Lower Trapezius: Exercises to Improve Overhead Shoulder Mobility

The lower trapezius muscle plays an important role in moving and positioning the shoulder blade (scapula) during overhead sports.  The lower trapezius spans from the lower 6 thoracic spine vertebrae to the upper portion of the scapula.   Along with the middle and upper portions, the lower fibers comprise the large trapezius muscle of the upper back.   The lower trapezius, upper trapezius, and serratus anterior muscles work together to upwardly rotate the scapula.  This function is important to optimally position the arm during overhead function such as the cocking phase of throwing a baseball.  This muscle is often ignored when it comes to developing resistance training programs for athletes or fitness enthusiasts.

Role of the Lower Trapezius in Sport

Poor thoracic spine posture or loss of thoracic spine extension places the lower trapezius at a disadvantage to fulfill its role as a scapular stabilizer.  Therefore, exercises which restore thoracic extension are often included in programs which train the lower trapezius.  Delayed lower trapezius activation has been demonstrated in overhead athletes with shoulder pain.  Weakness of this muscle has been implicated with upper extremity injuries in baseball, swimming, and tennis.

Exercises performed with the arms below shoulder level elicit very little lower trapezius activity.  In order to optimally activate the lower fibers of the trapezius, movements which facilitate scapular upward rotation with depression should be performed.  The lower fibers are aligned at an approximate 135-degree angle from the spine.  This corresponds to the 10:00 and 2:00 positions on a clock.  Exercises such as the wall slide, prone trapezius raise, and shoulder external rotation in 90 degrees of abduction position the scapula for optimal lower trapezius activation.

Prone 1-Arm Lower Trapezius Raise

This exercise is performed lying face down with one arm over the side of the table or bench.  Be sure to keep the neck in a relaxed neutral position resting on your other forearm.  With the thumb up, arm straight, elbow slightly bent, lift toward the ceiling at a 45-degree angle from your head (the 10:00 and 2:00 positions of a clock).  This position is aligned with the muscle fibers of the lower trapezius.  Be careful to avoid shrugging the entire shoulder as you raise the arm.  Instead, think about tilting the shoulder blade backward as you raise the arm.  Pause at the top of the movement before returning to the start position in a controlled manner.

Prone External Rotation in 90 Degrees of Abduction      

Lie face down with one arm over the side of the table or bench supported on a small towel roll.  Be sure to keep the neck in a relaxed neutral position resting on your other forearm.  Rotate the hand up towards the sky in a slow and controlled manner.  Be careful to avoid shrugging the entire shoulder as you perform the exercise.  Pause at the top of the movement before returning to the start position.

Wall Slides at 135 Degrees with Lift Off

Stand to face a wall with one foot slightly ahead of the other.  Place both forearms against the wall starting just below shoulder level.   Initiate the movement by sliding the forearms toward the ceiling at a 45-degree angle from your head (the 10:00 and 2:00 positions of a clock).  This aligns with the muscle fibers of the lower trapezius.  Once the elbows are fully extended, slightly lift the hands and arms away from the wall.  Be sure to avoid arching the low back as you lift away.  Instead, think about tilting the shoulder blades backward as you lift away.   Pause at the top of the movement before returning to the start position in a controlled manner.

Closing Thoughts

The lower trapezius muscle is often ignored by athletes and exercise enthusiasts who regularly engage in strength training.  Poor timing or weakness of this muscle results in compensatory movement patterns during overhead activity.  Specific exercise targeting the lower trapezius should be included as part of a warm-up routine or regular strength and conditioning program for athletes looking to optimize shoulder health.

 

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Youth Baseball Pitching Injuries on The Rise

Youth baseball pitching injuries are on the rise. The world-renowned Dr. James Andrews describes the increase in injury rates as an epidemic (ESPN interview).  His research shows 5% of youth pitchers will sustain at least one serious elbow or shoulder injury which will require surgery or end their career. Historically, throwing breaking pitches at a young age was cited as the major risk factor for these types of injuries. However, the latest research shows arm fatigue, not breaking pitches, is the primary reason for the sharp rise in youth pitching injuries.

Should Youth Pitchers Throw Curveballs?

Dr. Andrews and his team at the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) in Birmingham, Alabama tracked 481 youth baseball pitchers (ages 9 to 14) for ten years. Pitchers were interviewed annually to determine the incidence of serious injury and to track pitching volume and pitch type. Serious injury was defined as those requiring surgery or ended an athlete’s career. Pitching more than 100 innings in a year significantly increased the risk of a serious elbow or shoulder injury by 3.5 times. Throwing curveballs before the age of 13 did not significantly increase the risk of injury.

Throwing with Arm Fatigue

Another 2006 study at ASMI identified the following risk factors for shoulder or elbow surgery in youth baseball pitchers:

  • Pitching 8 or more months per calendar year (5 times more likely to sustain a serious injury)
  • Throwing 80 or more pitches per appearance (3.8 times more likely)
  • Throwing velocities greater than 85 mph (2.5 times more likely)
  • Regularly pitching with arm fatigue (36 times more likely)

Research from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found throwing accuracy and arm soreness to be closely associated with arm fatigue. Throwing velocity is more closely associated with generalized fatigue. Therefore, youth athletes should be closely monitored by coaches and training staff to gauge arm fatigue and throwing-induced injury risk. Throwing accuracy, and not velocity, is probably the more important variable to monitor in order to reduce injury risk. Also, regularly communicating with athletes about arm soreness is crucual  to reduce the risk of youth baseball pitching injuries.

Conclusion: Youth Baseball Pitching Injuries

Parents and coaches should closely monitor youth pitchers for signs of arm fatigue and soreness and discourage throwing year round. A minimum of 2-3 months without throwing is recommended (more from Dr. Andrews). During this active recovery period, athletes should work on other baseball skills along with aspects of strength and conditioning to improve their long-term athletic development. The off-season is the ideal time for an athlete to work with a strength coach to develop strength and power.  Contrary to popular belief, throwing breaking pitches is not associated with youth baseball injuries. The Stop Sports Injuries website has posted some other valuable youth baseball pitching injury prevention tips here.

References

  1. Fleisig, G. S., Andrews, J. R., Cutter, G. R., Weber, A., Loftice, J., Mcmichael, C., … Lyman, S. (2011). Risk of serious injury for young baseball pitchers: A 10-year prospective study. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 39(2), 253–257. http://doi.org/10.1177/0363546510384224
  2. Olsen, S. J., Fleisig, G. S., Dun, S., Loftice, J., & Andrews, J. R. (2006). Risk factors for shoulder and elbow injuries in adolescent baseball pitchers. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 34(6), 905–12. http://doi.org/10.1177/0363546505284188
  3. Freeston, J., Adams, R., Ferdinands, R., & Rooney, K. (2014). Indicators of throwing arm fatigue in elite adolescent male baseball players: A randomized crossover trial. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(8), 2115–2120.