Written by Nash Woods

       The lifestyle choices that we make condition us to a particular pattern of movement that often are cause to imbalances or restrictions to our full potential function. Despite the fact that CrossFit has brought broad and varied fitness to all, traditional CrossFit programming has lead to signature deficiencies in many athletes that must be addressed. The vast majority of CrossFit movements could, hypothetically speaking, be performed in a telephone booth – they involve moving load and body up and down. This overuse of what is known as the sagittal plain leaves out training in other planes – forward, backward, side-to-side and rotation. One of the imbalances caused by this phenomena is the overuse and overdevelopment of the upper portion of the trapezius muscle. Look at any seasoned CrossFit-er and the signature large “traps” will likely be very apparent. Despite aesthetic appeal or preference, however, this overdevelopment of the upper trap muscle can be a primary factor contributing to shoulder pain or injury as a result of poor positioning. If this sounds familiar, here are a few ways to address this issue: 

Bar/Ball Trap Smash 

       If the surrounding tissues are tight, the scapula are inhibited in their ability to use other musculature aside from the trap to stabilize the shoulder. The trap smash can be performed with either a ball or barbell in order to loosen tissue and restore safe range of motion to the shoulder, especially in an overhead position. 

       Place a barbell on top of the trap, perpendicular to your torso so that it crosses your body front to back. In order to maximize the “smash”, you can even load the bar and perform this exercise from a rack. Once you have adjusted to adequate pressure, you should search for areas that feel most tense, identified by a greater sense of discomfort or pain. Once you find the target area, you will need to move the muscle against the barbell in order to break apart the matted tissue. This movement can be achieved by changing head position or moving your arm through it’s end range in all direction. 

       This same mobilization technique can be performed with a ball similar in size to a softball by leaning into a wall with the ball placed between the trap muscle and wall, although this practice is a little more challenging. Just like with the barbell, however, you should be searching for any areas that are more tense, tack the tissue down and create movement by moving your head and changing position of your arm and body. 

Biceps and Triceps Openers

       Loosening the upper trap is only a small part of fixing shoulder position. If the movement patterns that caused the upper trap to be overdeveloped continue, then no amount of passive mobilization and smashing will mend the problem in the long term. The key to making sure that the upper trap stays functional is to ensure that the rest of the musculature that stabilize the shoulders are developed properly. Integrating the biceps and triceps openers is an active approach to mobility in which the goal is to create new range of motion through tension, thus creating more functional and “usable” end ranges.  These “openers” were created by Julien Pineau, founder of StrongFit and master of movement,  to help individuals improve their proprioception and mobility.


Lat Development 

        The upper trap is countered by the lower trap and latissimus dorsi muscle, or the “lat.” The upward pull created by overdevelopment in the upper trap can be a leading cause of pain and dysfunction in the shoulder and the development of its antagonists are essential to restore proper function and reduce risk of injury. 

The simple rules to follow in a rope pull are to keep the torso horizontal to the floor and maintain a palms-up position in the hands as one hand reaches over the other.  

       Hand-over-hand rope pulls are a simple, yet highly effective, exercise to engage the lats with little direction needed to perform the exercise correctly.  Performed at a high level of intensity, this exercise works well due to the fact that as fatigue sets in, lat engagement will increase and its effectiveness becomes better, not worse. 

       Bent-over barbell or dumbbell rows, as well as land-mine rows, are more technical movements, but an individual with a decent amount of proprioception can use them to build an excellent amount of strength in the mid back.

Photo 1, Left: Bottom position of land-mine row (lat engaged, hip hinge with flat spine) Photo 2, Center: Poor top position (shrugged shoulder, upper trap dominant) Photo 3, Right: Good top position (lats and lower traps engaged, relaxed trap) Similar points of performance and engagement apply to a barbell or dumbbell row. 

     Our shoulders were made to function – to push and pull are basic matters of being human. If you experience shoulder pain, you’re not alone, but it doesn’t have to be something that robs you of your humanity. Before you hang up the towel to having “bad shoulders,” recognize the deficiencies that perhaps you’ve adapted through your choices of movement pattern and take the necessary steps to find balance and restore your body to pain-free, fundamental range of motion. If you do CrossFit and you’ve begun to experience shoulder pain, regularly practice and implement these given exercises and find functional freedom.