What’s surprising in the Strength and fitness world today is that the exercises which formed the base of training for the old school strongmen and athletes are now being termed as dangerous and injury-prone. One exercise, which tops this list, is the good old, Behind the Neck Press.
Behind the neck press was one of the most powerful shoulder exercises and a staple movement in the routine of yesteryear bodybuilders and strength athletes. Lately, this movement had been termed dangerous and is altogether banned from various gyms and sports workouts.
In a 2015 study in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, Australian Researchers M. McKean & B. Burkett compared the two overhead pressing techniques i.e. front of the head and behind the neck press, in 33 subjects who performed the movements in a sitting position. Though there was a difference seen in male and female spine movement during the testing, however, both front and behind the neck presses were found to be safe and effective exercises, when performed on subjects with normal trunk stability and ideal shoulder ROM. The trunk stability is required to stabilize the posture of the spine, especially during seated overhead presses, without a back support.
We need to understand that it was never the movement which is the problem, it’s you who may be the issue. For e.g. if your normal ‘S’ shaped spine has turned into a ‘C’ shaped spine, i.e. you have a hunchback or rounded shoulders, then you first need to work on getting the posture correct. In such a case, any of the shoulder presses may be an issue with you.
On the other hand, if you have good shoulder mobility and have no shoulder injury or a history of an injury, then behind the neck press is absolutely fine for you. A simple way is to perform the movement and see in case it is giving your shoulder joint any form of discomfort. In fact, behind the neck press may be a better way to assess any underlying shoulder issue.
Author of the book Optimal Muscle Training, Ken Kinakin says, “Pressing the bar from behind the head: This puts maximal stress on the cervical muscles and disks and increases the risk of cervical disk herniation and stresses the shoulder capsule. The benefit is that the elbows are forced to be in line with shoulders, which puts maximal stress on all the shoulders. Excellent shoulder flexibility is needed to get the bar behind the neck.”
Writer Joseph Horrigan, writes in the magazine Ironman, “The bar travels a shorter distance than it does during military presses. The behind-the-neck press requires more shoulder range of motion, however. It requires external rotation of the shoulder—so you can get the bar behind your head—and scapular retraction, which is pulling your shoulders back. If your pecs are tight, your shoulders will be rounded forward to varying degrees. The tightness will limit your ability to externally rotate your shoulders and also limit your ability to retract your shoulder blades. Those limits can produce shoulder pain from an excessive strain on the rotator cuff tendons or bursitis under the roof of the shoulder.”
Writer Sean Nalewanyj writes, in the behind the neck press “in order to move your upper arms into the proper position to execute the lift, your shoulders must be placed into an extreme externally rotated position. This forces the subscapularis (one of the four rotator cuff muscles) into an overly stretched position.”
Strength coach, Christian Thibaudeau, “Among the three main pressing options – barbell press from the front, behind the neck barbell press, and dumbbell press – the behind the neck press has a significantly greater activation of all three heads of the delt.”
The standard military press and the overhead dumbbell presses hits more of the anterior head of the deltoid, which is often stimulated a lot even during the bench press. Behind the neck press, on the other hand, stimulates all the three heads of the shoulder, especially the posterior delt. It also recruits the triceps, lateral delts, traps, and rhomboids.
Thibaudeau gives an example of the world-renown weightlifter Dmitry Klokov, who did all kinds of behind the neck presses i.e. narrow grip, wide grip, strict grip, push presses. In fact, a wide grip behind the neck press is called the Klokov press. On the other hand, Klokov has been doing more of behind the neck presses, after he had suffered a shoulder injury. And, mind you, Klokov lifts mind-boggling weight in all his lifts.
A number of famous powerlifters, weightlifters and bodybuilders have extremely heavy behind the neck presses, as the main movement during their workouts. Reg Park, Arnold, Franco Columbu, Serge Nubret, Sergio, etc. all loved this age-old sweetheart. The first person to break the 700-pound bench press barrier was Ted Arcidi, who used 400 pounds on the behind the neck press. Ed Coan performed the same amount at 217lbs. bodyweight. Former Olympic weightlifter-turned-professional wrestler Mark Henry also went over 400 pounds on the lift.
Coach Charles Poliquin stated that someone should have healthy enough shoulders to be able to behind the neck press 66% of what they bench. According to Poliquin, it was Ed Coan who once said that improving the strength in behind the neck presses is the key to break the plateau in bench press strength.
Here are the following points to be kept in mind while you perform the movement:
– Start practicing for the movement with a light empty barbell or even better, a hollow pipe.
– Do not grip the bar with an extremely wide grip or too narrow grip. Keep the elbows at 90deg to the bar.
– Your elbows should be directly under the bar, not flared in or out.
– Do not give a jerky movement and when you get the bar down, below parallel, if your shoulder is not mobile enough, don’t force the bar down.
– If you feel a pinch in the shoulder even with an empty bar, then better remain off this movement. So, it’s not that too much weight will be an issue in behind the neck press. It’s actually any weight which causes joint discomfort.
– Don’t do the movement as the first movement in your workout schedule. Let the shoulders get warmed up properly.
– Avoid getting the bar all the way down to the neck. In case you have been performing this movement for a long time and are confident of the same, please go ahead. But for beginners, or injury-prone guys and girls, just stop with the bar, slightly close to the bottom position.
– If you have an injury, or great discomfort while doing shoulder presses, then avoid barbells altogether. Try doing the movement with dumbbells.