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If you’ve ever caught your shoulders creeping up toward your ears, or felt tension in your neck and shoulders, your trapezius muscles may be to blame.

Your “traps” run from the base of your skull down to the middle of your spine, covering most of your upper back and shoulder blades. The trapezius has three parts — upper, middle, and lower. Each plays a role in moving and stabilizing the shoulder blades, or scapulae: The lower and middle traps pull the shoulder blades down and back; the upper traps elevate them.

The upper traps are where most people run into trouble. “I see a lot of trap tightness with people spending more time on computers and phones,” says physical therapist and personal trainer Erika Mundinger, DPT. “Heads tend to be more forward and shoulders tend to be lifted up. The upper traps tend to be overactive and turned on throughout the day.”

“Hiking up our shoulders can also be a protective guarding posture that we assume when we’re dealing with stress,” she adds.

When your upper traps are constantly engaged, it can cause tightness in the neck and chest, impaired shoulder motion, and even difficulty taking a deep, diaphragmatic breath. “All of this has a cascading effect,” says Mundinger.

Mobility exercises and breath work can help relax the traps.

The Workout

Perform the following four moves two or three times daily while seated or standing, aiming to maintain an upright posture. 

Side Bend Stretch With Towel

a woman performs the side bend neck stretch
  • Hold one end of a towel in your left hand and bring the other end over your right shoulder so that the end is behind your back.
  • Sitting or standing up straight, gently begin to side bend your head to the left, bringing your left ear toward your left shoulder. Pull the towel down on your right shoulder with both hands to keep your shoulder from hiking up as you stretch.
  • Hold for 30 seconds, taking deep breaths throughout. Repeat on the other side.

Breath and Shoulder Reset

a woman sits and breathes deeply into her belly
  • Stand or sit upright in a chair. Drop your shoulders and set your rib cage over your pelvis.
  • Take a deep inhale through your nose, allowing your belly to expand. If you feel your chest and shoulders rise when inhaling instead, check that your ribs are stacked over your hips and not jutting out. Then exhale, noticing your belly draw back in.
  • Repeat for 10 breaths.

Diagonal Neck and Upper Traps Stretch

a woman performs a diagonal neck stretch
  • Sitting or standing up straight, gently begin to side bend your head to the left and forward, bringing your nose toward your left shoulder. Use your left hand to apply gentle pressure to the right shoulder and keep it from rising. Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Return to a neutral position. This time, gently side bend your head to the left and look up toward the ceiling on your left side. Again, you can apply gentle pressure to the right shoulder with your left hand to keep the shoulder down. Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat both stretches on the opposite side.

Upper Traps Active Release With Wall Angels

a woman extends her arms up a wall
  • Stand straight with your back to a wall and place a massage ball at your upper back on the right side, just to the outside of your spine. Back up so that your body holds the ball in place at the wall.
  • Gently move your back side to side and up and down so that the ball massages the tight tissue.
  • Holding the ball in place, bring your arms up and out to the sides, making snow-angel motions, while keeping the ball between your back and the wall.
  • Make 10 snow-angel motions with your arms, then repeat with the ball on the opposite side.

This article originally appeared as “Working Out the Kinks” in the September 2021 issue of Experience Life.

Photography by: Kelly Loverud; Styling by: Pam Brand; Fitness Model: Anna Taylor
Nicole Radziszewski

Nicole Radziszewski is a writer and personal trainer in River Forest, Ill. She blogs at

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