Reaching, Pressing, and Lifting with Less Shoulder Pain – Keep those shoulders down!

Posted on September 27, 2016

One of the most common mistakes we see with the upper body is over utilizing the upper trap muscle and hiking your shoulder blades up toward your ears with posture at rest and with lifting and reaching or pressing overhead.

Why we see this a lot:

  1. If you have any shoulder pain this is the default pattern the body chooses
  2. With time, if your rotator cuff and deltoid get weak, the upper trap tries to pick up the slack
  3. Stress can bring about upper trap over activation because you tense up in your fight or flight mode

Why this is a problem:

  1. It will feed into your rotator cuff getting weaker which is the primary stabilizer of your shoulder joint.  This can then result in shoulder pain due to not controlling your shoulder as well as you could
  2. It can cause pain in the upper trap region due to its overuse, that can also progress into neck pain
  3. Once you start getting pain, the muscle goes into more stress and fight/flight, it tenses up more, creates more pain, and feeds the vicious cycle.

How to recognize it:

  1. Take a look at yourself in the mirror!  If your shoulders are elevated up and forward, your upper trap is on too much at rest.
  2. Not sure? Keep your shoulders where they are, then take a deep breath in and let out a big exhale thinking about relaxing your shoulders down.  If your shoulders are now resting lower than they were, your upper trap is on too much at rest.
  3. Raise your arm overhead and hold it there.  With your other hand touch your upper trap and get an appreciation for how hard it feels.  Then lie down on your back and raise your arm overhead.  Now feel your upper trap with your other hand.  Guaranteed, it’s softer.  This means you can improve your ability to use other muscles more and your upper trap less raising your arm overhead.

What to do about it:

This is where I’m supposed to tell you how to massage and stretch your upper trap.  The problem with that is that if you keep doing what you’re doing after, you’ll end up right back where you started! Here’s the best way to progress through the process to turn your upper trap down.

  1. Work to improve your stress management and overall awareness.  The more you can decrease your stress, the more you’ll get out of that fight/flight mode with your upper traps holding on for dear life. A huge key to this is learning how to alert yourself when you are stressed. Then you can take that deep breath, relax those shoulders down on the exhale, and do whatever else works for you to decrease your stress.  
  2. Assess your sitting posture, especially with your phone and computer.  Check out how to improve your desk set up below.

    You can also make some tweaks to how you hold your books and phone.

  3. Get stronger! … in the right muscles! Follow through our shoulder strengthening playlist to get your cuff and mid and lower trap and supporting muscles stronger without using your upper trap.  Notice in the videos how often you’re cued to avoid your shoulders hiking up and forward and to keep them relaxed down and back.
  4. Apply this to every day movements.  The goal with following steps 1-3 is that this will naturally happen, but as they say, old habits die hard.  Check out our “healthy living playlist” for tips on how to lift and garden and work overhead with less pain.  A couple of the specific videos are below, but there’s more good stuff in the whole playlist at the bottom. 


So, there’s a ton of information on how to better recognize and improve your ability to press and lift objects with better shoulder mechanics to improve your overall shoulder health and decrease your chance for injury.  Again, it’s not that we don’t want to have a strong upper trap, it’s just that we want the ratio of the other muscles working to be up to snuff as well!

Happy shoulder strengthening and stress managing!

Dr. Dane Happeny, PT, DPT

Doctor of Physical Therapy

Comments are closed.