Upper Traps & Softening the Shoulders


“Relax your shoulders”, “soften your shoulders”, “release the tension in your shoulders” - I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard all of these instructions and more (and definitely said some myself!) in my many years in the yoga world.

Part of the reason for these cues is the widespread belief that just about everyone’s upper traps are pesky, misbehaving muscles that inevitably cause pain in our shoulders & neck.

This is an interesting idea, though, because:

1) The upper trapezius muscle is actually a very thin, superficial structure that seems pretty low on the list of “most likely to be evil” muscles.

2) Pain isn’t an input from the periphery, but an output from the central nervous system - so a muscle doesn’t really *create* pain.

3) Even if the upper traps *were* the widely misbehaving, rude muscles we often think they are, why would constantly relaxing or “releasing” them cause them to behave well?

This “relax your shoulders” narrative has seemed questionable to me for years, but I recently learned about a brand new study in which people with neck & shoulder pain were given a 5-week upper trap strengthening program. (That’s right - a *strengthening* program!)

And after doing this upper trap strength work, their pain decreased!

This evidence seems to run counter to popular belief. Instead of relaxing the upper traps and “releasing” their tension all the time, perhaps we should consider strengthening them and *increasing* their tension!

Just one more reason why “tension” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even though our language often tends to imply that it is.