Monday Muscle Spotlight

Special thanks to StaceyB for “volunteering” to cover this area for our members…we are going to try and update each Monday to better inform you where your muscles are and how they help you move!

This info is courtesy of CF Southbay.

Muscle in the spotlightTrapezius (AKA traps)…..made up of three different sets of muscle fibers that all have different functions.

  1. Upper trap
  2. Middle trap
  3. Lower trap


This muscle starts at the base of your skull, attaches to the back of your shoulder blades and connects to your spine. There are 2 trapezius muscles (left and right) that come together to form a diamond shape on your back. See image to the right to help visualize the 3 divisions of the traps.


  1. Upper trap: elevates the shoulder blade (as you shrug your shoulders), as well as assists in rotating the shoulder blade up as you lift your arms. The upper trap is used during olympic lifts such as the clean and snatch to help with the shrugging motion. The upper trap also moves your neck and head.
  2. Middle trap: adducts the shoulder blades, helping to pull them together. This portion of the muscle is used during ring rows and rowing. It should also be active during most of the olympic lifts to help create an “active back”….basically one of the muscles that activate when you squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  3. Lower trap: mainly depresses the shoulder blades, as well as helps with rotating the shoulder blade upward (along with the upper trap). This muscle is active with various movements during CrossFit to help stabilize the shoulder…… such as ring dips and L-sits on the parallettes. This is the important muscle that should be activated first before you pull your body up during a pull-up (see pull-up fix). It is also a major contributor to an “active back” helping you pull your shoulder blades down your back.

Upper and lower traps working together to rotate the shoulder blade upward

Why is this muscle important?

I don’t think a lot of people are aware that this muscle has so many different parts and functions. Usually the upper trap is over developed and working too hard……whether someone is purposefully training the muscle doing shoulder shrugs or has poor movement patterns. A good example of overuse of the upper traps would be during the power clean. The upper traps should be working during the shrug portion of the movement, but if you are missing the explosive hip extension and using your arms too much you are probably over using your upper traps to get the weight up. Overuse of the upper trap not only leads to muscle imbalance and poor mechanics, but also can create some pretty uncomfortable tension around your shoulders and neck. The upper trap is what works way too hard to hold your head up when you are sitting with poor posture…..which then leads to pain in the neck and possibly tension headaches.

The middle trap and lower traps are usually weaker muscles because they are not trained frequently and are over stretched due to poor posture. Most physical therapy for shoulder and neck injuries will start with basic training of these muscles because they are so important to balancing out the body. If these are weak and the upper trap is over developed, the shoulder is placed in a position that just screams impingement/rotator cuff tear. And nobody wants that. For more info on these muscles and their involvement in shoulder mechanics read Shoulder AnalysisPart 1Part 2 and Part 3.

So how do we maintain balance of these muscles?

  • Learn to do the movements correctly….practice practice practice!
  • Maintain good posture as much as possible……think of putting your shoulder blades in your back pocket to work on strengthening your middle and lower traps. No weights needed for this exercise and it can be done anywhere! Especially think about your posture when you are stressed out……a lot of people sit with their shoulders shrugged up when they are stressed…..causing over active traps.
  • Keep your chest stretched out so that the traps are in a good position to work properly (tight, rounded chest usually equals lengthened, weak traps).
  • Practice your “active back” during lifts
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together (not shrugging) before you do a ring row or start your pull on the rower
  • Pull your shoulder blades down your back first before doing a pull-up
  • Practice ring dip holds or holds on the parallettes, keeping your shoulders active by pushing away from the ring/parallette.

* There are specific exercises to target these muscles and help create balance, but if you are injury free you should be able to get a these muscles working together by practicing the above things.


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