Raise your hand if you’ve got stress in your life.
Raise your hand if you’ve got A LOT of stress in your life.
Ok, now raise your hand if you tend to hold your stress in your upper traps and neck.
If you’ve got your hand in the air, you’re not alone.
However, you can’t just attribute your tight traps to stress and stress alone. Here are 4 reasons why your traps and neck feel tight 24/7. But first, realize this…
Your upper traps are not the bad guy.
Despite what you may have heard about being ‘upper trap dominant’ and how this is usually marred with negativity, your upper traps are not all bad news. In fact, they play a vital role in the healthy and normal movement of your shoulder. Without them, you might walk around looking like this.
Ok, probably not, but upper traps tend to be the scapegoat for a lot of people when trying to identify the reason they’re tight, why they hurt, etc. They’re just misunderstood… like you were back in middle school #sickburn. Just kidding, don’t be so sensitive.
Reason #1: Your posture sucks.
Blame the constant advancement of technology for this one, but I’d be willing to bet that a majority of you reading this are either 1) currently sitting, or 2) work a job that has you sitting for long periods of time.
I’d also bet that over the course of the day, you start to look like this.
And I don’t blame you. Maintaining great static posture gets tiring over the course of a day. Relaxing into a slouched position is just… easier and more comfortable. I’ll admit to that. Hell, I’m doing it as I type this.
But here’s the downfall to this. Remember when your mom said that if you made a funny face for too long it would get stuck that way? Well she wasn’t too far off.
When you slouch and sit in flexed postures day after day, muscles that are stuck in a shortened, or contracted, position can start to develop ‘knots’ which can contribute to tightness and an overall lack of mobility over time.
These muscles include your quads, hip flexors, chest, and you guessed it, upper traps and neck.
Reason #2 YOU’RE WEAK.
That’s probably what you think I mean when I say this. But it’s not quite the case. When I say you’re weak, I mean you may be weak in certain areas, like your your mid/lower traps (pictured below), rhomboids, glutes, and core.
All the muscles just named are largely responsible for keeping your joints in solid, stable positions. However, if you’ve got posture issues like I just laid out, these muscles can become inhibited, or weaker, because of how your joints are positioned for hours on end every day.
So essentially bad posture becomes a double edged sword of negative outcomes. Excessive muscle tone on one side, debilitating weakness on the other.
But because your body is incredibly smart, when one muscle isn’t doing it’s job because of weakness, your brain will essentially ‘re-route’ how it recruits muscles to successfully accomplish physical tasks. This ‘re-routing’ can often cause your upper traps to work harder to make up the slack for weak lower traps or serratus anterior (your riblet muscles).
And despite what miracle products and infomercials may tell you, there is no fix for this other than buckling down and strength training in an appropriate manner. Sorry all you folks looking for the quick fix.
Reason #3 You breathe like you’re out of breath 24/7.
You: “Not me, I know how to breathe. I’m not an IDIOT, Chris.”
You’re probably not an idiot, but I will go out on a limb and say that a large portion of working adults breathe incorrectly. Sounds silly, but its true.
Tons of people will regularly, albeit unknowingly, breathe with accessory breathing muscles. Ideally, these are really only supposed to kick in when you need to get larger amounts of oxygen into your body, like during exercise or when you’re fighting off weaker, inferior parents in order to grab your child that highly coveted plush whos-a-thingy that aaaall the kids are clamoring for this holiday season.
And you’ll NEVER GUESS which muscles are considered accessory. Believe it or not, it’s the muscles on the bottom of your feet.
I sincerely hope you know I’m kidding. Your accessory breathing muscles are predictably your upper traps, neck, and chest.
Using these ‘incorrect’ muscles for a couple minutes here or there probably won’t lead to any major issues. But let’s say you do it for a full day. Do you know how many breaths you’ll take on a typical day?
You think after 20,000 ‘reps’ of incorrect breathing that those accessory muscles will get tight from overuse? Uhhhh, YUP. You bet your sweet ass they will. Then multiply that by weeks, or even years, and oh boy… Welcome to ExcessMuscleTensionTown, population: you.
Reason #4 You are STRESSED. THE. F*@#. OUT.
How our bodies react to stress has not changed much in the last couple hundred years. Your body detects a perceived threat and then adjusts via internal physiological changes to give you the best chance of surviving that threat.
But in the modern world, perceived threats rarely put you in any serious, life threatening danger like they once did.
But does your body care? NOPE. It’s gonna treat that unforeseen traffic jam just like it would a vicious predator trying to rip out your intestines.
Blood pressure goes up, muscles tense up, breathing becomes labored, heart rate increases…
It’s a bit overkill and hardly necessary.
But those little stress responses will add up over time and really screw you up in a number of ways… one of them being constant and excessive muscle tone, perhaps in the upper trap and neck region.
Couple this with terrible posture, crappy breathing, and strength imbalances and BAM. You’re tighter than a pair of skinny jeans that are a size too small.
But its not the end of the world. Here’s what you should start doing.
- Get up and walk every so often at the office or throughout the day. Try not to sit for more than 20 minutes at a time.
- Try to incorporate some strength training in your weekly routine. Rows, T’s, band pullaparts, and direct core work will be hugely beneficial for you.
- Practice a couple belly breaths every night before bed, before work, or whenever. Try to inhale to inflate your belly WITHOUT letting your neck and chest tense up.
- Find simple and sustainable stress relief. I’ve found the headspace app to be very helpful in this regard. Ironically this is also a great way to practice your breathing.
Hopefully with some consistency on your end, you can start to alleviate some of that nagging and constant tension!