The Rotator Cuff Screams, “Don’t Do This Exercise!”

You can live a strong, fit, and happy life without doing pull-downs behind the neck.

If your shoulders could give you an audible warning during a ‘behind the neck’ pull-down or press it would be,

“Just Don’t Do It!”

I wouldn’t give you such a serious ultimatum without good reason, so let’s get to it.

By seeing exactly what the rotator cuff is, and what it does, you can better understand the danger inherent in lifting movements behind the neck; especially when they involve excessive weight or speed.

Let’s get started…

Take another look at the bones of the shoulder pictured above. What’s your first impression?

It looks almost like some of the of the bones are virtually free-floating, doesn’t it? It’s this unique arrangement of the shoulder’s components that allows for the extended range of motion it affords us, from the butterfly stroke to the fast ball.

In the above picture showing the first layer of muscle, notice the natural forward orientation of the shoulders, along with the muscles connecting the shoulder blade to the top of the arm. You can see that these muscles are critical in keeping the arm in place. They are also involved in the rotating of the arm. These muscles attaching the shoulder blade to the top of the arm (forming the rotator cuff) are best worked by pulling motions in front of the torso–moving in towards the body center (ie close grip). Doing military presses or pull-downs behind the neck puts an awkward torque on these tendons (rotator cuff) attaching the muscles to the arm.

Your first indication of danger from ‘behind the neck’ pull-downs, or ‘behind the neck’ military presses is the uncomfortable feeling.

It’s your body warning you to be careful.

Besides, and more importantly, there is no reason to risk injury using behind the neck movements when close grip seated pull-downs to the chest will accomplish the same or better results without the unnatural torque to the shoulder tendons. Preferring the pull-down to the front, I like to change the angle of the exercise by leaning back as I begin the movement toward the chest (using the triangle close grip). The more you lean back, the more the focus shifts to mid-upper back. One of my favorites!


(A great close-up of the primary elements in the rotation and stability of the arm in the shoulder. The deltoid muscle covers this, inserting in the upper end of the arm bone to produce flexion, extension and abduction).

The photo below includes the final layer of muscle and, as you can see, it’s the deltoid muscle that gives the muscular shape of the shoulders. But it’s the four muscles that comprise the rotator cuff that you must become familiar with if you care about avoiding training injuries of shoulder.

Focus your back training on the movements that utilize your body’s natural range of motion. When I see guys (especially Seniors) doing behind the neck pull-downs, jerking the weight down at the start, it makes me cringe.

The large range of motion of the shoulder makes it a prime candidate for athletic injuries, so train accordingly.

For understanding the anatomy and function of these muscles, check out this excellent video:


Pardon the Back,


The Senior Health and Fitness Blog by Steven Siemons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Categories: Rotator Cuff, Senior Fitness

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4 replies

  1. Thank you! Very helpful. I had a pacemaker placed on my right above my heart. Going on 5 months. I have excruciating pain on my left arm and problems lifting or moving it certain directions. I’m searching for a reason why. Drs say it’ll get better. Is there anything that can be done to ease pain?

    • Augustina, The pain you’re experiencing must be difficult to tolerate; especially given the uncertainty of the future. As a Certified Personal Trainer, the clientele with whom I train do not have medical restrictions such as yours. Even a doctor responding to the same question would be unable to offer specific remedies because of the lack of information regarding the exact nature of your problem. The solution to your problem starts with an Orthopaedic Surgeon who can perform the necessary tests that will result in a more specific diagnosis, treatment and prognosis.

  2. Can nerve issues with particularly C5-C6 cause pain in the shoulder to mimic tendonitis?

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