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A behind-the-neck press is an exercise that targets your shoulders. It’s a variation of the shoulder press, also known as an overhead press.

It’s also one of the most controversial exercises in the fitness industry because it can potentially place too much stress on your neck and shoulders.

While it’s possible to safely do the exercise, it isn’t for everyone. Even advanced lifters should work with a personal trainer to stay safe.

The behind-the-neck press can be done in a seated or standing position. If you’re new to the exercise, start with the seated version on a weight bench. You can also use a vertical back bench for extra support.

  1. Sit with the barbell across your traps. Plant your feet on the floor with your knees bent at 90 degrees.
  2. Grip the bar, hands wider than shoulder-width and palms facing forward. Brace your core and squeeze your shoulder blades together, keeping your elbows under the bar.
  3. Exhale and press the bar straight up, lining it up with your head. Pause.
  4. Inhale and slowly return to the starting position.
  5. Start with one set of 12 to 15 reps.

If you can safely do this exercise, you can progress to the standing version. It involves the same movement with a barbell on a rack.

When doing either version, start with a light barbell. A personal trainer can help you choose the appropriate weight.

pro tips
  • During the upward phase, avoid moving your head or back forward.
  • The downward phase should be a slow and controlled pulling movement. Avoid letting the bar fall back into starting position.

The behind-the-neck press works the:

When done in a standing position, the behind-the-neck press also challenges your core and legs.

Working your shoulders, upper back, and upper arms is an excellent way to improve upper body strength. It also increases shoulder stability and mobility.

Strong shoulders allow you to do a range of movements, including:

  • lifting
  • pulling
  • pushing
  • punching

Additionally, good shoulder stability and mobility reduces your risk of shoulder pain and injury.

A behind-the-neck press does indeed place a lot of stress on your rotator cuff muscles, which stabilize your shoulder joints. The position is also awkward. If you have poor shoulder mobility, or if your weight is too heavy, you could tear a shoulder muscle.

You can hurt your neck, too. During the downward phase, the barbell could hit your neck or the back of your head. It also places strain on your neck muscles.

Due to these risks, it’s best to only attempt a behind-the-neck press if you have:

  • adequate shoulder mobility and stability
  • normal trunk stability
  • good thoracic (upper) spine mobility

Not sure if you fit the bill? A personal trainer can help you make the call.

You should also avoid the move if you have a past or current shoulder injury.

If you’re concerned about injuring yourself while doing a behind-the-neck press, several alternatives offer similar benefits with less risk.

The following alternative exercises will target your shoulders without the extra risk.

Still, if you have a history of shoulder problems, it’s important to work with a personal trainer. They can suggest additional modifications to keep you safe.

1. Behind-the-neck press with dumbbells

Behind-the-neck presses are usually done with a barbell, but using individual dumbbells can reduce your risk of injury.

Unlike barbells, dumbbells don’t keep your arms in a fixed position. This puts less stress on your shoulders because you can move in a more natural way.

With dumbbells, your shoulders can also gradually progress to a greater range of motion. Barbells, on the other hand, require extreme extension and abduction.

Here’s how to do the move with dumbbells:

  1. Sit on a bench, feet planted on the floor and knees at 90 degrees. Rest the dumbbells on your thighs. Lift the dumbbells to shoulder level one at a time, palms facing forward.
  2. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and move your elbows back, holding the dumbbells behind your ears.
  3. Brace your core. Exhale and press the dumbbells straight up, keeping them in line with your shoulders. Pause.
  4. Inhale and slowly return to starting position.
  5. Start with one set of 12 to 15 reps.

For an easier version, use one dumbbell at a time. This is a great way to slowly improve shoulder strength.

The standing version is harder because it also works your core and legs. To do it, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and follow the above directions.

Purchase dumbbells online.

2. Shoulder press

The basic shoulder press is less risky because you hold the weight in front of your body.

Like the behind-the-neck version, the standard shoulder press targets the deltoids, triceps, and trapezoids. It also works the pectoral muscles in the chest.

To get moving:

  1. Sit with the barbell just above your front shoulders. Plant your feet on the floor with your knees at 90 degrees. Grip the bar, hands wider than shoulder-width and palms facing forward.
  2. Move the barbell out of the rack and hold it at chin-level. Brace your core, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and point your elbows forward.
  3. Exhale and extend your arms to press the barbell upward, lining it up with your head. Pause.
  4. Inhale and slowly return to the starting position.
  5. Start with one set of 12 to 15 reps.

You can also do the shoulder press with dumbbells or while standing.

The behind-the-neck press is an exercise that targets your shoulders. However, it can put extra strain on your neck and shoulders, so many people advise against it.

If you have poor shoulder mobility and stability, it’s best to avoid this move. You may want to try alternative exercises that work your shoulders without the risk.