Are Behind The Head Exercises Bad For You?
Here’s the truth about whether or not behind the head exercises are bad for you.
One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give you is “DO NOT TRUST EVERYTHING YOU HEAR IN THE GYM OR ONLINE!” This industry is chock full of people giving subjective opinions that are usually based simply on experience and lack any research or scientific basis. As a result, there are many misconceptions circulating the gym that can result in exercises being labeled as taboo. Here, we are going to focus on behind the head exercises, which primarily includes presses and pulldowns.
So, let’s take a research based scientific approach to:
- Evaluate this type of exercise to determine if behind they are good or bad for you
- Investigate the muscle activation patterns of these exercises
If they do increase the risk of injury, then we can determine if the risk is worth the reward. In the light of this approach and for all the math nerds like us, let’s set up a preliminary equation!
Complete Behind Head Exercises (CBHE) if Rewards ≥ Risk of Injury
First, let’s breakdown risk of injury in order to have a more detailed equation. In order to complete lifts that are behind the head, you must have external rotation & abduction or adduction of the shoulder joint.
So, why is this important?
- A study determined that the combination of these two motions has been shown to place stress on the rotator cuff because it requires active stabilization of the humerus head. Specifically, the combination of these motions force the subscapularis – 1 of the 4 rotator cuff muscles – into an overly stretched position.
- The subscapularis is a minor muscle but it has a significant role in the shoulder joint. When heavy weights are added to the equation, we can, in general terms, be increasing our risk of injury because the shoulder joint will be in a vulnerable and unstable position!
- As a frame of reference, a rotator cuff tear can require surgery and take up to 6 month of recovery time. Even a lesser injury, such as tendonitis, can take up to several weeks in order to recover. Since potential recovery time has a significant impact on our training, we should add this to the equation.
Risk of Injury = Shoulder Joint Instability + Potential Recovery Time
CBHE if Rewards ≥ Shoulder Joint Instability + Potential Recovery Time
Let’s be honest. Right now it is not looking good for completing behind the head exercises. The risks seem to be heavily outweighing the rewards. However, throughout our research we were able to find an additional variable that needs to be added to the right side of the equation: Shoulder Range of Motion (ROM).
To clarify, ROM is the area through which a joint may freely and painlessly move. Each person has a unique ROM that can be worked on and improved. So, let’s breakdown how ROM and muscle activation can affect our equation!
- A study involving people with normal trunk stability and ideal shoulder ROM showed that overhead pressing is a safe exercise (for the shoulder and spine) when performed either in front of or behind the head.
- It is well documented that ideal shoulder range of motion for abduction is at least 180° and overhead external rotation is at least 90°. You ideally would like to have a range of motion that is slightly better than 180° and 90° respectively.
- So, if you have an ideal shoulder range of motion for abduction and overhead external rotation that is aligned with these measurements, then the risk of injury is significantly decreased!
This information is huge news for completing behind the head exercises. Time to update that equation:
Risk of Injury = Shoulder Joint Instability + Potential Recovery Time – Shoulder ROM
CBHE if Rewards ≥ Shoulder Joint Instability + Potential Recovery Time – Shoulder ROM
Finally, let’s evaluate the left side of the equation:
- Muscle Activation – Shoulder Press
- With regard to the additional muscle activation, it has been shown that behind the head shoulder presses activates the anterior, lateral, and posterior delts more effectively than in front of the head presses. Another win for completing behind the head exercises!
- Muscle Activation – Pulldowns
- A study showed that different behind the head and in front of the head pulldowns produced different muscle activation patterns. Specifically, it evaluated the following muscles: right posterior deltoid, latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major, teres major, and long head of the triceps. Unlike the shoulder press, behind the head pulldowns resulted in lower muscle activation than in front of the head pulldowns for all of the muscles listed!
- However, behind the head did outperform chin-ups and in front of head closed grip pull downs.
- Thus, behind the head pulldowns can result in increased muscle activation depending on your alternative exercise.
We can now put together our final equation:
CBHE if Increased Muscle Activation ≥ Shoulder Joint Instability + Potential Recovery Time – Shoulder ROM
This equation is not something that you can find values and calculate an exact number. Instead it should be used as a guide for your thought process on whether or not behind the head exercises are right for YOU. We need to emphasize YOU because a significant portion of this equation is based on individuality. Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all answer to this question, but we can conclude that behind the head exercises are not bad for everyone. In fact, for certain people, they can be much better alternatives.
- Durall, C. J., Manske, R. C., & Davies, G. J. (2001). Avoiding Shoulder Injury From Resistance Training. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 23(5), 10.