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CNA Lifestyle

Next-Level Workout: How to bolster your upper back against neck and shoulder aches

In this new eight-part series, CNA Lifestyle brings you trainer-certified moves to help you reap more results from your workouts.

To help you get out of your workout rut, CNA Lifestyle spoke to various trainers to highlight the specific exercises that will let you break out of your fitness funk. This week, we focus on the upper back or trapezius.


The trapezius consists of two wide, flat muscle that covers most of the upper back and the posterior of the neck. This pair of symmetrical muscles fans out across your upper back and extends down your back. It is one of the back’s major muscles and is responsible for extending the head backwards as well as moving, rotating, and stabilising the shoulder blade.

According to Jeff Huang, 27, fitness manager of Virgin Active at Marina One, many deskbound professionals tend to have muscle strain in the neck and shoulders, along with strained and weak trapezius muscles from looking down at their computer screens.

You also have to train the other muscles to balance or stabilise the shoulder before working on the trapezius

“Regardless of the muscle group and where it’s located, other muscles have to work harder to do the job of the weak muscles” he said. “This can lead to long-term instability in the joints, affecting the body posture and even the sleeping posture.”

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But you can’t just start cranking out the basic shoulder shrugs that many gym-goers use to target the trapezius, said Huang. “First, you have to relieve the muscle strain in the neck and upper shoulders with stretching. You also have to train the other muscles to balance or stabilise the shoulder before working on the trapezius.”

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The barbell upright row is more complicated than the shoulder shrug as it requires more movement of the shoulder joints, said Huang. “It targets most of the shoulder and upper back muscles compared to the dumbbell shoulder shrug which only uses one muscle.” When you strengthen the neck and upper back muscles, you will be able to withstand more strain and ache less, he said.

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Huang uses the EZ barbell instead of the conventional barbell to minimise strain on the wrists. For starters, go with two sets of eight repetitions. This is to familiarise yourself with the barbell upward row’s movements, and also gain a better understanding of which muscles get activated, said Huang.

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As you improve, work up to five sets of 12 reps. “You can add other exercises that can be performed directly one after another, without any rest or recovery period between them,” said Huang. “These exercises are known as supersets.”

For example, after 12 reps of the barbell upright row exercise, immediately perform 12 reps of dumbbell shoulder shrugs for one superset. Repeat these supersets for a total of five sets.

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“The amount of weights depends on the person’s size and gender as well. For those who are new to the exercise and/or are small in build, I recommend around 5kg; those with an average build can start off with 10kg,” said Huang.

Next-Level Workout is a fitness series from CNA Lifestyle. Consult your doctor before starting any training programme.

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Source: CNA/bk