Shoulder Press or Overhead Press Behind The Neck (SP BTN or OHP BTN) is one of the best exercises for shoulders. It’s great for developing muscle mass in this area.
This movement is quiet difficult and also dangerous that’s why I don’t recommend performing it without spotter.
Shoulder Press done behind the neck is a controversial exercise. Many bodybuilders avoid and advise others to avoid it because it puts shoulders in a not comfortable position and can cause injury; however for most old time bodybuilders this movement was bread and butter for developing massive delts and I stand by it. I also believe it might cause discomfort or an injury for some but I’ll write about it more later on.
To perform Shoulder Press Behind The Neck correctly:
- Get in to the free weight shoulder pressing station or if you don’t have access to one simply sit down on a flat bench or bench with the back support having barbell on a stands slightly behind you. With the partner’s help lift barbell and hold it above your head on fully extended arms. Look straight ahead.
- With your back straight and chest pushed out start lowering the weight until barbell is at your eyes level. Elbows will be flared out, slightly behind you. Forearms perpendicular to the floor.
- Press the weight up to the starting position.
The trick in this exercise is to keep proper body position throughout whole movement:
- Straight back,
- Chest pushed out,
- Elbows flared out, in line with the shoulders or slightly behind;
- Forearms perpendicular to the floor, aligned with elbows and palms;
- Neck up, looking constantly straight ahead.
Some people lower barbell so low that it touches their upper neck in the bottom of the movement; others even rest it on their traps. There is no need to go so low unless you feel really comfortable with it. As long as you reach eye level it’s ok.
The most common mistake with over-head press BTN is rounding upper back and bringing elbows forward. Keep your chest pushed out all the time – this will make you back straight and guarantee the right position.
Not going through the full range of motion is another mistake during this exercise, especially in the bottom part. Barbell has to reach your eye level to consider this movement correct.
Internally rotating shoulders is also very common. To correct it make sure your palms, forearms and elbows are aligned.
Shoulder Press BTN can be done in 3 ways:
- Seated on a bench with back support,
- Seated on a flat bench without support,
Standing version of OHP involves the most muscles simultaneously. Core muscles and legs have to stabilize whole body.
Seated variation of this exercise takes work away from legs but core muscles are still involved.
Using bench with back support is probably the easiest out of three. It isolates our shoulders the most out of three ways making shoulders, traps and triceps do all the work.
I prefer to do shoulder press standing, which is the most compound version however you can benefit from doing this exercise seated with the back support where you can focus on the shoulder muscles the most.
The only substitution I can imagine for shoulder press behind the neck is doing this exercise on a smith machine. It will take away some stress from uncomfortable position for some but in a same time make fewer muscles do the work.
On the other hand smith machine may allow you to lift heavier weight which might stimulate muscles to an extra growth. However I wouldn’t recommend using this machine permanently. Free weights have more benefits in the long run.
SP BTN on a smith machine can be safer if you train on your own, without training partner or with problems to get spotter. This way you can re-rack the bar any time throughout the movement without worrying that you’ll drop it on your neck. However this doesn’t mean that this machine will keep you away from injury. It’s opposite. Training with the free weight barbell is more natural and doesn’t restrict your movement pattern. Machines force you to go through certain path which isn’t comfortable or natural for every single trainee and can result with injury especially when the weight gets heavier.
Behind The Neck controversy
Many bodybuilders and even few bodybuilding coaches don’t recommend doing over-head press behind the neck. They say: it’s bad for your shoulders; you will tear your muscle, destroy your rotator cuffs or some other bull shit. Look, it’s not the exercise that is ‘bad’. The reasons of problems or injuries with behind the neck exercises are:
- Lack of flexibility – too tight and too strong chest muscles,
- Lack of mobility – excessive internal shoulders rotation,
- Wrong technique – losing correct position.
With some people it is all of the above. When we add to it too heavy weigh – slipped disk in the neck or any other injury is guaranteed.
To prepare yourself for this exercise make sure you stretch your chest regularly. Start doing some external rotation exercises for your shoulders – it will help you to lift heavier weight even with different exercises like bench press for example. And don’t increase the weight if you can’t keep correct position of your body.
If you are quiet flexible and able to perform this exercise correct but feel discomfort or have some other issue with pressing behind the neck simply don’t do it, maybe it’s just not for you.
Shoulder press behind the neck is one of the most effective exercises for delts. It will pack some meat onto sides of your shoulders what will make you look much wider and bigger. It may not be for everybody though. If you feel discomfort, pain or any other problem during it you can substitute it with smith machine version or avoid it completely. However don’t abandon it too quick, make sure your chest is well stretch before attempting it and don’t jump to heavy weight straight away.
For anybody claiming that this exercise is simply ‘bad’ and should be avoided I can only remind that many of the old time bodybuilders like Franco Columbu or Nasser El Sonbaty (pictures above) performed pressing behind the neck for years. Many modern lifters still use it in their routines training often with far heavier weight than 100kg/225lbs.