I have a question for you about neck and spine tension. I have an overactive trapezius and my neck regularly gets stiff and full of knots after a day of desk work. I'm good at stretching and keeping my neck moving, but I don't have a clue about how to strengthen the rest of my back/shoulders around the trapezius. I think this is a pretty common problem for people who work at computers - other than practicing good posture, how can I strengthen my back and shoulders to quiet my trapezius?
I wish it was as simple as just strengthening your back and shoulders to quiet the tension in your neck, but unfortunately it is not. Let’s start with a quick, layman’s explanation, of the trap muscle. It is called the trapezius because it is shaped like a trapezoid and it is divided into three parts: upper fibres, middle fibres and lower fibres, all of which have different functions. What commonly occurs with people who spend most of their days at an office, sitting at a desk, is that their middle and lower trapezius muscle fibres become elongated and weak. Unfortunately this is just the beginning.
Another common pattern is becoming extremely tight in your distal anterior muscles (the muscles in the front of our body such as biceps, deltoids and pecs) as well as your posterior muscles. Our hamstrings become weak and tight, as do our hip flexors, lats and lower back muscles, resulting in a trunk that has turned into a giant mess of tight, overactive, and weak under-dominant muscles.
Your first step is to try and release those tight muscles in your body. Start by stretching not just your neck but also your hip flexors, your hamstrings, your lats, biceps and pecs.
You next step is to get function back into your body and build up the strength in your core – click here for my article on building a solid foundation (it is written for building post baby abs but these exercises are good for everyone!).
Then you want to teach your body how it should move and strengthen your back muscles. These strengthening exercises are going to work the function of your muscles and, hopefully, teach everything how to work again.
Hip Flexor Stretch – put a foam roller widthwise under your pelvis. Pull one leg into your chest, wrapping your hands around your knees and actively reach the other leg straight and long. Hold each side for 30-60 seconds.
Hamstring stretch – using a strap, lie down with one knee bent and your foot on the floor and wrap the strap around the other foot, extending your leg straight to the ceiling. Keep your pelvis level and press your sitbones towards the floor. Hold each side for 30-60 seconds, working on gently bending and straightening your leg.
Lat Stretch – take the foam roller and lie on it lengthwise. Extend your arms towards the ceiling, draw your shoulder blades down your ribcage and set your arm bones into your shoulder joint. Keeping your ribs and shoulders down and your arms straight, reach your arms behind you, then bring them back to the start. Repeat 10 times.
Pec/Bicep Stretch – Move right to this after your lat stretch. Move your arms to the side, bent at 90 degrees (goal post arms). Keeping the ribs down, reach your arms back, straightening them in the process then bend the elbows and return to the start. Repeat 10 times.
To strengthen the back, along with your exercises you do at the gym, such as seated rows, I want you to add these two.
Suitcase handles – start on all fours, shoulders over your hands and your hips over your knees. Draw your lower belly in strong then push into the floor like you are pressing it away, sliding your shoulder blades along your ribs and slightly puffing up your upper back. Slowly lower, allowing your shoulder blades to move towards each other – repeat 10 times.
Bird Dog – this is one of my favourites and I have been known to make professional athletes fall over from fatigue while doing this. In the same position as above start to slide your right hand away, lifting it up and keeping your arm straight. Push your other hand into the floor and keep your body completely still as you reach your arm forward. Once you are there slowly slide your left leg behind you, lifting it up and straightening it. Exhale and draw your belly in deep then inhale to try and lift the arm and leg higher without arching your spine. Repeat for 30 seconds or until you reach fatigue then repeat on the other side.
I would also recommend you seek out the help of a professional, either a massage therapist or physiotherapist who can help you release tension in your body that you can’t release on your own and to also make sure there is not another issue that needs to be addressed.