The lower traps don’t get a lot of attention, as they don’t make you fill out your t-shirt as impressively as big upper traps, you can’t see them in the mirror and most of all you probably simply don’t understand their importance.
Oftentimes, the lower traps are another one of those little muscle groups that no one cares about until they’re injured. It’s only then that they realise how important these muscles are.
Anatomy and function of the lower traps
Before we get into activation and strengthening drills let’s first understand the role of the lower traps in creating and resisting movement, and how this can impact the golf swing – a.ka. me getting my anatomy geek on!
Whilst most people may think of the big lumps of meat between a bodybuilder’s head and shoulders as the traps, these are in actual fact just the upper traps. The trapezius muscle actually extends all the way down the entire red section seen below, and is generally broken down into three sections – upper, middle and lower.
In order to properly understand the role of the lower trap first we need to briefly run over the joint-by-joint approach. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while (thanks by the way!) you’ve probably come across this before, but here’s a recap:
The joint-by-joint approach states that the body’s joints are stacked on top of each other and that each joint typically requires mobility or stability in an alternating fashion. The ankle typically requires mobility, for example, whilst the knee requires stability and so on up the chain.
If we follow the logic of the joint-by-joint approach, we know that the scapula typically needs more stability. This is to allow the gleno-humeral (shoulder) joint to move freely and effectively.
In fact, depending on which research paper you read, between 12 and 21% of all golf injuries occur at the shoulder. Further loss of range of motion can be a predictor of injury and we also know that amateur golfers tend to lose shoulder flexion, abduction and external rotation range of motion as they age. So scapular stability should also be a big concern for injury prevention, especially for those with shoulder issues already.
Due to faulty thoracic spine extensibility and/or overactive upper traps, our lower trapezius are often lengthened and weak. This promotes scapular elevation and downward rotation, which in turn leads to internally rotated shoulders. This is not good for golfers as firstly we know which we know that forward hunched position we call ‘S’ posture is not helpful to achieving good rotation in the golf swing. New research and ideas are starting to point to the scapular’s possible role in controlling the clubface too. For example a downwardly rotated right scapula internally rotates the shoulder, which unless the golfer makes adjustments in the swing or grip, will pronate the elbow and wrist, leading to a closed clubface.
The lower trapezius is important in all this as it promotes scapular depression, and work synergistically upper traps, and serratus anterior all work synergistically to promote upward rotation is vital if you ever want to exhibit full shoulder flexion, put simple the ability to get your hands above your head.
Dave Phillips was involved a great video on Adam Scott recently, in which he referred to the pelvis the pelvis as the ‘power plug’ in the golf swing. Any time you unplug the pelvis you lose posture and ultimately power. So what happens we you don’t have good shoulder flexion? Well every time you go to put your hands above your head, like in the backswing, you will either have to stand up out of your golf posture to get there, pulling the two power cables of your upper and lower body apart and unplugging the power plug, or you will go into excessive anterior tilt at the pelvis, again pulling the two power cables apart and unplugging the power plug, but extending the muscles of the abdominals so they can no longer contract as effectively and also putting the lower back in a more compromising position. Both of which may also lead to a reverse spine angle. Indeed, research has shown that better golfers exhibit more shoulder flexion and abduction, which in turn is linked to more shoulder turn in the backswing.
The Exercises – a.ka. The fun bit you skipped to anyway!
So we now know people tend have lengthened and weak traps that can lead to problems controlling scapular position. We also know there needs to be a balance of strength between the upper traps, lower traps, and serratus to upwardly rotate the scapulae.
Although in reality, poor upper trap strength is rarely the cause of poor upward rotation. Especially if you are a regular gym goer and/or have been following a standard body part split all those deadlifts and shrugs with no lower trap work will have left you with a lower trap strength deficit. If this is you, you need to nix the shrug in favour of something that will actually help your shoulder function and your golf swing. Even if your not, and especially if you have little gym or designated lower trap work experience your scapular stability and shoulder health will likely improve hugely by including these exercises.
So next let’s get to activating and strengthening those suckers so we can develop and actively stabilise better scapula position:
Floor slides are a pretty good place to start. Low level and not too much can go wrong. Try to pull your elbows further down and actively depress the scapulae down at the end range.
Wall slides with scapular retraction
We are now working on elevation of the arms and scapular retraction/depression, a double whammy for those lower traps. As Mike Boyle says: “the key is that the forearms must slide up in contact with the wall while the shoulder blades stay down and back.”
The bent-over Y takes away all support and requires us to stabilise our own body to move well. It look’s a simple exercise but it is often done poorly. Firstly, use light weight, you are never going to move heavy weights in this exercise and don’t try to. Secondly, the end of the dumbbell (or thumbs if you are just using bodyweight, which recommend to start) should be pointing straight up throughout.
From the starting position, drive through the scapulae and allow them to actively depress down. The key is not to think about moving from the elbows and shoulders, and also not to gain range of motion by extending the lower back – think solely about moving from the scapula.
Once you have these lightweight activation exercises absolutely nailed, you can amp thins up in the strength building department.
A well-performed chin-up or pull-up, where you actively depress the scapulae at the top, may be one of the best shoulder stability exercises you can perform. Unfortunately, this leads us to another issue. Performing a chin-up or pull-up with full scapular depression at the top is damn hard!
This is where the lat pulldown machine can be really useful, put an appropriate weight on the machine and go through a full range of motion. Focus on actively depressing the scapulae at the bottom position and hold it there for a 2 count before completing the rep.