get in contact with us. In short a undulated periodised approach means you should switch up your sets and reps regularly. For example on a Monday you do 1 set of 20 repetitions of the above exercise (you need to choose the right weight to be able to achieve this) then on Thursdays you would do 2 sets of 10 repetitions (the weight will need to be heavier than on the Monday). On the second week you repeat the same routine on the Monday but then on the Thursday you do 3 sets of 10 reps or you could change it to 8 reps. I’m sure you are getting the idea now, essentially continuing to change the sets and/or reps each session until you arrive to the 4th week which is when you should have a rest week. The rest week we might do more walking, swimming, riding our bikes as well as a light training session only once that week on the Thursday. I will provide more information on undulated periodised programs in the next blog for you, but if you have any questions in the mean time please contact me.
Overwhelmed? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one! This stuff was confusing to us at first, sometimes we need a bit of help from the professionals. Click here to book a Myotherapy appointment. Our results orientated Clinical Myotherapists will assess, treat and offer specific take home advice.
The next exercise to try at home is a row using a stretch band. Fix the band to something high like the top of your door. I normally tie a knot in the end of the band, put it on the other side of the door at the top and then close the door making sure I am on the side it has closed towards so as I pull on the band there is no chance of the door springing open on me! Next sit or kneel about 1 metre away from the door with the band held in one hand. This should make the line of pull upwards and slightly away from you. Next do a rowing action thinking of the lower tip of your shoulder blade drawing in and down as you do. If the exercises is too easy move further away from the door or use a stronger band. If the exercise is too hard, move closer to the door and closer to the attachment point or use a weaker band. Repeat the exercise until your feel fatigue or you can’t do another one. This should be approximately 10-20 repetitions. As mentioned above it is best to use a undulated periodised approach when strengthening a muscle.
Well, those are a couple of exercises I commonly prescribe for weak lower trapezius muscles. I hope you have enjoyed the read and that you give the testing and exercises a go. A final note, if you already have a sore shoulder or diagnosed problem with your shoulder it is best to seek professional advice before attempting any of the above.
Stay healthy, stay happy!