FEW EXERCISES ARE more universal than the pullup.
It’s arguably the king of bodyweight exercises, and one of the simplest, most direct methods to build strength and muscle in your upper back. For some people, the pullup is quite difficult, while others might need to look for new ways to level-up the exercise. That's where misguided variations like the behind the neck pullup come into play.
Shifting your position to perform pullup reps being the neck is a waste of time—and worse, an injury risk, say Men's Health experts Mathew Forzaglia, N.F.P.T., C.P.T., founder of Forzag Fitness and MH fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. Instead of making gains, this pullup tweak only offers an increased potential for shoulder issues.
“This is a pullup that's only going to cause you pain,” Samuel says. “It's going to short circuit your gains at some point and it's really just not the best way to build muscle or strength.”
Why You Should Avoid Behind the Neck Pullups
Behind the Neck Pullups Promote Poor Shoulder Positioning
The behind the neck pullup will almost automatically force your shoulders to roll forward, which is a horrible position to be forced to work from.
“That invites injury,” Samuel says. “We always want to stay out of that position where we're shifting into internal rotation, and try to promote external rotation as much as we can. It's just impossible to get there when our elbows are even with our torso.”
Behind the Neck Pullups Promote Poor Posture
Another dangerous disadvantage is that rolling the shoulders forward puts you in a poor position, preventing you from engaging your back muscles. Notice you’re not getting a great shoulder blade squeeze with this exercise? Instead of working your back with each rep, the posture of the behind the neck pullup actually disengages most of your back muscles, not quite the goal you want when you’re training your back.
The Behind the Neck Pullup Isn't a Complete Pullup
Think of a proper pullup as combination of a vertical pull, followed by a horizontal pull in to the top of the rep—this allows the lats to engage as you bring your arms closer to your body and past the torso. With behind the necks, the horizontal portion of the pull is eliminated because of the decreased range of motion. Instead, adding that unwanted internal rotation is just not a good all around feeling for your shoulders.
“The behind the neck pullup is restricting us in just one plane, and suddenly you just can't activate as much back muscle,” Samuel says. “You're not going to catch as much of your rhomboids, and not as much as your mid back is going to be activated. You're just using your lats and you're just doing it in a not comfortable way.”
3 Behind the Neck Pullup Alternatives
Use as a high-rep finisher
The standard pullup has been the gold standard for bodyweight exercises for a reason. Pullups allow you to work within your body's natural line of pull, says Forzaglia. The shoulder blades can be pulled back, allowing you to pull down at full range of motion, then getting yourself over the bar. This is a complete range of motion exercise which, when done right, also significantly decreases any potential for injury.
●Wide Cable Pulldown
Use as a high-rep finisher
Here’s an exercise that actually allows you to work in the frontal plane of movement. The wide cable pulldown, however, allows for a much better lat squeeze because the cables are aligned with the muscles we want to be working—we can really follow the grain of the lat muscles here at a much safer angle than we would from the behind the neck variation.
●Eccentric-Focused Lat Pulldown
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps
Here’s a tweak to the traditional lat pulldown that adds a negative element to the exercise— a good negative as it provides an additional amount of muscle recruitment we sometimes overlook with our lat training. Using a V bar, start off as you normally would by pulling with both arms. The focus however, is on the return to the start position (or eccentric portion of the lift). Release one hand from the attachment and return the starting position in a slow and controlled manner.