4 Exercises to Relieve Tight Upper Traps & Levator Scapula

Stop Stretching, Address the Root Causes for Lasting Relief

By Coach E

If you’re looking to relieve tight upper traps and levator scapula, stop stretching! Learn four exercises that target the root causes for lasting relief.

Good day! It’s Coach E here from Precision Movement. Today, I’m going to help you release your upper trapezius and levator scapula tension and soreness, which is largely in the lateral and posterior aspects of the neck.

Why Do We Get Tight Upper Traps and Levator Scapulae?

Now, let’s get into some background information here.

Why do the upper trapezius and levator scapula get tight?

The main answer for most people is, you guessed it, poor posture.

Poors posture is such an issue and a common root cause for so many injuries and pain syndromes that we get in society these days. If we just fix your posture, that might not be enough, and the reason why is because of the compensations that occur and develop over time.

I’ve named this the Cascade of Compensations. Basically, this answers the why question.

A couple of these compensations are increased upper trapezius and levator scapula muscle tension. The reason why this happens is because when you’re in poor posture, you’re stretching these muscles, and your head goes forward. It’s the forward head posture.

For every inch your head travels forward, your head essentially weighs an extra 10 pounds. So that’s 10 pounds of extra load for every inch your head goes forward that must be supported muscularly.

Which muscles support the head when it goes forward? The upper trapezius and the levator scapula.

These muscles are working overtime. They’re doing more than they should, and when muscles work more than they should without a break because you’re in forward head posture all the time, that’s when you get:

  • Tension
  • Pain
  • blood flow restriction
  • Knots
  • Headaches

There are so many problems that you could get from poor posture.

The other thing that happens with poor posture is we get that excessive curve through the thoracic spine. That’s the section of your spine that runs from about the top of your shoulder blades to your middle back. When that’s flexed, you’re shutting off the multifidus muscle.

These are some of the beginning compensations that happen from poor posture.

Next, we get decreased lower trapezius and serratus anterior function. These muscles are really important to balance out the upper trapezius, especially when we’re raising our arms up overhead. If we’re doing tennis serves, throwing baseballs, or similar movements, we’re doing it with our arms up overhead.

When you have this imbalance between increased upper trap/levator scap and decreased lower trap/serratus anterior, the result is less scapular upward rotation.

Upward rotation of the scapula is when the bottom tip of your shoulder blade moves out to your side and upward. It’s supposed to happen when you lift your arm up overhead. If it doesn’t happen, you get impingement in the shoulder. The the bursa and/or the rotator cuff tendon could get impinged. Then you get pain and inflammation as a result of that.

That’s how the Cascade of Compensations occurs over time when you have poor posture.

That’s why if you’re just going to stretch your neck trying to relieve  muscle tension or you’re just going to get massages trying to relieve tension, and you don’t address all of this stuff here, you’re not going to get lasting results.

So that’s a quick little spiel of why we’ve got to address poor posture and also work these other movement and activation patterns to get lasting relief.

Tight Upper Traps Exercises

That’s exactly what we’re going to do with the four upper trap exercises that we’re going to get to right now.

If you want to follow along with the trap and levator scapulae exercises, click over to the YouTube video “RELEASE Upper Trapezius & Levator Scapulae Muscle Tension FOR GOOD.”

Exercise 1: Segmental Thoracic Mob

The first exercise is the Segmental Thoracic Mobilization over the foam roller, and we do this a little bit differently than just hanging out over the edge.

You can support your neck with your hands if it’s really sore and you’re having trouble just holding your head up in this position.

You might get some pops here and there. That’s a good thing.

Breathe. Stay relaxed.

Once you’ve done that, you move up and hit three or four different areas of your thoracic spine.

  1. Start at the base of your thoracic spine with the foam roller
  2. Extend backward over the roller
  3. Start with tucking your chin and curl up, vertebrae by vertebrae
  4. Repeat 2x more
  5. Side bend 3 times in each direction
  6. Twist your shoulders 3 times in each direction
  7. Move the foam roller up and repeat steps 2-6 until you’ve worked 3-4 different areas of your thoracic spine

That’s going to help you restore that extension that is the opposite of poor posture. But you’ll also wake up some of the muscles in the upper thoracic spine, the multifidus, and other deep muscles in there. That way, we can build the endurance in those muscles to maintain that good extended position throughout the day.

Exercise 2: Wall Lean

The second exercise we’re going through is going to solidify the extended thoracic posture that we developed with the first exercise. It’s going to solidify it by activating those deep muscles in the thoracic spine called the multifidus.

Your setup is crucial for getting the rest of the cues right.

You should be able to breathe and stay relaxed in this position for a second, and from here, keep your mouth closed and the tongue at the roof of your mouth.

wall lean exercise to release upper trapezius

  1. Get into the starting position with heels about a foot away from the wall
  2. Bring your hips off the wall, look up
  3. Breathe and hold for 10 seconds
  4. Relax your hips back to the wall

Start off doing this for 2-4 sets of 4-6 reps, holding for 10 seconds. Then, as you repeat this routine that we’re going through today, decrease the reps to maybe 2-4 reps and increase the time of holding to between 20-30 seconds.

That’s going to help you to develop the endurance in these deep multifidus muscles that you need to be able to maintain good posture effortlessly all day long.

Exercise 3: Dissociation of Forward Head / Shoulder Elevation

The third exercise we’re going through is a bit counterintuitive. When people experience muscular tension and soreness, the first inclination is to stretch.

What we’re going to do is we’re going to actually activate that muscle. This helps to decrease tension because you’ll learn how to control the muscle and activate it, work it, and even fatigue it, but then shut it off and relax it. This might give you some really immediate relief if you’re experiencing that upper trap tension right now.

This is known as a dissociation exercise. It’s one of the unique methods that we use here at Precision Movement. What we’re doing is we’re dissociating the upper trap and shoulder shrugging (AKA shoulder elevation) from forward head.

Dissociation of Forward Head / Shoulder Elevation - upper traps exercise

It’s easy to start off in bad posture. That’s normal for most people. The mistake happens, when we straighten up, but the shoulder girdle is forward. We’re not getting the shoulder girdle back into its good position.

If you’re doing this and your palms are facing the front of your thighs, then that means your shoulders are rounded forward. We want to have the palms facing the sides of our legs, the sides of our thighs as we’re holding.

  1. Get in poor posture, rounded spine/shoulders, head forward
  2. Shrug the shoulders
  3. Straighten into good posture
  4. Hold for 5 seconds

Do this exercise for 2-3 sets of 4-6 reps, holding for about 5 seconds at the top.

This is going to activate those upper trap muscles. Then, when you’re relaxing between reps, your body is going to learn how to relax that muscle and shut it off.

This can really help you relieve some of that tension, and it’s going to help to retrain and break this common dysfunctional movement pattern, which is whenever you shrug your shoulders, your head juts forward, and that’s the position we find ourselves in when we’re typing, and we’re in really bad, lazy posture.

Exercise 4: Lower Trap Activator

The fourth and final exercise is targeted at restoring the activation and strength of the lower trapezius and the serratus anterior.

If you remember from the background, the lower traps and serratus anterior tend to get weaker because the upper trap and the levator scapula are working overtime to keep your head in the forward head position. Your body will shut off the lower trap and the serratus to make the job easier for the upper trap. Those muscles counter the activation of the upper trap, and if they’re working hard at the same time, it’s just going to be overall more work for your body. So your brain just shuts off the lower trap and the serratus. That allows that upper trap to work a little bit less, even though it’s already working a lot harder because of the forward head position.

For this exercise, you need some type of resistance band. It can even just be a belt or a piece of rope that you tie around an anchor point. Set it up about elbow level, and then you get your arm into that band and put it just above the elbow.

Now, you don’t need a lot of tension for this exercise. Just step out a little bit so you have a bit of tension right here from the start. Then, bring the elbow closer to the sides. That is shoulder adduction. Then you’re just going to round the shoulder back and what I call posterior rotation of the shoulder girdle.

Lower Trap Activator exercise

  1. Anchor a band at elbow level, loop around your elbow and step to the side for slight tension
  2. Bring your elbow in to your side
  3. Rotate your shoulder back (think good posture)
  4. Hold for 5 seconds and release

Do this for 2-3 sets of 4-6 reps, holding each activation for 5 seconds.

Now, here’s what you don’t want to do. So you start off bringing your elbow closer to the side, and what a lot of people think of and do is they row and then drive the elbow back.

But as you can see, what happens to my shoulder is it anteriorly rotates downwards. We don’t want that. That’s causing more impingement and working more of what we don’t want.

The correct way is bringing the elbow to the side, and then posteriorly rotating the shoulder girdle and posteriorly tilting the scapula. That’s the position that you’re holding, maintaining that good posture throughout the exercise and breathing and then releasing in between. Then you repeat, so that is the lower trap activator.

That’s the key aspect of that exercise. You need posterior tilt of the scapula. That gets the serratus going, and you need that posterior rotation of the entire shoulder girdle, which will help to further activate the lower trapezius.

Next Steps

That’s how we’re going to release tension in the tight upper traps and the levator scapula for good.

Relieve Tight Upper Traps & Levator Scapula - routine summary

We get lasting relief by addressing those root causes, not just doing static stretches. Not just getting massage, heat, or whatever else you could do that’s passive, but actively retraining and repatterning how we move our bodies.  IF you are going to go get a massage or use heat, follow that up with these exercises for lasting benefits.

Thank you for joining me. I hope this was enlightening, and I hope you experienced benefits from it, like decreased pain.

If you want more exercises because this is a big topic and addressing poor posture is a bigger topic than just what’s covered in this article, we have another article here on posture that’s really good for serratus anterior exercises. You might also like these rounded shoulder posture exercises to add in to the routine.

Finally, if you have shoulder or neck pain that’s been around for a little while, check out our Shoulder Pain Solution because this takes the approach that you just learned about in this article and multiplies it by 10. So check that program out, and if you decide to take it up, I’ll see you there.

I wanted to report to you regarding the Shoulder Pain Solution.

My shoulder pain is no longer an issue. I play pickleball two to three times a week with no problems. I do strengthening and pushups and various exercises from the program.

I am so pleased. I had a 40-year shoulder injury from volleyball and now I can do whatever I want.

Thanks for all that you do.

– Alissha

About the Author

Eric Wong (aka Coach E) is the founder of Precision Movement and has a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. He's been a coach since 2005 and spent his early career training combat athletes including multiple UFC fighters and professional boxers. He now dedicates himself to helping active people eliminate pain and improve mobility. He lives in Toronto (Go Leafs Go!) with his wife and two kids and drinks black coffee at work and IPAs at play. Click here to learn more about Eric.