Overcoming Upper Trap Dominance
Dr. Sara Solomon, June 11, 2018
My name is Sara Solomon, and my StrongFit odyssey began in December of 2016. I had numerous muscle imbalances and wanted to learn how to identify and improve them. I tried to understand why muscle imbalances happen in the first place. I was motivated to be my own guinea pig, so I enrolled in the StrongFit mentorship program.
At the time, I was suffering from left upper trap dominance, but CrossFit or sports did not cause it. It was created by practicing dentistry in awkward postures for 8 hours a day, five days a week for over a dozen years.
When I first embarked on my StrongFit odyssey in 2016, my goal was to decrease pain, improve joint mobility and improve my quality of life.
I was initially skeptical because nothing had ever helped me in the past (not even my degree in physiotherapy). In fact, my imbalances just kept getting worse.
I would never have predicted my 16-month outcome. I still cannot believe I overcame upper trap dominance and learned how to hold a handstand at 40 years of age!
I know first-hand how life-changing StrongFit can be, and that’s why I’m so passionate about teaching others what I have learned along the way.
Today, I’m going to teach you how to identify upper trap dominance, why it happens, and how to improve it.
The Upper Traps
The upper traps are the uppermost fibers of the trapezius muscle. They are part of the external torque chain.
Their role is to elevate (shrug) your shoulders.
What is upper trap dominance?
Upper trap dominance occurs when one or both upper traps compensate for muscles that aren't doing their job. That’s what happened to me. Take a look at this photo of my left upper trap dominance. This photo was taken in 2016, a couple of months before my StrongFit Odyssey commenced.
How Does Upper Trap Dominance Present?
I presented with the following:
· Decreased left shoulder active range of motion. I couldn’t lock out my left arm overhead, and my left arm would buckle if I tried to kick up into a handstand.
· Chronic soreness in my left upper trap.
· Episodic tingling in my lateral 3 and ½ fingers (Thoracic Outlet Syndrome)
· My left upper trap was visibly larger than the right one, and it was hiking my shoulder into an unfavorable position.
· My left lat and teres major were visibly smaller than the right ones.
· My left upper trap dominated all left shoulder pressing and pulling movements.
· I couldn’t depress my scapula, and I struggled to engage my lats, teres, and pecs on the left side.
Take a look at this photo: notice my left upper trap shrugging up when I press overhead. That's not good!
Notice my left teres major is smaller than the right one in the photo below:
Had I not intervened, there is a chance that my left upper trap dominance would have lead to chronic neck and shoulder pain on the left side. There is also a chance that the overpowering left upper trap would have “pushed” the right shoulder joint into an unfavorable position. That’s why some people present with shoulder pain on the side opposite the hypertrophied upper trap.
If the cause of the upper trap dominance is not addressed, then surgical intervention may be inevitable.
Why Does This Happen?
Contrary to popular belief, muscle imbalances are not caused by small muscles. If you have a problem, it's likely a big muscle causing the problem.
My big muscles (my teres major, lat, pec major and short head of the bicep) were not doing their jobs during my workouts and activities of daily living. That’s why my left upper trap was compensating. Because the left upper trap was continually working overtime, it hypertrophied. It was also very tender (bra straps made my left shoulder ache).
Why are the Big Muscles Weak?
The reasons are multifactorial. It could be due to any or all of the following:
-poor exercise programming
-poor exercise form
-poor movement mechanics during your activities of daily living
-Poor posture, sitting all the time, carrying a purse on one shoulder.
-Professions, sports, hobbies, and habits that promote asymmetry (i.e., dentistry, soccer, baseball, golf, basketball).
What Do the Big Muscles Do?
The lats, teres majors and pec major help to stabilize your shoulder. If you can engage these muscles through their full range of motion, this helps create "bulletproof" shoulders.
Take a look at the photos below to familiarize yourself with muscle anatomy:
The concentric action of the lats is shoulder extension (think lat pulldown). But, everyone overlooks the eccentric role of the lats with overhead pressing. When you press overhead, your lats are lengthening, which means they control shoulder flexion. Unless you can activate your lats, then you won't be able to maintain tension in your lats as you press your arms overhead. So if one of your lats is weak or not firing, this can interfere with overhead pressing. Your lats are part of your external torque chain.
You've probably never even heard of the teres major before. But the teres majors are essential muscles, especially if you want to have healthy shoulder mechanics. Think of the teres majors as your upper lats. The teres majors spread your lats (that's how bodybuilders make their lats look so wide when posing on stage). They are part of your internal torque chain. If you want to be able to do chin-ups, handstands, overhead pressing and ring muscle-ups, then do not neglect your teres majors.
The teres majors are also important if you are doing barbell back squats. Because of my deficient teres major on the left, the barbell had no structure to support it, which is why the barbell would tip down on the left. I had no choice but to shift my hips the other way when squatting to compensate.
The pec majors are often overlooked, especially in women's training programs. This is unfortunate because your pecs will save your shoulders. The goal is to be able to keep your pecs engaged in an overhead position so that your shoulders do not shrug up. The sternocostal head of the pec is part of your internal torque chain.
If your inner triceps and inner biceps are weak and tight, this will also interfere with your ability to lock out your arms overhead. I used to struggle to lock out my elbow joint in internal torque (i.e., when doing hammer curls, farmer’s carries, sandbag overhead presses and handstands). I’d compensate with external torque by supinating my forearm and externally rotating my shoulder joint. That’s why my left biceps long head is much bigger than my right one.
What About The Rotator Cuff?
Upper trap dominance prevents you from being able to center the head of your arm bone (humerus) in your shoulder joint. This leads to dysfunctional shoulder mechanics. In other words, the increased tone in your upper traps yanks your arm bone up too high in your shoulder joint. This pulls your rotator cuff into a weak position, which can cause impingement of tendons (i.e., biceps or rotator cuff tendons) or your brachial plexus (hence symptoms of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome). Your physiotherapist will likely blame your shoulder pain on your supraspinatus tendon, you know, one of those small rotator cuff muscles ... and will prescribe you a series of rotator cuff exercises with a rubber band. They may also do treatments to temporarily decrease tone in your upper traps to give you some temporary relief.
Palliating symptoms is helpful, but fixing the cause of the symptoms is better.
The cause of the symptoms has nothing to do with the rotator cuff. In fact, rotator cuff muscles are rarely weak, unless you have a direct trauma. So the upper traps and rotator cuff are just victims of the real cause of the problem.
Here's another reason why I'm not a fan of doing "rehab exercises" to strengthen small muscles like your rotator cuff: because doing so is going to exacerbate your symptoms! Your small muscles are already inflamed and overworked. Now you are overworking them even more!
Overhead Pressing Mechanics
Take a look at the photo below:
On the left, I'm showcasing incorrect movement mechanics. I'm shrugging my shoulders (using my upper traps) to press the bar overhead. I'm also arching my low back to compensate for my lack of overhead mobility.
Overhead mobility is related to external oblique mobility. How so? Your external oblique mobility will dictate how much thoracic spine mobility you have. Without adequate thoracic spine mobility, you will inevitably compensate with the wrong muscles to press overhead.
On the right, I'm showcasing correct movement mechanics. I'm pressing overhead without using my upper traps. My pec majors, teres majors, and biceps (short head) are engaged throughout the entire range of motion. I'm not arching my low back because my external obliques are engaged: This "freezes" the lumbar spine, preventing it from arching. Since the lumbar spine is "frozen," it allows the thoracic spine to flex and extend.
Does it matter if you can't yet lockout in the frontal plane? No. Why would you compensate with the wrong muscles just to a lockout in the frontal plane, especially if this puts you at risk for neck and shoulder injuries? It's more important to work within the mobility that you currently have so that you’re using the correct muscles.
When I first started, my mobility only allowed 160 degrees of shoulder flexion, and I couldn't fully extend my left elbow joint. This was acceptable because I was engaging the correct muscles. If I had tried to force my active range of motion, I would have compensated with the wrong muscles. This isn't a competition, so don't worry about poking your head forward when you lock your arms out overhead (as this will encourage you to shrug up with your upper traps). Worry about keeping your pecs, external obliques, teres majors and biceps (short head) engaged the entire time.
What if you are doing barbell overhead pressing and you notice the barbell is higher on one side? That's a sign that you aren't able to fire your lat, teres major, pec and external oblique on that side to stabilize your scapula (shoulder blade). In other words, you have muscle imbalances that prevent you from being able to rotate your shoulder blades upward and keep the head of your humerus positioned correctly in your shoulder joint as you reach overhead.
How To Improve Upper Trap Dominance
It took me about a year to significantly improve my left upper trap dominance. I attribute my successful outcome to consistently performing exercises that helped me build my internal torque chain structure.
I chose to take a sabbatical from barbell overhead pressing because I knew it was feeding my upper trap dominance. I replaced the barbell with a pec stick and a sandbag, and I also joined a Globo Gym. I knew these options would improve my upper trap dominance. It was a case of ditching my wants and prioritizing my needs by making mature decisions that would benefit me in the long run.
Why a sandbag? Barbells do not promote natural movement patterns because the shape of the barbell distributes weight on the outside of the body (which facilitates external torque). Sandbags, however, encourage more natural movement patterns since the weight is distributed between your hands (which promotes internal torque). The sandbag helps you use the correct muscles when pressing overhead (the muscles of the internal torque chain). A barbell, however, pulls you into external torque, which is why barbell overhead pressing is not suitable for someone who already compensates with external torque when pressing overhead.
I commit to doing ALL the StrongFit openers multiple times a week. Over time, this has helped me improve my ability to keep my IT chain muscles engaged through greater ranges of motion. I also place tremendous emphasis on my breathing during the exercises to facilitate engagement of the correct torque chain. This increases the likelihood of safer and better movement patterns.
Julien is a huge proponent of the pec stick because it helps you use your internal torque chain. Breathing correctly and utilizing the pec stick can help you find the correct state (i.e., the proper torque), and this is useful because it enables you to execute the proper action. Note that in this photo, I'm bending the pec stick to help me use my pecs in an overhead position. This has helped me improve my overhead mobility (and that's why I was able to learn how to hold handstands at 40 years of age).
I am a massive fan of pec stick carries. I’ll either bend the stick like the letter “n” to target my pecs, or I’ll bend it like the letter “u” to target my teres majors. If you don’t have a pec stick, you can use a med ball and crush it between your forearms to activate your pecs.
I make an effort to use my pec stick during a variety of internal torque chain exercises, such as air squats, lateral lunges, TRX rows, hammer curls, and even push-ups. The pec stick provides my pecs and teres majors with constant feedback, and this helps them stay engaged.
I do rope pulls for my teres majors twice a week. I also apply the principles of StrongFit to functional bodybuilding workouts two days a week at a Globo gym. For the upper body, I’m a fan of lat pull-downs and rows, teres majors pull-downs and rows, chest cable flyes, pec deck, and chest press machines. These exercises help me plug holes in my body’s strength foundation.
This is not an exhaustive list of exercises, but it’s a great start. As your structure improves, you will be able to up the ante with more advanced tasks.
I was once a beginner with a lot of imbalances. I felt like a lost cause. I know what it's like to feel overwhelmed and unsure where to begin. For me, the first step was admitting that I had a cracked foundation and that I needed to make changes to my training. The next step was purchasing a 20kg pec stick and a 60 lb StrongFit Sandbag so that I could start plugging holes in my foundation. You don't have to be an advanced athlete to do this. But you may very well end up becoming one!
If you have symptoms, restricted mobility or a visible muscle imbalance anywhere in your body, that's a HUGE red flag. It’s a sign you are using the wrong torque chain when you move. So how do you fix it? By using the correct torque chain!!! That means some of us will need to learn how to use muscles that we aren't accustomed to using. How long does it take to fix a weak or deficient muscle? As Julien says, “As long as it takes!”