Tackling the upper trapezius

The upper fibers of the trapezius muscle

The upper fibers of the trapezius muscle



I have always dealt with overly tight upper trapezius muscles. Perhaps it stems from my easily stressed personality, or the fact that I was raised in a cold environment (once they cancelled school not because it was snowing but simply because it was too cold). Overly active upper trapezius muscles are common in many people and can cause trigger points which are aggravated by subconsciously contracting the muscles due to psychological stressors, anxiety, cold and postural imbalance. However, the fact that I have been doing myofascial release and cupping religiously while working on my thoracic extension (which implements the lower and middle trapezius for postural stability) made me wonder why I was still feeling excessive pain in my upper trapezius.

Since completely eliminating a problem entails knowing WHY the problem occurs, I decided to be cognizant of my habitual movements to see where I could be placing excess stress on my upper traps. I realized putting my arm out the car window while driving placed stress on my upper traps. Putting my elbows on the table while eating put excess stress on my upper traps (while I am skeptical of the relative cultural paradigm from which “table manners” arises, I stopped putting my elbows on the table after this). I stopped shrugging the phone between my shoulder and ear while multitasking and instead use a bluetooth or speakerphone. I started carrying lighter purses since it puts uneven pressure on one upper trap. While all of these actions contribute to my upper trapezius pain, I was disregarding one huge culprit.

Like most women, I wear a bra for a majority of the time- especially when I’m out and about being active. Unlike most women who are unaware that they are wearing the wrong bra size (roughly 80%), I always knew I was wearing the wrong bra size. However, since I wasn’t able to find my bra size easily (or cheaply), I settled for wearing bras which had band sizes that were too big for me. When this happens, your bra straps constantly cut into your shoulders in attempts to support the weight of your breasts, which consequently tightens your upper trapezius muscles, which can lead to shoulder, neck and back pain over time. Theoretically, your band should provide 80% of the bust support while your straps should only be giving 20% of the support. Your shoulders and bra straps should never be the sole support of the weight of your bust. When wearing a bra that’s the right size, it should ideally support your bust without putting excess strain on your upper trapezius muscles. Although getting properly fitted for a bra and spending money to buy the right size seems like a chore, if you constantly wear a bra and are dealing with pain it will be a worthwhile investment.

Tackling my upper trapezius tightness makes me realize how postural problems and muscular pain often stem from multifaceted sources. While this might seem disheartening and frustrating when attempting to find the root of a problem to fix it, I like to think of it as putting pieces together to solve a mystery.

PS: Speaking of investments, one investment I’ve already made is using a theracane to dig into my tight upper trapezius to reverse the tension!
Theracane upper trap release

Theracane upper trap release


http://www.amazon.com/Thera-Cane-JMAS5000-Massager/dp/B000PRMCJU

Awareness & Action

When fixing a problem, the first step is to become aware that a problem exists. Although many people claim to know themselves better than anyone else, a lot of the time we are still unaware of certain behaviors that we exhibit, whether it’s physical, mental, social etc. An example of this is when I was casually explaining what an anterior pelvic tilt is to someone and my friend overheard the conversation and said “Oh wow, I have an anterior pelvic tilt, I always wondered why I walk so weird and my butt sticks out so much”. I think these kinds of realizations are pivotal because knowing exactly what the problem is and why it occurs allows you to understand the direction to take in terms of fixing it.

However, the problem with many people is that they remain stagnant at this step. Being aware of a problem doesn’t necessarily solve it, action does. That’s step two, constantly taking action towards resolving the problem. In the case of an anterior pelvic tilt, it would be religiously doing myofascial release and focusing on keeping a neutral spine. Some problems might not have a clear cut solution yet, but constantly experimenting might lead you to stumble upon an effective result. An example of this is my battle with scoliosis. Since my hips overly shoot out in one direction due to the curvature of my spine, I use a pulley machine called the Keiser to pull myself in the same direction that my hips shoot out. This reverse psychology makes my hips want to shoot out in the opposite direction, thus straightening me out while I’m hooked to the machine. This is obviously something I am just experimenting with, but at least I am working towards a possible explanation to my problem.

I think that both of these steps are important and interrelated when solving a problem; you can’t have one without the other. Once you become aware of postural problems (externally rotated feet, rounded thoracic, lumbar extension), you’ll not only notice them in yourself but in others as well. One of my friends jokingly said he feels like his posture has to be perfect around me because I’ll be like “OH MY GOD BECKY LOOK AT HER THORACIC…It’s so rounded” (That is a reference to a very popular 90s song if you missed it). However, it’s important to note that posture doesn’t become perfect overnight, it’s a long process that involves hard work, patience, problem solving and intuition with your own body. I am aware of my postural deficiencies, and have been working towards fixing them but I am nowhere near perfect yet. That’s why I figured I’d end this post with snapshots of my postural deficiencies. Pictures and mirrors are great because they are objective tools that make you aware of your problems. You just have to take the initiative to fix them 🙂

This candid picture demonstrates my rounded throacic and internally rotated shoulders

This candid picture demonstrates my rounded throacic and internally rotated shoulders


Although this isn't a candid, it demonstrates my excessive lumbar extension.

Although this isn’t a candid, it demonstrates my excessive lumbar extension.

Want a flat stomach for summer? DON’T DO CRUNCHES!

396px-Transversus_abdominis

People tend to get more ab focused in their workouts the warmer the weather gets. It’s understandable since it’s beach season and flat stomachs are culturally perceived as “sexy” (this is a whole other subject I will avoid ranting about). However, a lot of people go about gaining a flatter stomach by doing hundreds of situps/crunches and other similar variations of these popular abdominal exercises. The problem is that these exercises further ingrain postural deficiencies, as well as exacerbate pain by placing excess stress on regions such as the lower back. Moreover, popular ab exercises tend to work your rectus abdominis. However, in terms of specific core muscles to target when focusing on the abdominal region, the pivotal but often ignored muscle is the transverse abdominis (TVA).

I like to think of the TVA as a corset, since it is the innermost core muscle whose main function is to compress the abdomen, but also stabilizes the spine. Corsets were historically worn to hold in the torso in order to emphasize the hips and chest (creating a more optimal “womanly” figure). To me it’s crazy to think that on the quest to look skinny, people ignore the muscle that basically acts  as a natural corset. I’d like to note that I am not endorsing the notion that skinniness is the ideal we should all be chasing, but realistically skinniness is what a lot of  people go to gym to attain (hooray for skewed cultural perceptions of “sexiness”).

Many people tend to have a weakened TVA due to sedentary lifestyles and improper training of the core (focusing solely on crunches). A weak TVA can cause bulging of the abdomen wall which causes the pelvis to rotate into an anterior pelvic tilt thus contributing to an increased lordosis in the spine. From a vain standpoint, an anterior pelvic tilt is not good because protruding bellies do not look good in a two piece bikini.  But more importantly, anterior pelvic tilts aren’t good because they lead to lower back pain, lots of sub-optimal  muscle compensations, and increased risk of  injuries if you are an athlete with an anterior pelvic tilt.

Ever since learning this line of reasoning, I stopped doing crunches in order to solely focus on TVA activation. The easiest way to activate my TVA is by sucking my belly button into my spine while lifting my ribcage. The best thing about this is that strengthening my TVA can be done anywhere. I do it while walking to class, while standing in line etc. Optimal posture requires a strong TVA. Moreover having a strong TVA helps with bio-mechanical performance, whether you’re running, doing Muay Thai etc.  When I focus on TVA activation when doing padwork, I immediately feel like my punches have more power. Having a strong TVA is also key in helping reduce lower back pain, which is a connection that most people are unaware of. So while doing crunches can increase back pain and not necessarily make your stomach look flat, the TVA activation will reduce back pain while making your stomach look flat.

So, from a superficial limbic brain train of thought, activating the transverse abdominis seems like a better alternative since it helps you attain a slimmer looking body. However, from a logical neocortex train of thought, activating your transverse abdominis still seems like a better alternative since it reduces lower back pain and helps give the body structural support to attain optimal posture.

Path to fitness.

Regardless of whether you’re a Psychology major or not, the nature vs. nurture debate is probably one you’re familiar with. Although it is evident that they are both important, I think that people underestimate the influence that culture has on behavior. You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this, since this blog is supposed to be about getting fit again. It’ll all tie in I promise. Examining the culture that surrounds us is essential because our culture tends to “frame” the individual choices that we make (whether we’re conscious of it or not). Therefore, our health related behaviors arise out of the socio-cultural contexts of our environment.
 
Personally speaking, after recovering from an eating disorder five years ago, I made the decision to get fit. So I got a membership at LA Fitness and spent six days a week doing weightlifting, cardio on the treadmill, body weight exercises such as push ups. Relative to our cultural perceptions of what “fit” is, this was a seemingly logical course of action. It’s a course that most people take: becoming a gym rat who blindly does the same traditional exercises while repeating the “no pain, no gain” mantra in hopes of attaining health and wellness (and a “sexy” body).
 
For awhile, I thought I was doing great. I had a nice muscular tone, was seemingly strong for my size and was in shape to spend a grueling two weeks training with the best Muay Thai camps in Thailand (try doing intense pad work in the sauna, that’s kind of what Thailand feels like). Although people who blindly follow the “traditional” workouts might achieve results, it is most likely not sustainable for the human body in the long run. Especially when coupled with the dysfunctional stressors present in our environment.

For example, I had chronic back pain which stemmed from the fact that I spent all day sitting in school, tightening my hip flexors, and shortened my upper abdominals which contributed to an anterior pelvic tilt. However, I would still go to the gym after and place excess stress on my lumbar doing exercises like sit ups. My chronic shoulder pain stemmed from my internally rotated shoulders, since I was constantly hunched over the computer and then went to the gym to further that dysfunction when doing bench presses.

From an objective perspective, I realized something had to change in order for me to implement a fitness lifestyle that’s sustainable in the long run. I needed to make the change to my workout regimen so I can continue to train martial arts, so I can be physically healthier, but most importantly so I can live a pain free life. When one decides to abandon the current inefficient cultural paradigms, it’s essential that a better alternative exists. Luckily for me, I have Functional Patterns. And this is a documentation of my journey towards functionality and fitness, so I can hopefully one day instill relevance in others and bring value to the world.

PS: I suppose this whole post is an elaboration on how the notion of “live intentionally, not habitually” directly impacted my life 😉