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Best Exercises for Stretching the Scapular Muscles

written by: Robin Hawkins • edited by: Angela Atkinson • updated: 7/11/2011

The scapula, often called the shoulder blade, has many muscles that attach to it. These muscles are responsible for providing strength and stability to the shoulders, arms and neck. Scapular stretching exercises can help alleviate any pain and stiffness in these areas.

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    Scapular Muscles

    The various muscles that attach to the scapula work together to provide elevation, depression and rotation movements in the shoulders, arms, neck and upper back. The primary muscles involved include the trapezius, levator scapulae and the rhomboid muscles on the posterior or back side of the body, and the serratus anterior and pectoralis muscles on the anterior or front side of the body. The shoulder and neck muscles are a common source of pain for many people. Performing a variety of scapular stretching exercises can help to alleviate muscle pain and tension in these areas.

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    Levator Scapula and Trapezius Stretches

    The levator scapula muscles get their name from its primary function and where they are found in the body. These muscles originate on the first four cervical vertebrae of the neck and attach to the top medial corner of the scapula. They work to elevate the shoulders, are responsible for the inward rotation of the scapula and provide neck rotation.

    The trapezius muscle originates at the base of the skull and spans down and attaches to the scapula as well as to the end of the clavicle bone. The trapezius muscles work to extend the neck, elevate and rotate the scapula and provide stability for the arm.

    The levator scapula muscles and the trapezius muscles are located in the same general area and work together. Muscle tension in this area is a common complaint. When your shoulders feel tight, like they are hunched up or rolled slightly forward, these stretches can help alleviate the neck and shoulder tension associated with these muscles.

    Trapezius Stretch:

    • Begin in a seated position with feet placed flat on the floor.
    • With your left hand, reach up and place the palm of your hand on the top of your head. Gently pull your head down so that your left ear is being stretched towards your left shoulder.
    • Place your right hand on your right shoulder. Gently pull down on the shoulder to provide additional resistance for this stretch to the trapezius muscle.
    • Hold this stretch for twenty to thirty seconds and repeat three or four times. Repeat this stretch on the opposite side.

    The stretch for the levator scapula is quite similar to the trapezius stretch, with a couple of adjustments:

    • Begin seated, with your feet flat on the floor
    • Place the palm of your left hand on the top of your head and gently stretch so that your left ear is being stretched towards your left shoulder.
    • While the ear is down, rotate your head to the left so that you are looking towards your left shoulder. With this minor adjustment, you should feel different muscles being stretched. These are your levator scapular muscles.
    • Hold this stretch for twenty to thirty seconds, repeating three of four times. Repeat this stretch on the opposite side.
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    Scapular Retraction Exercises

    If you find yourself seated at a desk for long periods of time, or doing a lot of computer work, take some small breaks during the day to do this scapular stretching exercise. This stretch works on the pectoralis and serratus anterior muscles and can help to open up the chest, improve posture and reduce some tension in the neck and shoulder areas. It also works to strengthen the rhomboid muscles near your scapula in the mid-back.

    • Sit up straight in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
    • With relaxed shoulders, tuck your chin slightly in.
    • Clasp your hands together and place your palms on the back of your head.
    • While your elbows are straight out, press your head into your clasped hands with just enough pressure to provide resistance.
    • Slowly pull your elbows back, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
    • Repeat this stretching exercise 10 times and then several times throughout the day.
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