Middle Trapezius Exercises: 6 Simple Options

The trapezius is a large broad muscle spanning the upper back with attachments to the spine, shoulder blade, and collar bone.  The trapezius is divided into 3 parts: the upper, middle, and lower portions.  As a whole, the trapezius plays an important role in positioning and moving the shoulder blade for overhead function.  The middle trapezius is also responsible for retracting or pulling back the shoulder blade.  Poor function of the middle trapezius has been associated with shoulder, neck, and elbow pain in both the general population and athletes.  Thankfully, there are a variety of middle trapezius exercises that will decrease your pain and improve function.

The Role of Middle Trapezius Exercises in Overhead Sports

The middle trapezius plays an important role in in positioning and controlling movement of the arm during overhead sports such as baseball and swimming.  During baseball pitching, the middle trapezius is activated at very high levels to control the position of the shoulder blade as the pitcher’s arm accelerates towards home plate.  Youth pitchers with a history of shoulder pain have less strength in their middle trapezius compared to pitchers without pain.

In swimmers of all ages, weakness of the middle trapezius is associated with shoulder pain and disability.  Also, athletes with shoulder impingement exhibit poor timing of their middle trapezius muscle.  As a whole, weakness and poor timing of the middle trapezius can place excessive stress on other areas of the arm predisposing the athlete to poor performance or injury.  The 6 exercises in this article are simple examples of how to train the middle trapezius.

Prone Row

Begin lying on your stomach with the arm holding a dumbbell.  Starting with the arm in an extended position, perform a row.  The elbow stays close but not all the way against the side of the body.  Hold the top position for 1-2 seconds before slowly lowering back to the start position.  It is important to pull the shoulder blade back as you raise the elbow.  Avoid overextending and shrugging your shoulder.

Prone Shoulder Extension

Begin lying on your stomach with the arm holding a dumbbell.  Starting with the arm in an extended position, raise the arm up with the elbow straight.  The elbow stays close but not all the way against the side of the body.  Hold the top position for 1-2 seconds before slowly lowering back to the start position.  It is important to pull the shoulder blade back as you raise your arm.  Avoid overextending and shrugging your shoulder.

Prone Horizontal Abduction in External Rotation

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 and arm straight lift toward the ceiling at a 90-degree angle (the 9:00 and 3:00 positions of a clock).  This position is aligned with the muscle fibers of the middle 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 Lower Trap 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 and arm straight 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.

Side-Lying ER

Begin lying on your side holding a dumbbell with the elbow bent.  Place a towel roll in the armpit to increase the activation of the rotator cuff during the exercise.  Rotate the arm upwards maintaining the elbow against the side of your body.  Hold the top position for 1-2 seconds before slowly lowering back to the start position.  It is important to pull the shoulder blade back as you raise your arm.  This increases the activation of the middle and lower trapezius muscles.

Prone Row + ER

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.  First, perform a high row with a pause at the top.  From this position externally rotate the arm upwards towards the ceiling.  Pause at the top and reverse the sequence back to the start position.  Be careful to avoid shrugging the entire shoulder as you raise the arm.  Instead, think about tilting the shoulder blade backward.  This exercise results in high activation of the rotator cuff, middle trapezius, and lower trapezius.

Closing Thoughts about Middle Trapezius Exercises

The middle trapezius is often neglected in rehabilitation or conditioning programs.  However, this muscle plays a very important role in overhead function and sports.  Middle trapezius exercises should be included as part of a well-rounded strengthening program.  These 6 middle trapezius exercises can be easily performed in the gym or at home.  It is not necessary to perform all 6.  Instead, select 2 or 3 which you are comfortable performing.  Start with light weights (2 to 3 lbs).  Multiple sets (2 to 3) of 10 to 20 repetitions, a few times per week are recommended.  Contact your physical therapist if you need help getting started.


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