Caring For Your Traps

Article written by Chris Branam This article will build upon the science and techniques introduced in my first article.

The trapezius muscle or “traps” conjures images of a neck guarded by thick bands of muscles on either side. The kind of “no neck” look that some people work for through countless shrugs.


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However, shrugs aren’t the only way to train this muscle group, and if you think of your traps as only being the muscle between your shoulders and neck, you’re missing half of the muscle.

Photo credit

Photo credit

Pictured above is the left trapezius. We can see that when paired with the right trapezius, there are four connections: at the base of the skull, the pair of connections at the back of the shoulder (acromion process), and the lowest connection on either side of the twelfth dorsal vertebrae. The broad bands of muscle running through the trapezius help to move the scapula and add stability to the neck.

This muscle is essential for weightlifting not only for its ability to elevate the shoulders to the ears, but also because of its role in rotating the shoulder blade any time we raise our arm, such as in the jerk.

Photo credit Hookgrip

Photo credit Hookgrip

Yeah, Lu’s doing alright as far as traps go.

Since this muscle is used during all pulling and overhead pressing work, it is very easy to strain. Not to mention the tension it carries when we are stressed or typing in a chair without arm rests. I, personally, have discovered that sometimes I will sleep with my shoulders up by my ears, causing me to wake up and feel tight throughout my upper trapezius.

The location of the first trigger point (Trapezius #1) is in a spot with which most will be familiar. It is located in the top fiber of muscles where the neck begins to slope toward the shoulder. Think Vulcan nerve pinch.


Here’s a picture for the non-nerds:


Photo credit Clair Davies

The slanted lines in the above picture represent the pain pattern this trigger point can cause: temple headaches, lower jaw pain, and pain in the side of the neck behind the ear. This trigger point can be found by squeezing the band of muscle next to the neck. If you’re in the right place you’ll feel a cord of fiber under the skin. Clair Davies compares it to a knitting needle. You’ll know when you find it. Many people carry tension in this area so it doesn’t take a lot of pressure to feel that “light-you-up” feeling.

Massage of this trigger point can be done by reaching across your body and squeezing the trigger point between your first two fingers and thumb (i.e. right hand massages left trap). Just like the sternocleidomastoid, the massage can be a squeezing motion, running the thumb across that fiber that feels like a needle.

(Refer to my first article for massage guidelines.)

trap #1

For those who really have monster traps (be honest guys) and have difficulty feeling anything just squeezing with their hands and/or people whose hands fatigue quickly, there is another method. Lie on the floor or back up against a wall. Place a lacrosse ball behind the upper muscles of the trap above the clavicle. Now, make a fist and place your thumb against the side of your forefinger with the tip of the thumb elevated. We’ll call this a supported thumb, but it sort of looks like Bill Clinton doing a thumbs up.

bill clinton

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Now, take that thumb and dig it into Trapezius #1, wedging that cord of muscle fiber between your thumb and the ball. Same as above, push in, slide across maybe an inch or so, and start back at the beginning. Always work in one direction.

trap #1a

Trapezius #2 is a pair of trigger points just above the shoulder blade on the edge closest to the spine.


Photo credit Clair Davies

This trigger point causes pain in the back of the neck up to the base of the skull. If you’ve ever had someone rub the back of your neck, but it doesn’t seem to alleviate pain, the problem could be trapezius #2.

These muscles are very hard to reach with your own hand, and if you’re a bachelor/bachelorette or your significant other has no desire to give you a massage, you might be out of luck. This is the perfect time for some product placement.


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Photo credit

The two devices above, though appearing to be medieval torture devices or something worse, are great products for working out knots in all those hard-to-reach areas. I personally own the Thera Cane—the bottom product. If you’re not looking to spend the money on these (though I think they are totally worth the money), you can hit all the points below using a lacrosse ball against a wall.

I will show you how to hit trapezius #2 with the Thera Cane.

trap #2

As you can see, I’ve placed the end knob of the Thera Cane just behind the band of muscle fibers I was massaging for trap #1. This point is just above the top edge of the scapula. When using the Thera Cane, the same massage principles apply. I like to use my bottom hand (not pictured) to hold onto the lower handle of the tool and apply pressure. I use the top hand to move the knob in one direction.

Trapezius #3 is a series of three trigger points along the lower border of the trap as it crosses the shoulder blade. These points begin along the shoulder blade under the infraspinatus ( the ridge of bone in the upper part of your shoulder blade visible in the picture below). The next point is lower and just inside the inner edge of the shoulder blade, closer to the spine. The third point follows the angle established by the first two and is the closest to the spine (the bottom edge of the pain referral picture below shows roughly where it lies).

Photo credit

Photo credit

These trigger points cause pain above the shoulder blade near the deltoid, pain in the back of the neck, and pain right where they are located.

You can get these trigger points with the Thera Cane as I demonstrate below.

trap #3

I’m holding the Thera Cane with my arms crossed—my right hand on bottom, my left hand on top. Holding it this way, you can push your arms away from your chest to apply more pressure. In this picture, I am hitting the lowest trigger point of trapezius #3.

Here’s a variation on this massage using a lacrosse ball in a sock, which helps you adjust the height of the ball without the frustration of accidentally dropping it.

trap #3a

If you use the ball against the wall, still move in one direction for the massage—whichever direction is the easiest to move in.

Trapezius #4 occurs near the top edge of the shoulder blade, just to the inside of the shoulder blade, closer to the spine. In the picture below, it is the right “X.”

Photo credit: Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction, Travell and Simons

Photo credit: Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction, Travell and Simons

As, you can see, this is one of those unusual trigger points that refer pain right to the spot where it is located. Trapezius #4 and #3 contribute to that frustrating feeling of having a pulled muscle in the space between the shoulder blade and spine.

Here’s how we get to trapezius #4.

trap #4

Here, my right hand is on the top handle of the Thera Cane while my left hand is on the lower handle. The Thera Cane is crossing over to massage my right trapezius #4. This not only is the easiest access to this spot, but also by holding my arms in this position, I move my right shoulder blade out of the way.

Those are the trigger points of the trapezius. Take good care of this important muscle and your pulls and overhead work will thank you!


Davies, Clair, and Amber Davies. The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief. 2nd ed. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, 2004. Print.

Gray, Spalding. Gray’s Anatomy. Ed. T. Pickering Pick and Robert Howden. Philadelphia: Courage, 2004. Print.

Travell, Janet  G., and David G. Simons. Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1999. Print.

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