3 common weak muscles

Posted on September 12, 2011

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This is a continuation on some of the more common muscular length imbalances I see and how you can identify them yourself. Here’s what some common tight muscles are. On to the long ones:

 

1) Upper trapezius

Weak upper trap

I’m not exactly sure why but the upper trapezius gets a bad rap. At least in the internet world it seems doing anything working the upper traps is considered heresy and being “upper trap dominant“ consistently seems to be considered responsible for causing shoulder pain.

In actuality though, at least in my experience, the upper traps are rarely strong enough. They are often excessively lengthened and weak, especially in women.

Before you say to yourself , “But I always feel tight in that area” give this post on muscle length a read.

Pain that may be associated: Shoulder pain, neck pain.

How to self assess:

In terms of postural alignment this is covered pretty well in the above link so give that a quick read to get an idea of whether your traps are long or not.

In terms of movement, the upper traps don’t always make themselves obvious during assessment. Furthermore, doing this yourself is not quite as easy as other muscles. Don’t get discouraged though, typically just by looking at the alignment of the shoulders and upper traps you can already conclude if they need or work or not.

However, If you’d like to assess their movement lift your arms as high as you can in front of you and then bring them down. Do this a few times and watch your upper traps as well as how high you are able to bring your arms up.

Do the same thing but bring your arms up from the side.

If one of the upper traps (or both) need work you won’t see much elevation of the shoulders upward towards the ears. Rather you will see more of the final movement work being done around the back of the neck. The distinction in the movement around the neck can be found in these two videos:

Poor elevation accompanied by neck hyperextension:

 

 

Good elevation accompanied by terminal elevation by the trapezius:

 

If you are watching someone else and you watch them from the back, not only will you see the shrugging around the neck, you’ll actually see a lot of work being done by the rhomboids. This is despite the fact the rhomboids are not meant to elevate the shoulder. Rather they are meant to downwardly rotate the scapula.

In the video below you can see the difference between the left and right scapulae with the left rhomboid firing considerably. You can also see how the right shoulder elevates higher than the left:

Of course, the left shoulder is the one that gives this woman pain.

Again, this isn’t the easiest thing to spot if you don’t have a trained eye. In all honesty though, if you notice your shoulder or shoulders are hanging low and you have shoulder pain there is a very good chance your upper traps need work.

How to TIGHTEN up:

Overhead shrugs against a wall are a great exercise. Make sure when you do these though that you are trying to bring the shoulders up to the ears and not shrugging from the neck or rhomboids

Here is another video of how you don’t want to do this. Notice the muscles contracting towards the middle of the back (the spine):

 

Proper way; notice the tucked chin, how the mid-back (rhomboids) is much more relaxed than the above video while the top portion of the shoulder blade is more active. You can now see a nice upward rotation movement about the shoulder blade:

In this girl’s case the difference isn’t substantial but it’s enough that the dominant rhomboids cause her to have a chronic tight feeling around her upper back.

If you have any shoulder pain during this exercise then simply bring your arms down to a height where they don’t hurt and shrug from there until you are able to bring your arms higher.

Lastly, be aware of things that constantly pull your shoulders down during the day as well. For women, moving your bra straps closer to your neck rather than way out on your shoulders helps. Making sure not to carry purses or suitcases always on one shoulder, etc.

Other little things such as making sure the arms are propped up nicely on arm rests or pillows while sitting, typing, driving, can make a big impact as well.

 

2) Upper spinal erectors

 

hunchback kyphosis posture

We're only concerned with the mid-back to the neck here

 

Pain that may be associated: Shoulder pain and neck pain are the main two but plenty of other areas can be associated such as abdominal and mid-back too.

How to self-assess: This is a pretty easy one: If you’re walking around like a hunchback or have kyphosis of your upper back, your upper spinal erectors need work.

If you’re not quite sure you fit the bill try standing with your back on a wall and have everything from your lower back to your upper back and head against the wall. If you can’t do this and or it’s extremely hard for you, then your posture and upper spinal erectors could use some strengthening.

Note that this is in contrast to the lower spinal erectors which are typically too tight on a lot of people.


How to TIGHTEN up: The above exercises for the upper traps against a wall work great, simply standing against a wall and practicing having everything from the lower back to the upper back and head being flat against the wall. Oh, and do what your parents said: Sit/stand up straight!

 

3) External obliques

Pain that may be associated: Lower back pain, hip pain.

In my post on common tight muscles I talked about how tight lats can cause the lower back to excessively arch. When the lower back excessively arches the external obliques excessively lengthen. Therefore we want to strengthen and tighten up the external obliques to help offset the dominant lats and lower back muscles.

How to self-assess:

During standing posture and walking a noticeable excessive anterior pelvic tilt will be present:

lordosis lower back pain

Anterior pelvic tilt present on the left

 The two most common ways I assess the external obliques during movement are the same way I assess whether the lats are tight (found in the post on common tight muscles) as well as a leg raise test.

For the leg raise test lie down on your back with your arms overhead, straighten your legs upward, then lower them as low as you can. If your lower back comes off the ground at any point and you’re not able to keep it flat on the ground then the external obliques need strengthening.

Notice the lower back coming off the ground here:


By really concentrating on squeezing the external obliques she is able to keep the lower back from moving:

Because they aren’t strong enough to hold the pelvis in neutral alignment the body arches the lower back trying to use the lower back for assistance.

            Quick tangent: This is VERY common and evidence that, in at least 9 out of 10 people I see who have some history of lower back issues, their lower back does NOT need to be strengthened. In fact, everything but the lower back typically needs to be strengthened to help alleviate the lower back from having to help out during exercises, such as leg raises.

 

How to TIGHTEN up: Pretty simple here. Simply perform the arm raise and leg raise exercises but make sure the lower back doesn’t come off the ground/wall at any point.

Most importantly, walk with better posture with a neutral pelvis alignment.

On another note, don’t bother with crunches, Russian twists, or any of that other crap. Most of the typical exercises people use to work the obliques work the internal obliques more than the external obliques. Without going into too much detail, when the external obliques are weak the internal obliques are typically plenty strong, thus an imbalance is already present that will only get worse by doing things such as bicycle crunches.