Anatomy for Pilates Pros: The Upper Trapezius

by PNWP on April 9, 2017

 Melanie Byford-Young uses therapeutic Pilates to help clients at Pacific NW Pilates every day.  As a Pilates educator, she brings clarity to the complexity of human movement and bio-mechanics. She transforms intricate concepts into relevant, practical and meaningful information that can be used to help clients and patients in a Pilates studio or clinical setting.

Here, she shares her insights about the upper trapezius muscle.



Anatomy Made Simple


1 The upper trapezius is a thin, broad muscle that originates on the skull, posterior nuchal line and occipital protuberance (a line and a ridge on the back of the skull). It inserts onto the lateral third of the clavical (collar bone).

2 The trapezius muscle is shaped like a stingray. The upper fibers—in this metaphor—are part of the stingray’s head and upper fin.

3  It controls movement of the scapula and integrates the shoulder girdle with the craniovertebral (head and neck) region. It negotiates movement for the arm, thoracic, shoulder blade and spine.

Aha! Take a sensory study moment. Place your fingers on the back of your skull and follow the bones of your neck on either side to the outer ends of your collar bones. The upper trapezius is one of the muscles frequently targeted for massage to release stress and strain.


The Upper Trap Balancing Act

The importance of a healthy upper trapezius is difficult to over-emphasize. It essentially prevents the scapulae from falling off the body. Together, with the mid and lower trapezius, it  upwardly rotates the scapulae when the arm moves overhead. It provides control (eccentric) when lowering the arm so the scapulae can rotate properly. It must be able to take the shoulder blade through 60 degrees of rotation (lifting the arm to the side at waist height) and rotate the clavicle (posteriorly). All together, a healthy upper trapezius enables free and smooth shoulder girdle mobility.



Respect the Burden

Upper trapezius dysfunction and pain can be the result of interrupted body mechanics elsewhere. For example, the upper trapezius is loaded and continually stretched when the scapula is depressed or downwardly rotated—often resulting in pain and tightness in the upper trapezius. A client may feel the solution is to stretch the muscle. In fact, it needs to be off-loaded and supported.

Springs are King

“I can feel myself tensing, but I don’t know how to change it”, a client may say. Our bodies move in compromised ways due to years of poor habit, inactivity, pain or overcompensation.  Learning new movement often requires inhibiting old patterns before introducing new ones.

Pilates cadillac and reformer springs provide support and feedback during exercise to enable a client to discontinue gripping or initiating with overused and poorly recruited muscle groups like the upper trapezius.

Here are eight exercises to help your client re-educate scapular movement and stabilization for a healthier upper trapezius:

  1. To lengthen and strengthen the upper trapezius, begin with scapular rotation. Side Arm Pull on the cadillac—an exercise that allows for stable and supported movement through upward rotation—is a favorite. Be sure to cross the spring to maximize range of motion.


2. What’s next? Work on a modification of Reverse Expansion kneeling on the Pilates cadillac. This exercise strengthens the back of the body while also opening the front of the hips. It will be a challenge to work the arms in a neutral position.


3. Progress to a modified version of Spine Stretch Forward—combine it with a spring from an overhead hook to create a constraint in the shoulder girdle while allowing for spinal articulation. The spring alignment helps to off-load the upper trapezius while stacking the spine.

4. Move into unilateral scapular stabilization while seated on the floor to assist protraction of the scapula. The mid and lower trapezius are easier to feel  against the pull of an overhead spring.


Pilates pro pointer! On every exercise, gently place your hand on the neck and upper trapezius to ensure your client  initiates from the right muscles and avoids gripping.


Ready to Reform?

The Pilates reformer is the next phase to build movement re-education and strength. It offers a variety of supportive and proprioceptive-rich exercises.

5. Superman—a closed kinetic chain exercise—encourages a client to elevate and depress the scapula in isolation of the spine and rib cage.

6. A modified version of Swan Dive follows Superman nicely. Be sure the client avoids excessive depression of the scapulae before initiating supportive spinal extension.

7. On we go to Front Rowing Preps.  Start with your client seated (add a platform as needed) and then progress to a kneeling position to challenge hip stability. Kneeling will increase the demand on the shoulder girdle, abdominals and gluteals.

8. End with Mermaid to create scapular rotation in a closed-kinetic chain position. Bend the top elbow to shorten the lever of your client’s gesture arm to heighten the focus on lateral flexion of the spine.

It’s a Trap!

Intrigued? Yearning to learn more? We hope so. Enhance your education. Learn Pilates pre-hab and therapeutic programming with Melanie Byford-Young in Injuries and Special Populations and Rehab Courses for health practitioners.


Pacific NW Pilates is studio, school and fitness family under one roof. Click to learn more about our education courses and workshops, private studio sessions and group classes. Or call for details: (503) 292-4409.


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