Behind The Neck Press – The Real Truth

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What’s surprising in the Strength and fitness world today is that, the exercises which once formed the base of training for the old school strongmen and athletes, are now found to be dangerous and injury prone. One exercise, which tops this list, is the good old, Behind the Neck Press, and other exercises like behind the neck lat pulldown, or behind the neck pullups.

Behind the neck press was 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.

Acc. to a detailed study on avoiding shoulder injury during resistance training:

  • The glenohumeral joint in our shoulder is very mobile but lacks bony congruency, rendering it vulnerable to excessive laxity (hyperlaxity) or instability. In simple terms, this joint has a relative lack of bony constraint, and it relies heavily on the surrounding soft tissue envelope for static and dynamic stability.
  • And this excessive laxity and instability can occur as a result of traumatic injury, or a gradual loosening of ligaments. Joint hyperlaxity involves excessive mobility without the presence of pain, whereas painful and uncontrollable excessive joint movement characterizes joint instability.
  • Repeated stretching of ligamentous-capsular restraints increases the likelihood of permanent elongation (acquired ligamentous laxity) and injury. If a ligament or capsule is loosened significantly, surgery may be necessary to restore stability.
  • When the static glenohumeral ligaments are excessively lax or unstable, the rotator cuff muscles are thought to exert greater force to stabilize the humeral head. This dynamic compensation often results in fatigue followed by rotator cuff tendonitis and pain.
  • That’s why exercises that impart significant stresses to the glenohumeral ligaments should be avoided, particularly if pre-existing instability or hyperlaxity is present. Examples of common exercises that put the glenohumeral joint in the “at-risk” position (external rotation combined with abduction and horizontal abduction) include the latissimus pull-down performed behind the neck, the shoulder press performed behind the neck, the wide-grip bench press, and the pectoralis fly.
  • Exercises commonly performed behind the neck (e.g., shoulder press and latissimus pull-down) should be performed with the elbows approximately 30deg anterior to the shoulder to decrease stress to the anterior glenohumeral joint.
  • Another exercise which the researchers in the study told to beware about is the barbell back squat. During the back squat the shoulder is maintained in an externally rotated, abducted, and horizontally abducted position. Clients with glenohumeral anterior hyperlaxity or instability should be instructed to either use a modified center of mass bar or perform a front squat instead.
  • The wide-grip flat bench press (barbells or dumbbells) or the seated machine chest press should be modified to avoid excessive horizontal abduction. Cases of bilateral anterior shoulder dislocation during bench pressing have been reported as a result of the horizontal abduction stress on the anterior glenohumeral ligaments combined with heavy resistance. Excessive horizontal abduction during the bench press can be avoided by limiting hand spacing to 1.5 times the shoulder width, placing a cushion or roll on the chest, or using a range of motion (ROM) limiting stop on a machine or self-spotting rack.
  • Like the bench press, hand spacing during push-ups should also be limited to reduce horizontal abduction. An alternative technique for performing a push-up using a standard weight bench.
  • Another common strengthening exercise for the anterior shoulder and chest musculature is the pectoralis fly. Excessive horizontal abduction should be avoided when performing this exercise in order to minimize anterior capsular distention. This can be accomplished by instructing clients to initiate the movement with their elbows slightly in front of their shoulders (scapular plane) and to maintain their elbows below shoulder level throughout the movement. The elbows should be kept below shoulder level to reduce shear across the subacromial space, which may irritate the rotator cuff tendons and bursa.

But this study, also covers a range of other exercises, which need to be modified or prevented totally.

A study, 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, without back support.

Though there was 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 the joint. Because the study highlighted the issue of shoulder mobility or ROM, which can pose as a restriction for this movement.

A 2022 study, compared the muscles excitation during overhead press performed with the barbell passing in front or behind the head or using a shoulder press machine. Eight competitive bodybuilders performed in random order front (front-BMP) or back barbell military press (back-BMP), and front (front-MSP) with neutral handgrip or back machine shoulder press (back-MSP).

Study found that, performing back overhead press enhances the excitation of medial and posterior and partly anterior deltoid, while front overhead favours pectoralis major. Overhead press performed using barbell excites muscles more than using machine to stabilize the trajectory of the external load. Different variations of overhead press appear to provide different stimuli to the shoulder muscles and may be used accordingly during the training routine.

Let’s see what the experts have said:

  • Acc. to Joseph Horrigan, qualified Chiropractor, “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.”

  • Strength coach, Christian 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.

So, what’s the final take?:

  • It’s the not the movement, it’s the individual.
  • The behind-the-neck press requires more shoulder range of motion. 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.

A more serious injury with this exercise more than most other move is disk protrusion, or herniation, in the neck. 

  • It’s a good lift, but it’s not for everyone. If you have any neck problems, either don’t use it or stop using it. If you have shoulder pain, it may help you or cause you more pain, depending on which shoulder problem you have. Strengthening the rotator cuff may enable you to perform the lift.
  • If you possess healthy shoulders and a proper mobility, then you can start with light behind-the-neck presses and build up to heavier sets over time.

Here are the following points to be kept in mind while you perform the movement:

  • Start practising 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, and line-up the exercise later in the workout.
  • Avoid getting the bar all the way down to the neck. Preferably, stop the bar, when the elbows are in line with the shoulder.