On the slow road to recovery for my darling shoulder I have come across the importance of the lower trapezius muscle this last week. As an athlete and especially to all my CrossFitters, Swimmers, and Desk Workletes, we have a tendency (and by tendency I mean a deeply even unconscious habit) of using our upper trapezius muscles for pretty much everything. Whether it is overhead positioning, all swimming strokes, and the everyday stress of sitting at a computer and freaking out about deadlines, those little suckers hike up to your ears all on their own.
Frequently the "cure" for this is to smash the upper traps with a lacrosse ball or barbell, stretch the neck muscles, and focus on relaxing the shoulders down and back. But this is not the only solution because just as mobility and suppleness of one muscle is important as heck, so is activation of its opposing muscles. Drumroll please...enter the LOWER TRAPEZIUS, ta da!!
The trapezius muscle is separated into three sections: upper, middle, and lower. The traps are responsible for movement of the scapulae (aka shoulder blade) when the spine is stable and the movement of the spine when the scapulae are stable. In other words, the traps stabilize and move the shoulder blades. Because the traps are separated into three sections, they are also activated in three different ways. The upper traps are engaged by elevating the shoulders (think cleans, snatches, full extension of the forward arm in freestyle). The mid traps are engaged when the scapulae are drawn towards one another (crushing the erg, or bent over barbell rows).
Lastly, the lower traps are activated by drawing the shoulder blades down while keeping the arms straight. This last activation is where we are focused today. Because here's the rub: your lower traps should be working to assist the other two sections ALL THE DANG TIME. I know it's crazy. The biggest "holy son of a donkey!" moment I've had thus far is learning that my lower traps should be working just as hard (and ideally harder than) my upper traps in the overhead position. So let's discuss how to get those sons of donkeys going.
YTWL is a series of stabilizing exercises designed to engage the lower trapezius muscle. As you can see the model is slightly bent at the hips. I was instructed to be bent over at pretty much a 90-degree angle but give it a try both ways and see what works best for you. It is a little hard to see but the model is making a “thumbs-up” with their hands. This is a CRUCIAL aspect of these exercises. Your shoulders and arms must be externally rotated at all times (see below for external vs. internal rotation).
You want to be moving your arms so that your thumbs are pointing back behind you. You can see there are colored lines on the back of the model. These lines indicate the direction in which your muscles should be moving. You can see that there is a constant downward motion towards the hips. When you are going through the exercises visualize your muscles sliding down your back. Focus on the area highlighted in orange as your prime activation sight. These are dynamic exercises. However, they are designed to be done in a slow and controlled manner.
Let's break this acronym down.
Y: From the bent over position straighten your arms and lock out your elbows. Raise your arms overhead to form a “Y”. Your goal here is to keep your upper traps soft and relaxed and you should feel a nice burn in your lower traps and maybe in between your shoulder blades. Hold for one to two seconds before returning to a relaxed position. If you cannot get your upper traps to relax try bringing your arms a little wider.
T: Same positioning as the Y but this time bring your arms out to the side with your wrists in line with your shoulders to form a "T". Again, the focus is on drawing your shoulder blades down towards your waist and away from your ears. Hold for one to two seconds before relaxing.
W: Bend at the elbows to form a “W” shape with the arms (hands, elbows, and shoulder joint). Pull your shoulder blades down and back and hold for a few seconds focusing on the contraction. Release and relax.
L: The “L” is my favorite and a little hard to explain so stick with me. From the bent over position draw your elbows back just like you were going to do the “T” but this time your elbows are bent with your knuckles facing the floor. This should look like you are doing a bent over row. Hold your elbows here and then rotate your forearm so that the backs of your hands are facing the ceiling (remember to try and rotate your thumbs back as much as you can). Hold for a brief moment before relaxing.
EXTERNAL, NEUTRAL, INTERNAL positioning of the arm and shoulder:
Do one of each exercise nice and slow, like a donkey, before standing up and resetting. Repeat this set of four reps about eight to ten times. This should be quite exhausting so if it is not then you are most likely flinging your arms around like a Thanksgiving turkey and I’d like you to stop that immediately.
All the burn should be in between and just below your shoulder blades, NOT in your upper traps. Ideally these exercises are a precursor or scaled version for the Crossover Symmetry we discussed last week. If you can do the YTWL correctly and efficiently then try doing it on the Crossover Symmetry and see if you can get the same sensation in your low traps. If you can’t replicate the engagement then hangout here for a little while until you gain that muscular control, that’s where I’m at.
Do these before all your WODs just like the Crossover exercises to get those muscles working. And then when you get going in your workout see if you can find those low traps. I finally was able to replicate the “Y” exercise in a power snatch last week and screamed for joy (while my low traps screamed for mercy). Sure people looked at me like maybe I was having a mild breakdown but guess what? There wasn’t one teeny weeny bit of pain in my shoulder. It was almost as delicious as my sister's Maple Cream Pie.
So, while you are with the family and friends this season, drinking and eating, bent over a 1000 piece puzzle of kittens, or pouring a full-bodied pinot straight into your sister's mouth, try and take a moment to find those low traps and give those upper traps a holiday break for turkey's sake.