Trap Training and Neck Injuries
Joseph M. Horrigan
The trapezius serves many functions. Most trainees think of it only as the muscle on top of the shoulders. That, however, is only the upper trapezius, or “trap,” as most trainees call it. The entire trapezius muscle is kite-shaped. It originates on the base of the skull and all the vertebrae in the neck (cervical spine) and midback (thoracic spine). The trapezius attaches on the outer clavicle and a bony prominence on the scapula. The trapezius has many functions: It can raise the scapula straight up, upward rotate it, and retract it, or pull it back.
The middle and lower traps are strengthened by various rows—barbell, dumbbell, T-bar, cable and assorted machines—and exercises, such as bent-over lateral raises, a.k.a. rear-delt raises, and side lying rear-delt raises. The upper traps work during those movements too, although for the average trainee they’re more specifically targeted by shrugs, upright rows, presses, behind-the-neck presses and lateral raises. (Athletes in other sports develop the traps with cleans, power cleans, snatches, power snatches, push presses and jerks off the rack.) All of those movements produce well-developed traps.
Well-developed traps are important in the concept of scapular stabilization, a term often heard today in physical therapy, chiropractic sportsmedicine, athletic training and orthopedic circles. It involves several issues. The first entails improved awareness of the scapular position, or posture. Shoulders that are rounded forward are a common problem. The second issue is the need to strengthen the muscles that pull the shoulders back, such as the exercises mentioned above. The third is the stretching of the tight muscles that pull the shoulders forward—pectoralis major, pectoralis minor and serratus anterior.
So far, all of this information sounds very helpful. The problem is that certain movements that target the traps and deltoids can place a very significant load on the disks, or shock absorbers, of the neck. I asked for input on the topic from Robert Bray Jr., M.D., a neurosurgeon specializing in spine pathology who’s treated many weight-trained athletes, from bodybuilders to powerlifters and football players. He is the director of Diagnostic and Interventional Spinal Care in Marina del Rey, California, and is the medical director of the Spine Program at St. John’s Hospital in nearby Santa Monica. “The trapezius muscle exerts a powerful downward force on the lower cervical spine,” he explained, “particularly the C5-6 and C6-7 disk. Overhead training can produce a force on these disk levels that can lead to degenerative disk changes, which can lead to decreased disk height and foraminal stenosis” (narrowing of the space where the nerves exit the spine).
I’ve seen many cases of ruptured cervical disks that occurred during behind-the-neck presses. Many trainees can perform the behind-the-neck press without incident, but some seem to continually strain and use the neck as an accessory muscle during the lift. It may be the powerful contraction of the upper trapezius during this lift, as described by Dr. Bray, that accounts for the injuries.
The trapezius is such a powerful muscle that shrugs can be performed with very heavy weight. IRON MAN has run articles recently about the late Mike Mentzer’s training philosophy. At one point, Mike and Ray Mentzer trained with the great bodybuilding champion Casey Viator. Casey performed shrugs with 700 pounds. The powerlifter John Gamble often did the same. Many recreational trainees use heavy dumbbells to train their traps.
If you find that while performing shoulder and trap training you feel neck pain, pain traveling down to your shoulder blade area or under your shoulder blade, or pain that travels down the arm, I suggest you stop performing the exercise and seek an appointment with a spine specialist.
Editor’s note: Visit www.softtissuecenter.com for reprints of Horrigan’s past Sportsmedicine columns that have appeared in IRON MAN. You can order the books, Strength, Conditioning and Injury Prevention for Hockey by Joseph Horrigan, D.C., and E.J. “Doc” Kreis, D.A., and the 7-Minute Rotator Cuff Solution by Horrigan and Jerry Robinson from Home Gym Warehouse, (800) 447-0008 or at www.home-gym.com.