Levator Scapulae Exercises & Stretches

Levator Scapulae Trigger Points

Testing for Levator Scapulae Muscle Issues:

  • Visual Test: usually obvious to see.  People who walk around with a forward head tilt generally have soreness or pain in the Levator Scapula.
  • Compensation Test: if you ask a client to look over their shoulder … do they rotate their head first or do they rotate their body first.  If the latter… they generally have problems with levator scapula.

Function of the Levator Scapulae

Well it raises (e.g. levitates) the scapula.  However, and more importantly, if the shoulders are held down, it pulls the head backwards (posterior) during flexion (e.g. contraction.)  Since it’s a natural tendency of people to raise their shoulders when they are stressed, people with stressful lives often have pain in the levator scapulae.  Such people should get myofascial release, trigger point release, or plain old massage therapy of this muscle to relax the muscles.  Clinically, we have often found the acupuncture is very effective at releasing this muscle as well especially for people who have their shoulders in a chronic upwards. position.

As with most muscles groups, the levator scapulae works with other muscle groups… most notably the trapezious and scalenes.

Notable Complications:

If you notice that the client’s neck is twisted (e.g. rotated) to the left or the right, the problem is more likely related to the SCM.  All things being the same, I would probably treat the SCM first before working on the Levator Scapulae if I find a client has a wry neck.

Common Functional Symptoms:

  • Pain and stiffness in the back on the shoulders.  Often mistaken for sore traps.

Notable causes of pain:

  • sleeping on the stomach with the head turned (my personal favorite position, and I’ve had pain from this.)
  • snapping motions like whiplash
  • any bad postural positions so as watching tv or computer work with the head rotated.
  • talking on the phone using your shoulder to hold the phone.
  • messenger bags or heavy purses!  One strap isn’t good!  Backpacks people.
  • But the biggest culprit a forward headposture from computer work or iphone usage.


The Levator Scapulae is found on the back of the neck.  It generally extends from behind ears and trails into the tops of the shoulders.  More technically it attaches near the C1-C3 vertebrae on top and to the superior angle of scapulae (e.g. top part) for the bottom attachment point.  There is one Levator Scapulea on each side of the neck.  Note, the Levator Labii Superioris Alaeque Nasi is a different muscle with it’s own function and systems.

Assisted Release Technique
One trouble with treating the Levator Scapulae is that lies underneath the trapezious muscle — making it hard to reach in terms of palpations or release techniques.  To distinguish the two, pain from the trapezious generally refers pain upwards, while pain from the levator scapulae refers pain locally (closer to the scapulae.)

The challenge in releasing the trigger point for the levator scapulae is that it’s underneath the trapezious.  So you using a pinch grip, you need to lift the trapezious and press underneath the trapezious to massage/palpate the muscle.  It’s also helpful to the client tilt their gently towards the side you are working to relax the trapezious.  Additionally, since their is an anterior and posterior attachment point working from the front and the back is recommended to alleviate all symptoms.

Levator Scapulae Exercises
The most basic exercise is the dumbbell or hex bar shrug. In addition, movements like the Medball clean, upright row, sumo deadlift high pull, all work the levator scapulae. Any exercise that raise the scapula with the head staying back will work this muscle group.
Self Levator Scapulae Stretches
If we want to stretch the right levator scapulae, we tilt our head to the left, tuck the left, and rotate to the left.  It’s helpful to keep the right scapula anchored down (so hold the back of a chair behind you — or have some hold your hand down behind your back)

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