Stretching and massaging can alleviate upper trapezius tension.
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The trapezius is a broad, diamond-shaped muscle that makes up most of your upper back and posterior neck muscles. It's divided into upper, middle and lower trapezius, with different fibers running in different directions. Since the upper trapezius is prone to chronic stiffness due to sitting too much and stress, stretching this muscle with other muscles in your neck and shoulder girdle can alleviate some of the stiffness and improve your torso's range of motion.
Static Vs. Dynamic Stretching
There are two types of stretching you can do in your workout to stretch your upper trapezius. Static stretching involves holding a stretch to the point of mild tension for 20 to 30 seconds, while dynamic stretching involves moving the muscle within its full range of motion repetitively. Since static stretching decreases neural stimulation to your muscles and enhances relaxation, exercise physiologist Len Kravitz recommends that you do dynamic stretching instead to warm up your body before you work out. This prepares your muscles and your mind to move and coordinate better, increasing blood flow and nerve stimulation. Save static stretching at the end of your workout.
Shoulder rolls, neck rolls, arm swings and quadruped trunk twists are examples of dynamic stretches that you can do before working out. Start with a smaller range of motion. As your body warms up, increase your joints' range of motion while maintaining a steady rhythm. Sample static stretches include laterally flexing your head to one side or flexing your head forward and tilting your chin toward one side of your chest. Always maintain a steady breathing rhythm in both types of stretches.
When your upper trapezius refuses to relax with stretching, bring out a foam roller to give yourself a massage in your upper back. This method, which is called self-myofascial release, decreases tension by compressing your trapezius on top of the foam roller. This stimulates a sensory organ in the muscle fibers called the Golgi tendon organ, which causes the muscles and surrounding tissues to relax. Lie your upper back on top of the foam roller with your hands crossed over your chest and with your feet flat on the floor. As you slowly roll up and down your upper back, hold pressure upon any tenderness you may find in your trapezius until it subsides. Maintain a steady breathing rhythm as you massage. Do not use this method if you have any unhealed wounds, skin disorders, fractured bones or neural diseases, such as fibromyalgia.
Sometimes it's very tempting to stretch your sore upper trapezius after a hard upper-body workout. However, stretching may delay the healing process and increase the stiffness in your upper trapezius. A study published in the July-September 2005 issue of "Journal of Athletic Training" showed that military personnel who performed static stretching before and after a workout showed no significant reduction in muscle soreness or reduce the risk of injury. Stretching only increased the pain tolerance, not the tissues' flexibility.