Strengthening Exercises for the Levator Scapulae

The levator scapulae assists in pulling exercises.
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The levator scapulae is a relatively small muscle that lies along the backside of the neck and connects to the upper back. The primary purpose of the muscle is to lift and stabilize the scapulae, or shoulder blades. The levator scapulae works in conjunction with other muscles of the back to help you shrug or carry heavy items. Exercises for this muscle involve the trapezius, a triangular-shaped muscle of the upper back, as well.


The levator scapulae lifts the shoulder blades, as when you are shrugging your shoulders. The basic dumbbell shrug trains this action and strengthens the levator scapulae along with the trapezius. To do the move, stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand alongside the outside of your thighs. Draw your shoulders straight up to your ears and then lower them back down to complete one repetition. Variations of the exercise use a barbell or cable machine to perform the same action.


Although the primary muscle used during the pullup is the latissimus dorsi, the broad muscle at the back of the ribs, the levator scapulae provides significant assistance. Stand behind a pullup bar and grasp it with an overhand, shoulder-width or slightly wider grip. Contract your abdominal muscles as you use your back to pull your body up toward the bar until your chin clears it. Lower down with control to complete one repetition. If you cannot complete a pullup, use an assisted pullup machine which supports some of your weight, or have a spotter hold your legs. Lat pulldowns done with a lever machine or cable also engage the levator scapulae as an assisting muscle and can be an alternative to full pullups.

Lateral Raises

You should also train the stabilizing functions of the levator scapulae with an exercise such as lateral raises. Stand and hold a dumbbell in each hand alongside your thighs. Bend your elbows slightly and hinge a bit forward from your hips with bent knees. Lift your upper arms up and out to the sides so the elbows come to shoulder height. Lower to the starting position to complete one repetition.


Perform exercises that emphasize the levator scapulae at least two times per week as part of your overall back workout that includes additional moves such as rows. Start with just one set of each exercise, sticking to eight to 12 repetitions with a weight that feels heavy enough to make the last few reps hard to complete with good form. Over the course of several weeks or months, increase the weight and/or number of sets to build greater strength. Leave at least 48 hours between workouts for the back and levator scapulae to allow the muscles to grow and repair.

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