No matter what the implement is that you’re lifting, achieving a solid overhead position can be a challenging endeavor for many of us. One of the common trouble makers that frequently affects effective stabilization and pain free range of motion of the shoulder is the upper trapezius.
So what's the ideal shoulder position during overhead lifting?
When training with kettlebells in particular, the shoulder position I'm shooting for is one that is not overly packed, nor completely relaxed, nor overly elevated - all these extremes can adversely effect good shoulder mechanics. Instead, what I’m looking to achieve is a stable position where the head extends out of the shoulders creating a neck that looks open and long, where the shoulders are correctly set, and where I’m providing some upward force against the bells.
If the upper traps are overactive, as they can be with people who engage in lots of overhead movements in their work or sports environment, during times of increased stress, when displaying forward head posture*, and/or when the mid and lower fibers of the traps are simply not working well to help stabilize, any effort to lifts loads overhead is going to be a tough one.
*Forward head posture indicates when the ears migrate forward of the shoulder, which often results in shortening of the upper traps and lengthening of mid and lower traps.
If what’s throwing off your shoulder mechanics is indeed short upper traps, here’s one stretch you can experiment with:
Step-By-Step Stretching of the Upper Traps:
- Sit down on a sturdy bench with good, tall upright posture
- Grab the edge of the bench with one arm and lean away at the shoulder
- Side bend the head and place your free hand on the side of the head corresponding to the trap you're trying to stretch.
- Exhale and relax into the stretch for 5 seconds
- Inhale and gently activate the upper trap by hiking up the shoulder and pressing the side of the head into the figures for 5 seconds
- Repeat 3-5x
- This is a contract-relax, 5s/5s, stretch and can be performed prior to training as a corrective stretch
- If you do not feel a stretch by the time you reach end range, then there’s no need to stretch that side. However, be sure to check the other one.
- During the isometric phase when you are activating your upper trap, be sure not to fully come out the stretch, rather maintain your newly acquired range of motion and transition into the following exhalation stretch sequence from that position.
- Be cautious when stretching your neck and coax it gently into releasing. If you feel pain - STOP! You're doing it wrong.
- If you feel you need more of a release, I would suggest performing a longer static stretch, however, doing so following training, on an off-training day, and/or prior to bed is ideal. The duration of the static stretch can be 30, 60, 90 seconds, or really until you achieve the desired release. Also, for me personally on longer neck stretches like this, I'll typically just use my breath to deepen it and not always the top hand to assist.
- If in a shortened state, stretching this common trouble maker is but one of many ways to improve shoulder function. Depending on your unique case, trigger point release, myofascial stretching, activation techniques, getting checked for an upper cervical misalignment, etc. are all things to explore, but I'd first try some simple stretching and see if that helps.