The pull-down is a staple lat exercise, especially for anyone not yet strong enough to do pull-ups. For years, though, many fitness writers and personal trainers have cautioned against bringing the bar down behind the neck, urging lifters to bring it down to the front instead. They argue that behind-the-neck pull-downs aren't as effective as front pull-downs and may even lead to injury.
So why is it that you can walk into practically any gym and see someone doing behind-the-head lat pulls? Some people like this variation because it places a different angle of emphasis on the traps, which they believe will lead to better results. Still others are actually using it as a trap exercise—which makes no sense, because there are plenty of trap-specific exercises out there that work better.
Instead of blindly following what everyone else in the gym is doing, do your research to ensure your lat pulls are effective—and safe.
THE RIGHT MOVE FOR MUSCLE ACTIVATION
Several studies have put this oft-repeated theory to the test. In a 2002 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, investigators looked at the effect of different hand positions on muscle activation using EMG analysis during the performance of the pull-down exercise.1 The hand positions used were close grip, supinated (underhand) grip, wide-grip in front of the neck, and wide-grip behind the neck.
The authors concluded that the lat pull-down exercise with wide-grip hand position brought to the front of neck produced greater muscle activity in the latissimus dorsi than any of the other hand positions studied. This finding supports the use of lat pull-downs to the front to maximize muscle activation of the lats.
WIDE-GRIP REAR PULL-DOWN
Another study, published in the 2009 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, evaluated EMG activity of some of the main muscles (pec major, lats, posterior deltoid, and biceps) used during three variations of the lat pull-down.2 The exercise variations were behind the neck, front of the neck, and V-bar (close grip).
Although no differences in muscle activity of the lats were observed using the different variations, muscle activity of the pec major was highest with the front-of-the-neck variation. Furthermore, the posterior delt and biceps brachii demonstrated higher activity during the behind-the-neck variation. Considering the main objectives of the exercise, the authors singled out the lat pull-down to the front as the better choice.
STRESS ON THE SHOULDER JOINT AND ROTATOR CUFFS
But muscle activation isn't the only consideration when evaluating the lat pull-down; stress on the shoulder joint is an important factor as well. According to a study published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, when the shoulder joint is placed in a position of horizontal abduction combined with external rotation (as seen with behind-the-neck lat pull downs), more stress is placed on the rotator cuff in order to stabilize the head of the humerus.3 This forces the rotator-cuff muscles to work harder to stabilize the joint, making them vulnerable to injuries such as tendinosis and pain.
FRONT LAT PULL-DOWN
Another study, published in the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery, demonstrated that keeping the elbows approximately 30 degrees anterior to the shoulder in the scapular plane decreases the stress to the anterior shoulder joint capsule.4 This is only possible if the pull-down is performed to the front.
That's not the only reason doing pull-downs behind the neck can lead to pain. In one case, it was reported that the combination of shoulder external rotation, horizontal abduction, and excessive cervical spine flexion while doing a behind the neck pull-down was responsible for temporary arm paralysis from an injury to the brachial plexus(3).
Worst case, hitting the cervical spine hard with the bar at the bottom of an intense rep could result in a contusion or fracture to the cervical vertebrae. Ouch.
AND THE WINNER IS...
Looking at the evidence, the front pull-down is the clear-cut winner when compared to the rear version. Not only is the muscle activation to the latissimus dorsi similar or better when performing the exercise to the front, the risk of potential shoulder injuries, neck injuries, or nerve injuries is also reduced.
Furthermore, the practicality of performing the lat pull-down behind the neck is limited; this movement has little carry-over to any athletic activities or daily functional tasks. Hence, the critics are right: There's really no good reason to perform pull-downs behind the neck—and several good reasons not to.
Special thanks to bodybuilding.com
Signorile, J. E., Zink, A. J., & Szwed, S. P. (2002). A comparative electromyographical investigation of muscle utilization patterns using various hand positions during the lat pull-down. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 16(4), 539-546.
Sperandei, S., Barros, M. A., Silveira-Júnior, P. C., & Oliveira, C. G. (2009). Electromyographic analysis of three different types of lat pull-down. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(7), 2033-2038.
Durall, C. J., Manske, R. C., & Davies, G. J. (2001). Avoiding Shoulder Injury From Resistance Training. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 23(5), 10.
Pagnani, M. J., & Warren, R. F. (1994). Stabilizers of the glenohumeral joint. Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery, 3(3), 173-190.