Trapezius (Upper, Middle, and Lower Divisions): Learn Your Muscles

If you’re a person who carries stress in your neck, you probably have a dysfunctional trapezius. Although the upper trapezius is the only one of the three trapezius mucles that connects to your head and cervical spine, tightness in either of the other two can work its way up the chain and create a pull. That’s why it’s so important to understand where exactly these muscles are and how to keep them healthy.

Location

the upper, middle, and lower trapezius muscles
An obvious thanks to The Sports Physio for the image.

The origin of the upper trapezius is on the base of the skull at the external occipital protuberance, along the ligamentum nuchae, and on the spinous process of the 7th cervical vertebrae. This means that its points of origin are at the base of the skull, on the part of your C7 that you can feel with your hand, and along an intermuscular septum called the ligamentum nuchae that connects these two points.

The upper trapezius inserts on the lateral third of the clavicle and on the acromion process, which is a part of the scapula that runs through to the front of your body. This means that the muscle inserts on the third of the clavicle that is further away from the midline of your body and on the anterior portion of bone from your scapula.

When you look at a picture of the whole upper trapezius muscle, it looks like a triangle.

The middle trapezius originates on the spinous processes of the 1st-5th thoracic vertebrae. Spinous processes are the parts of the spine that you can physically feel with your hand. This muscle inserts on the superior border of the spine of the scapula. In other words, it connects to the top edge of the scapula, just above the spine of the scapula.

Your lower trapezius originates on the spinous processes of the 6th-12th thoracic vertebrae. It inserts on the medial third of the spine of the scapula. This means that it inserts on the third of the bony ridge of the scapula that is closest to the midline of your body.

Function

The upper trapezius is a rather busy muscle. It lifts the shoulder girdle for elevation like when you shrug your shoulders. It also helps prevent depression of the shoulder girdle when a heavy weight is carried. Also, it works in conjunction with the lower trapezius to rotate the scapula. This is important for activities such as raising your arm above your head.

The middle trapezius helps retract the scapula. Frequently, the middle trapezius accomplishes this task with help from the rhomboids. It also helps elevate the scapula.

The lower trapezius depresses the scapula, particularly when you’re pushing against something. This is useful when you’re using the arms of a chair to assist you to a standing position. It also is a scapular stabilizer and helps maintain spinal extension.

When all three trapezius muscles work together, they help retract the scapula.

Common Dysfunction

Normally, the trapezius muscle becomes dysfunctional because of stress. When this happens, it can cause neck pain and stiffness or headaches. While these are probably the most noticeable issues, other issues can arise.

Although you wouldn’t immediately notice it, dysfunction trapezius muscles could lead to misplaced scapulas. Unless you have someone looking at your back, this is probably not something that would greatly impact you. Over time, misplaced scapulas might impact your posture and the functionality of the other muscles near your thoracic spine.

Restoring or Maintaining Health

If you believe you have injured your trapezius, visit your doctor. Your doctor can order the necessary imaging, therapy, and medicine to help you recover as soon as possible.

However, if you are an average person with shoulder tension who’s looking for some ways to strengthen and stretch this muscle, here are some suggestions.

  • Self massage with a lacrosse ball. The lacrosse ball is my favorite tool to access this tricky muscle because, when you stand at a wall to massage your upper trapezius, you can rotate toward the wall and get the lacrosse ball right up on the top of your upper trapezius.
  • When you reach overhead, you work the trapezius muscles. Try Chair pose, Crescent lunge, Warrior 1, and Warrior 3 to challenge both sides of your body at the same time. In Pilates, practice Scapular protraction and retraction, Scapular elevation and depression, Arm scissors, and Arm circles. All of these are in my post on Scapula placement.
  • To stretch your trapezius muscles, bend your arm behind your back as in Gomukhasana.

More Information

I consulted The Concise Book of Muscles by Chris Jarmey. Recently, the book was revised and is in its third edition. I love this book as a quick go-to guide for easy to understand anatomy.

For those who are more interested in technical terminology and smaller muscles, I recommend Flash Anatomy Muscles Flash Cards. Any time a client comes to me with pain, I use these flash cards.

What’s your favorite way to strengthen your trapezius muscles? Let us know in the comments below.

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Sarah Stockett is STOTT certified in Matwork, Reformer, Cadillac, Chair, & Barrels, Injuries & Special Populations, and CORE; a Yoga Alliance RYT-200; and has studied Active Isolated Stretching. When she is not trying to discover the best exercises to get rid of pain, she likes watching movies and travelling with her family.

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