Injuries: Dealing with one angry muscle

One little muscle.

Well, not that little. But it’s just one. You’d be shocked, however, at the amount of work that thing does, and how little you can do when it’s injured.

I’m talking about the trapezius. You have two of them, one on each side of your upper back, running from the base of your skull, down the spine, and flaring out toward your shoulder joint. The trapezius helps you lift things over your head, stabilizes your neck and head, and it an integral player any time your pick something up from the ground.

The trapezius. Mine was angry.

The trapezius. Mine was angry.

So I hurt mine about a month ago. I’m not sure, how, but I think it happened while performing a barbell complex exercise, and the poor thing got overtaxed, freaked out, and stayed tight as a drum for weeks. It’s just now getting better. But I learned a lot about how critical this muscle is to a lot of simple functions.

First off, the injury. Yuck. It made turning my head to the left very iffy and stiff. It’s a residual thing from my martial arts days, when my neck would get cranked when grappling. Every now and then it wants to act up again.

The good news is the injury did not stop me from running. It did slow me down some — any aggravated muscle will do that to you. Injuries tend to tax you all over, I suppose.

But the list of weightlifting exercises I couldn’t do for three weeks is rather lengthy.

No bench press. No incline presses. No deadlifts. No barbell back squats. Even things like tricep cable push-downs and chin-ups flared it up, as did a number of other, seemingly innocuous lifts you wouldn’t think included much use of the ole traps. Boy, was I wrong.

So what did I do for three weeks? I found substitute exercises and otherwise backed off.

Here are some examples…

Instead of barbell back squats, I did the leg press. No weight on the shoulders, but still some work for the thighs and glutes. I was also able to do a lot of light single-leg dumbbell moves (single-leg Romanian deadlifts, lunges), and goblet squats were still OK.

Instead of bench presses and incline presses (which were totally out), I used a seated chest press and did pec-deck flies. Not the best subs, but it was something. And it didn’t aggravate my neck.

Instead of cable push-downs, I did light single-arm triceps extensions with lots of reps. Again, not ideal. But you do what you can.

Some exercises were completely unaffected. I had no problems working biceps and calves, for example. Others, though, were just out. No barbell deadlifts, no pull-ups or chin-ups (though cable lat pulls were OK), and no isolating shoulder moves at all. And forget planking and push-ups. Face-down on a horizontal plane just means the traps had to work that much harder to keep my head stable, and my neck was having none of that.

Most importantly, though, was this one simple trick: I backed off. I knew I could run and do some lifts, but doing all the biggies had to go away for awhile until that muscle chilled out. So between the rest or light work, there was a lot of foam-rolling, postural exercises and rest.

And it worked. I’m back to a normal routine again, my left trapezius is calm, and I can turn my head to check traffic when I’m out on a run or just driving without having to turn my whole body.

So the bottom line is this: If you injure a muscle, don’t push through. Figure out what aggravates it and stop doing that. Give it time to heal. If rest isn’t enough, then maybe professional help is needed. But for the most part, a little TLC and some down time is what your body needs.

Bob Doucette


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