Lat pulldowns are a fantastic exercise for building your lats, although most of us perform them in front of the neck.
That said, if you enter any gym you’re likely to see people performing them behind the neck too.
However, you’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t bring lat pulldowns behind your head, simply because it isn’t safe.
But is this actually true?
Here’s exactly what you need to know.
Table of Contents
Are Lat Pulldowns Behind the Neck Dangerous?
Bringing lat pulldowns behind your neck isn’t actually dangerous. However, this very much depends on your individual shoulder mobility. If you find that you have to excessively flex your neck forward you lack the shoulder mobility to perform the exercise safely and efficiently. Therefore, it should be avoided by you.
It Depends On Your Shoulder Mobility
So, I definitely can’t say outright that bringing that bar behind your neck is dangerous.
Basically, this all comes down to you and your individual shoulder mobility.
In order to perform behind the neck lat pulldowns correctly you should bend forward at the waist.
And then, if you do have sufficient shoulder mobility, your lumbar spine and cervical spine should be perfectly aligned throughout your set.
However, problems start to occur if you need to flex your neck forward in order to get the bar behind your neck.
Realistically, you shouldn’t be flexing your neck forward during any exercise, and this can be considered dangerous.
But, in truth, having to do so during an exercise like lat pulldowns, or even behind the neck overhead presses, shows that you lack the required shoulder mobility.
You can of course increase mobility, but lat pulldowns are definitely not the way to achieve this.
The Ultimate Exercise For Shoulder Mobility
Is it Worth Doing Behind the Neck Pulldowns?
If you’re going to perform an exercise slightly differently to the norm there should be some benefit to doing so.
So, what does bringing that bar behind your head actually do?
I know many people believe that bringing the bar behind the neck increases trap involvement.
While this may certainly be the case to some extent, there are so many better exercises for your traps.
Realistically, you’re wasting your time bringing the bar behind you solely for trap development.
The main “benefit” to bringing the bar behind you is that it increases posterior delt and bicep activation.
I will also add that it can help with other exercises that require shoulder mobility, such as barbell back squats.
How often have you had to give up on a set of squats because you were feeling it in your shoulders?
Additionally, the equipment you use can make a difference to in-front of or behind the neck
As an example, close-grip lat pulldowns, say with a V-bar, makes absolutely no difference to lat activity.
In other words, you’re working your lats just as hard, regardless of where you bring the V-bar.
And, of course, going behind your head increases activation of the rear delts and biceps.
However, when it comes to using a standard, or even a wide-grip, lat activation is at its greatest when you bring the bar down in front of your face.
For me, this is the most significant point.
I look to perform lat pulldowns in order to grow my lats.
So, if there is a specific variation which provides greater lat activation than any other variation, then that’s the one I’m going to use.
I see nothing wrong with chopping and changing, whether it’s grip width, or in-front of or behind the head.
A bit of exercise variety is great, and can help to activate different muscles.
However, if my main aim is to get bigger and stronger lats then I’ll mainly be performing pulldowns with a wide grip and in-front of my head.
Shoulder Impingement Infographic
Can You Get Injured Going Behind the Neck?
The main issue you’ll hear with going behind the neck is the potential for shoulder impingement or a rotator cuff injury.
Now, I’m not going to completely deny this, but once more this comes down to your overall shoulder mobility.
Firstly, if you raise your arms overhead there is always some level of impingement.
Don’t worry, I’m not saying this is dangerous, but simply something that occurs.
As soon as you raise your arms the rotator cuff will come into contact with the acromion.
This is fine as long as it isn’t excessive.
Basically, if your rotator cuff and acromion are constantly rubbing against each other you’re likely to feel inflammation.
And this can eventually lead to painful shoulder impingement.
Furthermore, when you do go behind the neck it causes horizontal abduction and external rotation of the shoulders.
This places additional stress on the rotator cuff, which means that it is more vulnerable and susceptible to injury.
So, yes, there is the potential for injury by going behind your neck.
However, once more, I have to repeat that this all comes down to your individual shoulder mobility.
If your shoulder mobility is poor, and you continue to use an exercise that causes horizontal abduction and external rotation of the shoulders, the likelihood is you’ll eventually succumb to injury.
Behind the neck lat pulldowns are only considered dangerous for those who have poor shoulder mobility.
Going behind the head increases horizontal abduction and external rotation of the shoulders.
For those with poor mobility, this could cause shoulder impingement or a rotator cuff injury.
You can usually tell if your mobility is poor if you have to flex your neck forward as you bring the bar down behind your head.
Realistically, you should bend forward at the waist and keep your lumbar spine and cervical spine perfectly aligned.
That being said, if you can achieve this then you have good shoulder mobility, which means it is perfectly acceptable to do lat pulldowns behind your head.
You can of course work on your shoulder mobility in the meantime.
Something else that I’ve recently written about, which you may have experienced, and could therefore provide you with some great tips, is feeling lat pulldowns in your chest.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.