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Strengthening The Levator Scapulae

BY: Stephanie Ruopp

Did you know that the average human head weighs around 11 pounds? That may not seem like much. 

But for every inch the head projects forward, the weight experienced by the muscles of the neck doubles.

That’s why strengthening the levator scapulae and other muscles in the neck is essential.

Because every time you hold your head in front of your shoulders by a mere two inches – such as when working at your computer or laptop – those neck muscles are working to hold 44 pounds of weight.

And they just weren’t designed to do that.

So no wonder we’re vulnerable to neck pain. And frequently, neck pain is a result of the overuse and tightening of the levator scapulae muscles.

What Are the Levator Scapulae Muscles?

In the simplest of terms, the levator scapulae are responsible for lifting up the shoulder blades. In other words, “elevating” the “scapula.” 

But with the increasing frequency of forward head postures due to technology – a condition called “tech neck” –  we end up using the levator scapulae to hold our heads steady in that position.

The problem is, once those muscles are overworked, they have difficulty switching off. And as they continue to needlessly work, you’re left with discomfort and pain.

So it’s important to stretch and do some simple strengthening exercises such as those done in Pilates, GYROTONIC ®  and physical therapy.

Fortunately, neck pain is usually developed over time from daily activities. So once you have an awareness of the actions causing it, you can also start practicing prevention. 

Causes of Levator Scapulae Pain

We all have repetitive patterns which are demonstrated in our bodies. 

And these repetitive actions can cause muscles to be locked long or short. So sometimes, it isn’t just tightness that creates pain. It can be weakness as well. 

Aside from tech neck, levator scapulae pain can be the result of many different conditions, including:

  • Carrying a heavy bag with a shoulder straps
  • Sleeping on your stomach with your head turned
  • Whiplash 
  • Mental or emotional stress
  • Chilling of the muscle during sleep from a ceiling fan or air conditioner
  • Prolonged holding of a phone between the ear and shoulder 
  • Using crutches that are too tall

So even if you aren’t terribly involved with technology, you’re still at risk for tight or weakened levator scapulae.

Why is Levator Scapulae Strength Important?

First of all, strengthening exercises for the levator scapulae can help reverse or prevent postural problems associated with weakness in the muscle.  

This includes kyphosis. People with kyphosis are easily identified by their curved upper back, rounded shoulders, protracted shoulder blades and chin that extends forward.

Strengthening exercises for the levator scapula involve particular joint movements that activate the muscle. The three movements most often utilized are scapula elevation, cervical spine extension and lateral flexion of the cervical spine.

Scapula elevation is a movement of the shoulder girdle to elevate the shoulder blades straight upward. 

Meanwhile, cervical spine extension involves moving the chin and neck back and away from the chest, while lateral flexion of the cervical spine involves tilting the neck sideways toward either shoulder. 

Using Pilates, GYROTONIC ® and Physical Therapy

There are many Pilates, GYROTONIC ® and physical therapy exercises that involve scapular placement – scapular elevation being among them. There are also exercises for scapular depression, as well as scapular protraction and retraction.

Weighted lateral neck flexion is also utilized with the assistance of a cable pulley or machine resistance. And exercises that employ weighted neck extensions strengthen the levator scapulae through resistance to the back of the head while hyperextending the neck.

The types of exercises will depend, to some extent, on your particular situation and what the professionals recommend. 

For example, if you have raised shoulders, the levator scapula muscles are often locked short, and the muscles on the lower part of the scapulas are locked long, in this case the lower trapezius muscles. 

So your instructor or physical therapist would recommend movements that fire the lower trapezius muscles, breaking their pattern of being locked long. 

He or she might also recommend the Pilates “dart,” which works as follows:

  1. Starts on your belly, forehead touching the ground, legs straight and arms long by your sides. 
  2. Engage your core by drawing your navel in and gently pressing pubic bone toward the earth.  
  3. Without creating any tension in your low back, lift your arms and head from the floor. Be sure to lift from your middle back to extend your thoracic spine. 
  4. Keep the back of your neck long, and gaze down off your nose rather than upward. 
  5. Exhale into the movement. 
  6. Keep your hands facing your body as your fingers reach toward your toes when you lift.

You can leave the legs down or include a lift of both straight legs by using your gluteal muscles and hamstrings. Just be sure you’re not crunching into the low back. 

Weak Levator Scapulae Are a Real Pain in the Neck!

If you’re experiencing pain or tightness in the neck, you don’t have to just live with the pain. Creating awareness around your actions along with strengthening the levator scapulae can make all the difference.To talk with a qualified instructor and/or therapist about next steps, contact us today. And free yourself from tech neck! 

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