Trapezius: Untrapping your TrapsMay 31, 2023
The trapezius is the broad, superficial, paired muscle of the upper back and a long-time favorite in bodywork. Our clients' frequent request for focus on the upper back and shoulders comes as a result of the daily hit their traps take – whether from their desk jobs and driving their cars or from lifting, throwing, and rowing motions in sports. If there were an awards ceremony for muscles, the trapezius would certainly be a nominee in the “Most Frequently Massaged” category.
Reviewing the insertions, origins, and actions for this well-known muscle can be helpful, but what if we refocused our lens to look at not only where the traps anchor, but also where they glide in relation to their neighboring anatomy? What more might you be able to know about how the trapezius relates to its surroundings and what that could mean for how you touch?
WHERE THEY ANCHOR
The trapezius reaches across the width of our shoulders and the length of our rib cage. In a word, it's a BIG muscle! You might describe it as kite-shaped, with the top part of the kite spanning the upper scapula to the neck and skull, and the lower part reaching down from the medial spine of the scapula to T12.
There are many muscles that control the movements of the shoulder, but the trapezius is the only one that connects the scapula and clavicle with so many different bones including the skull and all of the cervical and thoracic vertebrae, giving the trapezius the impressive capability of elevating, retracting, upwardly rotating, or depressing the scapula, depending on which part of the muscle is firing.
WHERE THEY GLIDE
The trapezius overlies (partly or entirely) quite a few of the major movers and shakers of our back, neck, and shoulders, including splenius capitis, semispinalis capitis, levator scapulae, posterior scalenes, supraspinatus, infraspinatus, rhomboids, and latissimus dorsi.
Many of these interfaces between the traps and these neighboring muscles must allow for gliding between the two in order for them to do their jobs. We may not have given much thought to the areas of muscular glide before because of the tendency to focus on insertions, origins, and actions, but areas of glide are functionally important. Our ability to have any sort of complexity in our movements requires our muscles to be able to work both together and independently …through gliding. How can the trapezius, which shares so many attachments with other muscles, glide without disturbing the others? Fascia to the rescue!
HOW GLIDING HAPPENS
Like its surrounding muscles, the trapezius is fully encased in a thin, fibrous covering of deep fascia. Completely adherent to the muscle itself, the fascial covering creates a smooth interface with adjacent muscles so when one muscle contracts it doesn’t drag its neighbor along for the ride. Between these gliding interfaces we find loose connective tissue, a wet, hyaluronan-rich, lubricating tissue that helps each muscle to slide and glide across its neighbors by reducing friction even further. Leaving the force generation to the muscles and force transmission to the deep fascia, loose connective tissue’s slippery, gel-like consistency provides the lubrication needed to make it all work together smoothly.
WHY WE CARE
For massage therapists, the anatomy of a muscle’s gliding relationships can be as important as its insertions and origins. Knowing where the muscles should be free to move and where they should be stable provides us with a functionally informed road map for our touch. Tracing the “Anatomy of Glide” in your clients can leave them feeling freer in their bodies and give you a new way to assess and work with your clients favorite muscles!
*If you like what you read and want to read more content like this, head over to Associated Bodywork & Massage Professional's website to read their latest issues of Massage & Bodywork magazine.*
Benjamin, Mike. 2009. “The Fascia of the Limbs and Back - a Review.” Journal of Anatomy 214 (1): 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7580.2008.01011.x.
Johnson, G., N. Bogduk, A. Nowitzke, and D. House. 1994. “Anatomy and Actions of the Trapezius Muscle.” Clinical Biomechanics 9 (1): 44–50.
Moccia, David, Andrew A. Nackashi, Rebecca Schilling, and Peter J. Ward. 2015. “Fascial Bundles of the Infraspinatus Fascia: Anatomy, Function, and Clinical Considerations.” Journal of Anatomy 228 (1): 176–83. https://doi.org/10.1111/joa.12386.
Stecco, Carla. 2014. Functional Atlas of the Human Fascial System. Elsevier Health Sciences.