How to Do the Upper Trapezius Stretch

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

stretch neck

Getty Images / ljubaphoto

Also known as: Head tilt stretch

Targets: Shoulders, upper back, neck

Equipment Needed: None

Level: Beginner

You probably associate your “traps” with the segment of muscle that runs from the top of your shoulder to your neck on both sides. These strips of muscle are indeed your traps, but just part of it. 

The trapezius is a large muscle that covers much of your upper back. This muscle begins at the base of your neck and extends across your upper back to your shoulders. It also extends down to your thoracic spine (mid-back) and attaches to your shoulder blades. The trapezius is divided into three parts: upper, middle, and lower.

The positioning of this muscle makes it critical for basic, everyday movements, such as retracting your shoulder blades (pulling them back), elevating your shoulders (shrugging), and tilting and rotating your neck. 

If you’ve been feeling tight in your neck lately, your trapezius might be to blame. Luckily, you can relieve tension with a number of neck stretches, such as the upper trapezius stretch described in this article. 

Benefits

You will find yourself reaping numerous benefits after performing this stretch.

Reduces Tension in the Neck

The primary benefit of the upper trapezius or head tilt stretch is that it reduces tightness in the neck. Many people struggle with neck tension and pain on a regular basis, likely due to poor posture that results from spending too much time in front of computers, televisions, and smartphones. 

Promotes Shoulder Mobility

Limited shoulder mobility can result from a lack of physical activity and stretching, as well as from chronically poor posture. Though the upper trapezius stretch isn’t technically a shoulder stretch, your trapezius does play a role in moving your shoulders and shoulder blades, so practicing this stretch may improve overall shoulder mobility. 

Loosens Thoracic and Cervical Spine

If you sit at a desk all day, there’s a good chance your spine can’t access its full range of motion. This is particularly true for the upper and middle spine, or your cervical and thoracic spine, respectively. Luckily, stretches like the upper trapezius stretch can help restore mobility to your spine. 

Improves Posture

All of the above benefits—reduced neck tension, shoulder mobility, and spinal mobility—contribute to optimal posture. Performing the upper trapezius stretch daily or weekly can improve all of these markers, thus improving your posture over time. Just remember this takes consistency and time!

Step-by-Step Instructions

To do the upper trapezius stretch, follow these simple steps:

  1. Begin seated or standing for this stretch. Either way, maintain a neutral spine position and engage your core
  2. Place your right hand on your lower back with your elbow bent, making an “L” or “V” shape behind your back. 
  3. Place your left hand on top of your head. 
  4. Apply pressure to your head with your left hand, gently pulling your head down. This creates a stretch from the base of your head, through your neck and across your upper trapezius. 
  5. Hold the stretch for 30 to 45 seconds, and then repeat on the other side. 
  6. Practice deep breathing during the stretch to promote good technique and relaxation. 

Common Mistakes

Though it reads like a simple stretch, there is still room for error. Be mindful to avoid these common mistakes.

Arching Your Back

Avoid arching your back while performing the upper trapezius stretch. Arching (also called hyperextending) your spine indicates that you haven’t engaged your core muscles. To engage your core, pull your navel into your spine and think of creating a strong cylinder around your spine. 

Hunching Your Back

On the flip side, hunching your back indicates that you don’t have the requisite range of motion to perform the upper trapezius stretch, so your body compensates by hunching over in an attempt to achieve the position. If you find yourself hunching your back during this stretch, reduce the intensity of the stretch. 

Overstretching 

Many people make the mistake of overstretching on all stretches. Minor overstretching may not lead to an injury—just temporary pain or soreness—but if you feel a sharp or stabbing pain while stretching, that means you stretched your muscle beyond its capacity and could have strained it. It’s especially important to avoid overstretching during neck stretches, as a strained neck muscle or sprained ligament can be very problematic. 

Modifications and Variations

Perhaps this stretch is too much on your neck, or not enough. Here are ways to modify the upper trapezius stretch,

Need a Modification?

The simplest way to modify the head tilt stretch is to simply reduce the intensity of the stretch. Start with a small, gentle stretch and work your way up to a deeper stretch if it feels good. Another way to modify the upper trapezius stretch is to keep your non-working arm by your side instead of placing it on your lower back. This will allow you to sink deeper into the neck stretch. 

Up for a Challenge?

Try bringing your ear to your shoulder. Not many people can achieve this range of motion, but if you can, you have exceptional trapezius flexibility and neck mobility. Be very careful if you attempt to bring your ear to your shoulder, as overstretching in this position can lead to a strain in your neck. A neck strain may leave you in pain or with limited mobility in the neck. In severe cases, you’ll need to see a doctor for treatment. 

Safety and Precautions

You can certainly do the upper trapezius stretch while standing, but if you feel off-kilter, sit down instead. You’ll still get the same great stretch for your neck without worrying about teetering over. 

Like mentioned before, it’s so important to avoid overstretching. You’re likely attempting this stretch to improve your range of motion, but you must respect your current range of motion. Gaining flexibility and mobility takes time—your muscles won’t become more supple overnight. It’s normal to feel a slight discomfort while stretching, but not pain. If you feel pain, reduce the intensity of the stretch or stop altogether. 

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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Article Sources
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  1. Ourieff J, Scheckel B, Agarwal A. Anatomy, Back, Trapezius. [Updated 2020 Aug 22]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK518994/

  2. Park SH, Lee MM. Effects of Lower Trapezius Strengthening Exercises on Pain, Dysfunction, Posture Alignment, Muscle Thickness and Contraction Rate in Patients with Neck Pain; Randomized Controlled Trial. Med Sci Monit. 2020;26:e920208. Published 2020 Mar 23. doi:10.12659/MSM.920208