Behind The Neck Press

For a long time, many athletes and trainers considered the behind the neck press an off-limits exercise. However, the potential benefits of this exercise on muscle strengthening and shoulder mobility (when performed correctly) outweigh the possible risks.

In this article, we will provide insights into reducing injury risk while performing the behind the neck press. We’ll also cover potential benefits and offer recommendations on who can safely perform this exercise.

How To Do

  1. Stand with a barbell racked at shoulder height in front of you.
  2. Grab the barbell with an overhand grip (palms facing forward) slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Lift the barbell off the rack and take a step back.
  4. Engage your core and maintain a neutral spine as you lift the barbell over your head.
  5. Press the barbell upwards until your arms are fully extended above your head.
  6. Slowly lower the barbell behind your neck as far as you can.
  7. Control the descent to avoid any sudden drops.
  8. At the bottom, squeeze your shoulders behind your back and keep your elbows bent and pointing downward.
  9. Engage your core and maintain a neutral spine as you lift the barbell over your head again.
  10. Repeat as necessary.

Tips From Expert

  • Only lower the bar as far as you’re able to while still maintaining proper posture. Even if you’re only able to lower the bar as far as the back of your head, that’s okay.
  • Resist looking up at the bar when during the lifting phase of the movement. This will help you maintain a neutral spine and neck position.
  • Maintain a neutral position through the wrist to prevent strains.
  • You need good shoulder mobility to be able to do this exercise without risk of injury — make sure to do a good warm-up.
  • Don’t draw your head forward to be able to clear your head with the barbell.

Optimal Sets and Reps

Below, we’ve provided a guide depicting the appropriate number of reps and sets to perform based on your training style.

Training Type Sets Reps
Strength Training 3–5 1–6
Hypertrophy 3–4 8–12
Endurance Training 2–3 15–20
Power Training 3–5 1–5 (Explosive)

How to Put in Your Workout Split

The behind the neck press is shown to improve strength and range of motion through the shoulders and upper back.

However, it requires ample flexibility through the shoulders. Therefore, before attempting the behind the neck press, it’s important to warm up your upper body. This will help you reduce injury risk by executing this exercise with proper form.

From there, you can add the behind the neck press to your workout using the following workout splits:

  • Upper Body Split — After an adequate warm-up, try incorporating the behind the neck press with other upper body exercises. Additional exercise options include bench presses, bent-over rows, bicep curls, and tricep extensions.
  • Push/Pull Split — The behind the neck press is considered a push exercise. It can be performed alongside exercises like bench presses, shoulder presses, tricep dips, and push-ups. Follow your push day with a pull day.
  • Full Body Split — If you’re short on time, full-body workouts can be an effective option for fast-tracking your workout. Combine the behind the neck press with squats, bench presses, bent-over rows, and deadlifts to strengthen the major muscle groups.

Other things to consider when building your workout routine are weight and rest. Depending on your workout style, it may be advantageous to lift heavier and rest for longer, or vice versa.

Strength Training Focus

  • Weight: Heavy, 80%–100% of 1RM.
  • Rest: Two to three minutes between sets.

Hypertrophy Training Focus

  • Weight: Moderate to heavy, 60%–80% of 1RM.
  • Rest: 60–90 seconds between sets.

Endurance Training Focus

  • Weight: Light to moderate, 40%–60% of 1RM.
  • Rest: 30–60 seconds between sets.

Power Training Focus

  • Weight: Heavy, 80%–90% of 1RM.
  • Rest: Two to three minutes between sets.

Primary Muscle Groups

Anterior Deltoid

Muscles located at the front of your shoulder region

Lateral Deltoid

Muscles located at the side of your shoulder which gives your shoulders a rounded appearance.

Anterior Deltoid 

The anterior deltoid, commonly referred to as the front deltoid, is the front portion of the deltoid muscle. The deltoid is a muscle comprised of three parts and makes up the bulk of the shoulder.

During the lifting phase of the behind the neck press, the anterior deltoid has a muscle activation rate of 100%. It is less involved in the lowering phase, but can still be up to 60% active as you lower the weight.

The main role of the anterior deltoid is to assist in shoulder flexion, which involves lifting the arm forward. In other exercises, the anterior deltoid helps internally rotate the arm bone, but not during the behind the neck press.

Instead, during the behind the neck press, the main role of the anterior deltoid is to aid shoulder stability. It helps keep the shoulder joint in the correct position, preventing unwanted movements during the lifting and lowering phases.

Lateral Deltoid

The lateral deltoid, also known as the middle deltoid, is the middle portion of the deltoid muscle. It is responsible for shoulder abduction, which is the movement of lifting the arm out to the side.

The lateral deltoid is one of the main muscles activated during the behind the neck press. It has up to an 85% muscle activation rate during this exercise. Free-weight shoulder presses, like the behind the neck press, are extremely effective for building strength in the lateral deltoids.

During the lifting phase, the lateral deltoid works to lift your arms out to the side and up. This muscle engagement is crucial for the initial phase of the lift where the arms move away from the body.

The lateral deltoid continues to work throughout the movement to stabilize the shoulder joint and control the motion, ensuring the barbell moves in a straight line overhead.

Secondary Muscle Groups

Clavicular Head of Pectoralis Major

Muscles located at the top of your chest, running from your armpit to collar bone. Smaller portion of your chest muscle.

Serratus Anterior

Small, fan shaped muscle that lies deep under your chest and scapula.

Upper Trapezius

Triangular shaped muscles located between your neck and shoulder blades.

Triceps Lateral Heads

Muscles located on the back of your arm between your shoulder and elbow.

Triceps Medial Heads

Small muscles located at the back of your arms. Deep to the triceps long heads between the shoulder and elbow.

Triceps Long Heads

Large muscles located at the back of your arms between your shoulder and elbow. Most outside portion of the tricep.

Clavicular Head

The clavicular head is one of the muscles making up the pectoralis major muscle; the largest muscle group in the chest. It originates from the collar bone and connects to the upper arm bone.

During the behind the neck press, the clavicular head of the pectoralis major muscle plays a supporting role in stabilizing the shoulder joint.

Serratus Anterior

The serratus anterior is a muscle that spans the ribs on the side of the chest and connects to the shoulder blade (scapula).

During the behind the neck press, the serratus anterior is involved in several ways. Namely, it stabilizes the scapula against the torso. It’s also highly involved in both the lifting and lowering phase of the barbell, helping to absorb the load and maintain shoulder alignment.

Triceps Lateral Heads

The triceps are a group of three muscles located on the back of the upper arm. The lateral head is located on the outer side of the upper arm.

During the pressing movement of the behind the neck press, the deltoids are primarily targeted. However, this movement also significantly involves the triceps — namely the lateral head.

During the lifting phase of the behind the neck press, the lateral heads are activated to push the barbell upwards. They also help stabilize the elbow joint, ensuring a smooth and controlled movement.

Triceps Medial Heads

The medial head is another one of the tricep muscles. It’s located on the back of the upper arm and lies underneath the long head.

The medial heads work in conjunction with the other tricep muscles to press the barbell during the lifting phase. They also help to stabilize the elbow joint.

Triceps Long Heads

The final muscle of the tricep muscle group is the long head which is the largest of the three parts. It runs along the back of the upper arm and connects to the shoulder blade.

Unlike the other two tricep muscles, the long head of the triceps plays a role in stabilizing the shoulder joint. This is because it is the only one of the muscles that connects to the shoulder blade.

During the behind the neck press, the long head helps maintain shoulder stability. It also assists in the start of the lift when the arms move from behind the neck to overhead.

The triceps brachii muscle group has an 85% muscle activation rate during the lifting phase of the behind the neck press.

Upper Trapezius

The trapezius muscle is a large muscle that extends across most of the back of the neck and shoulders. As you might guess, the upper trapezius is the uppermost part of the trapezius muscle.

The upper trapezius is less activated than the other muscles involved in the behind the neck press. However, it still have a muscle activation rate of 25%–50% during the lifting and lowering phases.

During the lifting phase of the behind the neck press, the upper trapezius helps raise the shoulder blades. This raising motion is crucial for allowing a full range of motion in the shoulders. It enables the barbell to be lifted from behind the neck to an overhead position.

Equipment

Barbell

Barbell

You can use this for a range of arm exercises. Ensure the seat is at the right height. A good alternative would be the incline bench.

Variations

Exercises that target the same primary muscle groups and require the same equipment.

Who Should Do It?

Office Workers

Office workers often spend long hours seated during their working hours. This can lead to poor posture, muscle imbalances, and pain, particularly in the shoulders and upper back. The behind-the-neck press can help to counteract some of the negative effects of prolonged sitting.

The movement helps strengthen the lateral and posterior deltoids, which are often underdeveloped in people who sit for long periods. 

Regularly practicing the behind-the-neck press can also increase the range of motion (ROM) in the shoulders. Improved shoulder ROM can counteract the stiffness and limited mobility caused by prolonged sitting.

Athletes

External rotation through the shoulder joint is an important movement for many athletes, especially those who practice overhand throwing movements. However, studies show that many athletes gain external rotation strength at a slower pace than internal rotation strength.

The behind-the-neck press targets the deltoids, particularly the lateral and posterior deltoids, and the upper trapezius and triceps. These are some of the main muscles involved in external rotation through the shoulder.

Because of this, strengthening these muscles can enhance external rotation through the shoulders and arms, subsequently improving athletic ability.

Who Should Not Do It?

People With Poor Shoulder Mobility

Shoulder impingement happens as the result of the rotator cuff tendons becoming irritated and swollen. Poor shoulder mobility can increase the risk of impingement when working out.

During the behind-the-neck press, poor form because of limited shoulder mobility can lead to shoulder joint compression. This can place excessive strain on the rotator cuff muscles and tendons and increase the risk of potential pain and injury.

Individuals with poor shoulder mobility should work to mobilize the shoulder joint before attempting the behind-the-neck press. Single-arm shoulder presses can be an effective option for building strength and mobility in the shoulder girdle.

Beginners

It is a complex movement that requires foundational strength in the upper back, core, and shoulders. This makes it a difficult exercise option for people who are just starting their fitness journey. 

Beginners wanting to reap the benefits of the behind-the-neck press should do so alongside a certified personal trainer. Experienced trainers can correct form and provide variations like the seated behind-the-neck press, which is better for beginners.

Individuals Rehabilitating A Rotator Cuff Injury

During the neck press, the rotator cuff is actively involved, playing an important stabilizing role. Rotator cuff injuries are extremely common, especially in aging adults, and can take up to 12 months to rehabilitate. Approximately 30% of adults aged over 60 have a rotator cuff tear.

The behind-the-neck press requires mobility through the shoulders and places a significant load on the shoulder joint. Because of this, pre-existing injuries to the rotator cuff can be aggravated during this movement.

This can exacerbate an existing shoulder injury, worsening inflammation, pain, and the overall condition. Pre-existing shoulder injuries should be rehabilitated alongside a physical therapist before attempting a behind-the-neck press.

Benefits Of The Behind The Neck Press 

Functional Upper Body Strength

Functional upper body strength refers to the ability to perform everyday activities and movements efficiently and safely. This includes things like lifting, pushing, pulling, and carrying objects.

Strength training has been shown to have monumental effects on improving functional strength. Moreover, it effectively strengthens many of the muscles that are associated with functional upper strength.

Shoulder Stability And Mobility

It’s estimated that approximately 7% of the population suffers from shoulder pain at any given time. Enhancing shoulder stability and mobility can help to prevent and treat conditions that cause shoulder pain. 

When performed correctly, it improves mobility through the shoulder joint. It also strengthens key stabilizing muscles, including the deltoids, trapezius, and rotator cuff muscles. 

This combination of enhanced strength and mobility can have positive outcomes on shoulder function and a reduction of shoulder pain.

Reduced Risk Of Injury

The behind-the-neck press is an effective exercise for strengthening the muscles of the upper body, especially the shoulders. Increasing shoulder strength can have a positive effect on shoulder stability and mobility, thus decreasing the likelihood of injury.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is behind-the-neck press better than military press?

Neither the behind-the-neck press nor the military press is better. However, they do provide unique benefits. For example, the behind-the-neck press is better for improving shoulder mobility and strengthening the posterior and lateral deltoids.

Is behind-the-neck press safe?

When performed correctly, it is a safe exercise. However, a lack of shoulder mobility or overloading your weight capacity can put you at risk of a shoulder injury.

Should I shoulder press in front or behind the neck?

Individuals without shoulder injuries should use a combination of front and behind neck presses in their workout routine. However, anyone with shoulder injuries or limited shoulder mobility will be better suited to the front shoulder press.

Resources

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