The bench press is probably the most prominent chest exercise, although it does engage the traps and upper back to some extent.
With that being said, the last thing you’d expect after bench pressing is for your traps to hurt.
However, this can occur, and it can dramatically affect the amount of weight you can press.
So, allow me to explain why this occurs and what you can do to solve it.
There are various reasons why your traps hurt after bench press. Firstly, your traps and upper back muscles are heavily involved during the bench press. In fact, they are trained eccentrically when you press the barbell up. So, a particularly intense or heavy set of bench presses can be felt in your traps and upper back. Furthermore, trap pain can be caused by either squeezing your scapula too hard or not depressing the scapula prior to pressing.
Your Traps Are Involved in the Bench Press
The bench press is viewed as the “go-to” chest exercise for most lifters.
Plus, you’ll also work the shoulders and triceps too.
So, if anything’s going to hurt after bench press, you’d expect it to be one of these muscle groups.
With that being said, the upper back and traps are antagonistic muscle groups to the chest.
Therefore, they will always be involved in some way whenever you bench press.
Basically, when a muscle is contracted, the antagonistic muscle will relax, and vice versa.
However, the traps (and upper back) play a slightly more important role during bench presses.
In effect, your upper back and traps will go through eccentric training when you push the barbell away from your chest.
In fact, the amount of work your upper back and traps have to do is similar to when you lower yourself from a pull up or chin up.
So, it is perfectly natural to have sore traps when you bench press.
Obviously, this feeling will be exaggerated during a particular heavy or intense benching session.
You’re Squeezing Your Scapula Too Hard
One particular form cue for bench press is to retract the scapula.
In fact, you should actually retract and depress the scapula, but I’ll get to this in a moment.
Basically, the main joints used by the bench press are the shoulders and the elbows.
However, when you retract your shoulder blades there isn’t as much stress placed on these joints.
Additionally, retracting your shoulder blades also allows you to bench more effectively.
So, as you can see, pulling your shoulder blades back and down will not only support your joint health, but it will also make you a better bench presser.
With that being said, there is a tendency to squeeze the scapula too hard in order to get yourself into this “safe position”.
In fact, this typically occurs when you’re not used to retracting your shoulder blades.
In truth, there are various exercises which require scapula retraction.
However, if this isn’t a movement that you practice too often then you may find that you typically overdo it.
This is definitely a case of more not being better.
So, if you are squeezing your shoulder blades excessively hard during bench presses it’s likely that your traps will feel very sore afterwards.
You’re Not Depressing Your Scapula
I’ve just mentioned depressing the shoulder blades too when you bench press.
Realistically, prior to benching you want to pull your shoulder blades back and then down.
I frequently liken this to trying to tuck your shoulder blades into your back pockets.
Then again, I’ve spoken about holding an imaginary tennis ball in-between your shoulder blades.
So, it’s not just a case of pulling your shoulder blades back, but also depressing them or pulling them down.
Unfortunately, if you don’t also pull your shoulder blades down (depress them), as well as pulling them back, then you’ll engage the upper traps much more.
This isn’t actually always a problem, although it doesn’t adhere to strict form.
However, if you’re someone who doesn’t actively train your upper traps then a lack of scapula depression during bench press will leave your upper traps feeling very sore.
You Have Weak or Tight Shoulders
Even though the bench press is primarily a chest exercise, there is a great deal of work for the shoulders to do.
In fact, I’ve never been a fan of specifically training the anterior delts if you bench press regularly.
Basically, the front shoulders are worked extremely hard during bench presses.
So, if you bench press fairly often, there really isn’t any need to ever perform an exercise like front raises.
Furthermore, strong and healthy shoulders are key to a great bench press.
If your shoulders are strong and mobile you should find that you’re benching heavier, while not experiencing any pain or discomfort.
With that being said, weak or tight shoulders will impact your bench press, plus you’re more likely to feel the movement in your upper back and traps.
Personally, I truly believe that everyone should perform regular scapula retraction exercises.
A couple of my favourites include band pull aparts and face pulls.
Both these exercises are fantastic for properly learning scapula retraction and depression.
Additionally, they will help to both strengthen your shoulders and make them more mobile.
I’ve also covered additional shoulder strengthening exercises, flexibility and mobility training below in the “relieving trap pain” section.
You Have Poor Posture
The final reason that you’re having issues with your traps is down to your posture.
We now live in a society where poor posture has reached almost epidemic proportions.
And this is especially true of forward head posture.
Basically, we spend most of our day either hunched over a computer screen or staring down into a smartphone.
Unfortunately, poor posture will make its way into our everyday lives.
So, it’s not uncommon to feel certain aches and pains simply because of how we carry ourselves.
If you are someone who suffers with forward head posture then your upper back is going to be quite weak.
This is made worse during bench presses, as you’re either not used to or unable to draw your head back when you retract your shoulder blades.
This will immediately lead to soreness in the upper back and traps whenever you bench,
In fact, this also explains why many people also feel deadlifts in their lats, and are left with a sore upper back afterwards.
The solution is to spend more time working on scapula retraction and lat exercises in order to strengthen the traps and upper back.
So, you’re looking at a healthy combination of face pulls, band pull aparts, rows and pull ups to help correct your posture, while also strengthening your weak links.
That being said, I have more strengthening tips just below.
Your Guide to Relieving Bench Press Trap Pain
So, I’ve covered the main reasons your traps are hurting, but now I’d like to introduce some practical strategies to alleviate and prevent trap pain.
This will include tips for rest and recovery, stretching and foam rolling, as well as trap strengthening exercises.
Rest and Recovery Strategies
Taking Timeout from the Barbell
This might sound counterintuitive, but sometimes the best way to heal is to simply give your traps a break. Resting for a few days or even a week after a strenuous chest workout allows the muscles to repair and rebuild stronger. Remember, muscle growth happens during rest, not during exercise.
While you want to avoid heavy lifting, staying completely inactive isn’t ideal either. Light cardio activities like walking, swimming, or cycling can improve blood flow and promote healing without stressing your traps. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity most days of the week.
Ice and Heat Therapy:
Ice: In the immediate aftermath of your workout, apply ice packs to your sore traps for 15-20 minutes at a time, several times a day. This reduces inflammation and numbs the pain. Wrap the ice pack in a towel to avoid skin irritation.
Heat: After the initial inflammation subsides, switching to heat can help improve blood flow and muscle flexibility. Use a heating pad or take a warm bath to loosen up your tight traps.
Wearing compression sleeves or vests can provide support and gentle pressure to your traps, reducing pain and promoting healing. Choose breathable, comfortable garments and avoid wearing them for extended periods to prevent circulation issues.
Bonus Tip: Sleep is your superpower! Aim for 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night to give your body the time it needs to rebuild and recover.
Stretching and Foam Rolling for Trap Pain Relief
Gere’s a breakdown of the targeted stretches and mobility work you should be doing.
- Gently roll your head in a circular motion, slowly moving forward and backward for 10 repetitions each direction.
- Focus on lengthening the sides of your neck and avoid pushing your chin towards your chest.
- Hold each end of the roll for 5-10 seconds for an added stretch.
Doorway Chest Openers
- Stand in a doorway with your arms on either side, elbows bent at 90 degrees.
- Lean forward gently, pressing your chest and forearms against the doorframe.
- Hold for 30-60 seconds, feeling a gentle stretch across your chest and upper back, including the mid-traps.
- You can vary the intensity by leaning further forward or adjusting the height of your hands.
- Sit or stand tall with your shoulders relaxed.
- Slowly tuck your chin down towards your chest, as if making a double chin.
- Hold for 5 seconds, then slowly release and repeat 10 times.
- This stretch targets the deeper fibers of the upper traps and helps improve neck posture.
- Start on all fours with your hands shoulder-width apart and knees hip-width apart.
- As you inhale, arch your back and look up, dropping your belly towards the floor (cow).
- As you exhale, round your back and tuck your chin to your chest (cat).
- Repeat 10-15 times, focusing on smooth transitions between the two positions.
- This stretch helps mobilize the entire spine and release tension in the upper back, including the trapezius muscles.
- Stand tall with your arms relaxed at your sides.
- Make small, slow circles with your arms, forward and backward, for 10 repetitions each direction.
- Gradually increase the size of the circles as you feel comfortable.
- This gentle movement helps loosen up the shoulder joint and surrounding muscles, reducing tension in the traps.
Use a foam roller or massage ball to target specific trigger points in the upper and mid-traps.
Apply gentle pressure and roll slowly back and forth over the tender areas for 30-60 seconds.
Breathe deeply and relax your muscles as you roll.
Avoid applying excessive pressure or bouncing on the roller, as this can irritate the muscles.
Focus on areas around the base of your neck, along the shoulder blades, and near the top of your spine.
- Warm up your muscles before stretching or foam rolling with light cardio or dynamic stretches.
- Perform these routines daily or several times a day, especially after bench press workouts, to maintain flexibility and prevent future pain.
- Listen to your body and stop if you experience any sharp pain.
Strengthening Exercises for Trap Pain Relief
Strengthening the muscles surrounding the traps can provide stability and support, reducing their workload and minimizing pain.
Here are three key exercises to target.
I’ve already mentioned the importance of face pulls above, but here’s a closer look.
- Target muscles: Posterior deltoids, rhomboids, middle traps
- Equipment: Cable machine with rope attachment
- Benefits: Improves shoulder retraction, strengthens rear deltoids, promotes proper scapular movement
- Set the cable pulley slightly above head height. Attach the rope handle and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Grasp the handles with palms facing each other and lean back slightly, maintaining a slight bend in your knees.
- Engage your core and retract your shoulder blades, pulling the handles towards your face until your elbows reach roughly 90 degrees.
- Hold for a second at the peak contraction, then slowly release back to the starting position.
- Perform 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions.
- Focus on using your shoulder blades to pull, not your biceps.
- Keep your elbows slightly higher than your wrists throughout the movement.
- Avoid shrugging your shoulders during the pull.
- Target muscles: Rhomboids, middle traps, posterior deltoids
- Equipment: Dumbbells or resistance bands
- Benefits: Improves scapular retraction and upward rotation, strengthens upper back muscles, promotes postural alignment
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing inwards.
- Start with your arms straight down by your sides and elbows slightly bent.
- Raise your arms simultaneously in a “Y” shape, keeping your elbows slightly higher than your wrists.
- Reach your hands towards the ceiling, squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top.
- Slowly lower your arms back down to the starting position in a controlled “W” motion.
- Perform 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions.
- Maintain a slight bend in your elbows throughout the movement.
- Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top of the Y.
- Avoid using momentum to swing the weights.
- Target muscles: Core, shoulders, traps
- Equipment: Bodyweight or exercise mat
- Benefits: Enhances core stability and strength, improves posture, supports proper scapular positioning
- Start in a high plank position with your hands shoulder-width apart and your body in a straight line from head to heels.
- Engage your core and keep your glutes and abdominal muscles tight.
- Hold the plank for as long as you can maintain good form, aiming for at least 30 seconds.
- You can try different variations like side planks, high knees on plank, or alternating arm planks to increase the challenge and target different muscle groups.
- Keep your back flat and avoid arching your lower back.
- Look down at the floor in front of you to maintain a neutral neck position.
- Breathe deeply and evenly throughout the hold.
So, I hope you understand that the traps, as well as the upper back, are involved in the bench press.
Basically, they are antagonistic muscles, which will be worked eccentrically whenever you press the barbell away from your chest.
You should retract your scapula when you bench press, but squeezing your shoulder blades back too hard can result in sore traps.
With that being said, sore traps after bench press could be down to having weak or tight shoulders, or poor posture.
However, these issues can typically be solved by having more concentration of scapula retraction and upper back exercises.
Now that your traps are sorted it’s time to pump up your pecs.
Discover the benefits to adding a pause at the bottom of your bench press.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.