I am sure you have heard before that pressing with the bar behind your neck is bad for your shoulders. I have even been told by some people I have worked with that physical therapists have told them any overhead pressing is bad for the shoulders. No exercise is inherently good or bad. Context, current levels of mobility, injury history, and technique are what really drive the decision to use a certain exercise or not. Any of them can be “bad” if you don’t take these questions into account.
This started about ten years ago when I was at a strength and conditioning conference. One of the featured speakers was a strength coach from on of the U.S. Olympic Training Centers (USOTC). He worked mostly with wrestlers. I was a wrestler for a long time so I understood right away the problems he was dealing with when it came to rebuilding a strong and resilient shoulder. Wrestlers at that level have wrestled a lot. Many of them were one sport athletes growing up and wrestled most of the year. If you are on the international stage, you likely started wrestling when you were eight or younger. If you are headed to the Olympics, you have probably been wrestling competitively for fifteen years or more. To put it more simply, you start to look like a wrestler. When you only do one thing, your body will take on the dominant posture of your sport. As far as the shoulder girdle is concerned, this typically means a kyphotic thoracic spine with anteriorly translated shoulders that are internally rotated. You will commonly see short and tight pecs, lats, and internal rotators with overstretched and weak external rotators. Strength and conditioning was not real popular in the world of wrestling at that time (and still isn’t really today).
I know I spent a lot of time talking about wrestling but I wanted to set the stage for the rest of the article. The reasons will become apparent as we dive into this. Reread the previous paragraph and think about what other types of athletes (or just people in general) may wander into your clinic and present like someone who has wrestled for fifteen years. Just about everyone. We live in a world where people live in that posture. It is a massive environmental load that is difficult to overcome. I am in no way suggesting this posture will lead to pain or anything like that (I don’t need the posture doesn’t lead to pain people attacking me), but what I will say is if you live in that posture, it makes it much more difficult for you to perform tasks in a strong and efficient way that don’t look like that posture. Nothing looks the polar opposite of that posture as much as a press from behind the neck.
Going back to the strength coach from the USOTC, he couldn’t get the wrestlers into the positions he needed them to be in to successfully add variations of the Olympic lifts into their programming. The wrestlers who came to him all had several shoulder injuries and/or surgeries under their belts and were pretty much locked into the typical wrestler posture. A posture like this may not hurt you but if I want you to perform a lift that requires you have smooth and efficient transition to a different posture that you don’t have, I will probably injure you eventually.
There were certain things this coach wanted to implement into his program he thought would be valuable to the overall athletic development of the wrestling team. The wrestlers that came to the training room to lift could not achieve the positions he needed them to be in to add in lifts he thought would be valuable. What was his elegant solution? Behind the neck pressing. He handed everyone a PVC pipe and they did several sets of one very slow and controlled rep. It was brutal. The wrestlers threw every one of the seven words from George Carlin’s old comedy bit at him. I remember him saying the wrestlers even made him cover the windows so people couldn’t watch them suffering.
Why did he select this particular exercise? It is the exact opposite of how these athletes spent most of their time. Notice the other important part many of you will miss, they did lots of singles in a very slow and controlled fashion with extremely low load and attention to detail before moving along a standard linear progression. This coach needed their nervous systems to adapt to the new positions he was asking of their bodies before he could attempt to start adding significant load. He needed to make sure the athletes could fully externally rotate their shoulders. He needed to make sure they had proper scapular movement and shoulder mechanics. He had all the time in the world. This was the beginning of a four year Olympic cycle. He also didn’t need these athletes to set world records in the behind the neck press, he needed to balance out their shoulder mechanics to allow them to add some strength, range of motion, and resiliency to the shoulder girdle.
Pressing from behind the neck, when done with intention and proper technique, is a way to kill lots of birds with one stone. There is no reason a shoulder can’t press something overhead from behind the neck. I will qualify that a little bit. There is no reason a healthy shoulder with proper control and range of motion can’t press something from behind the neck. Is it the only way I would have pressing in a program? No. Just like anything else, it can be over done and lead to some issues. Can it be part of a rotation of pressing exercises to continuously drive adaptation of the strength and control of the shoulder girdle? Of course. You can find a lot more about this stuff in my book Unf*ck Your Shoulders.
For one, it forces thoracic extension. This is a missing link for many people who struggle getting their arms overhead. It will put you in a position that stretches the pec open and loads the external rotators. The position is at the end ranges of external rotation and may be aggravating to some in the beginning (or always) so proceed with caution. It is really no different than the position you would find yourself in when you are back squatting so improving your ability to press from behind the neck should make your back squats feel more comfortable. I don’t know of a study that has been done looking at this so I don’t have empirical evidence to back up that statement. I am just theorizing, prove me right or wrong.
If you understand how to do them correctly and you have sound shoulder mechanics and range of motion, there is no reason they should cause you injury. I will say this with one caveat. I see them as a tool of variation in a well rounded upper body program. Just like any lift, if you train it at a volume that exceeds your ability to recover, things will go sideways. I would rotate it in with traditional barbell presses and dumbbell or kettlebell presses (one or two hand). As you will find in my book So You Caught The Bicipital Tendinopathy…, many times this becomes a problem when you don’t vary the stimulus enough and you have less than ideal shoulder mechanics causing a compression of the long head of the biceps tendon.
So what was the point of all this? I wanted to show you sometimes a solution to a problem can be so simple and elegant that you will throw it in the trash because you have a desire to make it more complicated. This coach saw an issue and used a lift that many people in the lifting and rehab world have deemed as evil and used it to improve the health, function, strength, and resilience of his athletes. He had time constraints to deal with so he needed to find something that accomplished a lot of things at once. It needed to be something that could be done consistently and with a long, slow linear progression. There is a time and place for everything, but I think in the world of rehab and strength and conditioning, clinicians and coaches (particularly novices, I was one once, so were all of you) have a tendency to want to make things complicated to show the person they are working with how smart they are. People are only impressed by what helps them.
Going back to the title of the article, the important question to ask yourself (or to ask a person you are working with) is why can’t you press from behind your neck? Solve that problem and you will likely solve a lot of other issues that were causing your shoulders grief and killing your progress. Some people won’t be able to press from behind the neck and that is perfectly ok. You can get super strong with dumbbells, kettlebells, and neutral grip bars. I just want you to think about why you are telling people to not do it beyond because you heard from someone else people shouldn’t do it.
One quick note. I would likely not have athletes that do a lot of throwing perform the press from behind the neck. I would keep those athletes on dumbbells and kettlebells. Many of them have developed rotational asymmetries at the shoulder due to the volume of throwing that using a fixed bar can be an issue.
For fun, here is a video of me doing some behind the neck seated presses. If a guy that has had surgery on both elbows and both shoulders can press from behind his neck without pain, there is hope for all of us!