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Smith machine behind the neck shoulder press: The most feared exercise in the gym

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 28th September 2020

If there's one exercise that's claimed more rotator cuffs than any other, it's the Smith machine behind the neck shoulder press.

Compared to the regular Smith machine shoulder press, the behind the neck (BTN) version recruits more deltoid musculature (in theory). This extra front and side delt involvement is great because most people are severely lacking in the shoulder width department.

However, if you want to maximise your deltoid development in the years to come—and not just in the next few months—then you'd do well to steer clear of the most feared exercise in the gym.

man doing a behind the neck press

Smith machine behind the neck press exercise details

  • Main muscles: Shoulders, triceps
  • Supporting muscles: Traps, serratus anterior
  • Exercise type: Compound
  • Difficulty: Advanced
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine, adjustable weight bench
  • Recommended gear: Resistance bands, wrist wraps, chalk
  • Exercise purpose: Add mass to the front, side and rear delts to create more proportional shoulders

How to do a behind the neck military press on the Smith machine

young woman working out at a modern gym
  1. Wheel an adjustable bench into the Smith machine and set the backrest to the highest upright angle.
  2. Set the Smith bar so that when you're sat down, the bar is a good few inches above head height.
  3. Grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip and unrack the bar by fully extending your elbows. This is the starting position.
  4. Inhale and then lower the bar slowly until there's a 90-degree angle between your upper arm and forearm. Think about pulling the bar down with your traps rather than just letting it drop. Also, avoid letting your head dip too far forwards as you lower the barbell.
  5. Press the bar back up and then exhale once you've locked out the weight. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps.

Behind the neck press muscles worked

Shoulders

close up of a muscular man holding a dumbbell

As mentioned, doing the Smith machine shoulder press behind the neck recruits more anterior and lateral delt muscle fibres than when you perform it from the front. However, because the exercise also takes the tension off your triceps, you'll feel an even bigger shoulder pump than on regular machine presses [1].

Combine BTNPs with a pump-based pre-workout, and it's safe to say that your shoulders will be on fire. And, if you're lean enough, you'll see veins galore!

Traps

photo of a bodybuilder's back muscles

Many people believe, including me, that behind the neck presses activate more traps than front presses. However, research shows that trap muscle activation is about the same in both exercises.

Still, I personally feel behind the neck presses way more in my traps. But that could just be because of the novel stimulus since I rarely perform the exercise nowadays.

Triceps

Young Bodybuilder Doing Heavy Weight Exercise For Triceps

Since the BTNP trains elbow extension (the triceps' primary function), you'll get a decent amount of tricep stimulation if you go heavy enough. However, unlike in front presses, your tris won't be the limiting factor, which is definitely a good thing as far as shoulder development is concerned.

Behind the neck press benefits

Complete shoulder development

very muscular man with his hands on his hips

Although I don't do the Smith machine shoulder press behind my neck anymore, if I could only do one shoulder exercise, the BTNP would 100% be my top choice. Why?

Because it hits all three heads well and two of them (front & side) excellently. No other shoulder exercise does this [2].

So if you're in a rush, then performing behind the neck presses with a few sets of reverse flys will ensure that you're priming your delts for growth.

Obviously, there's always an injury risk with behind the neck presses (more so than with most other exercises in my experience). So if your shoulders are in any way dodgy, then I'd stick to pressing from the front. You can always do lateral raises and reverse flys after.

Faster delt growth

close up of a Speedometer

Ever programmed a new exercise into your routine and seen almost instant gains?

I have. And it's not uncommon.

When your muscles aren't used to a given exercise, they're forced to adapt. Which is the moderately scientific way of saying they're forced to grow bigger.

So if you've been doing regular shoulder presses ever since you were a teenager lifting weights in your bedroom—like I have—then you can see stupidly fast results from introducing a novel exercise into your routine.

Behind the neck press drawbacks

Overuse injuries

muscular man suffering from shoulder pain against black background

I won't sugar coat it. Even doing a behind-the-neck military press on Smith machine systems can wreck your rotator cuffs if you're not careful. Actually, make that extremely careful.

You always hear about the bloke who snapped his shoulders in a freak lifting accident. However, you never hear about the lad who has to walk around with a shoulder impingement for the rest of his life because he was too stubborn to avoid the BTNP as a youngster.

I'm not saying that you'll run into either of these injuries during your training career. But I am saying that if you abuse the BTNP, then your shoulders are probably going to be knackered within a few months.

So don't bring the bar down too low. Don't start the set from the bottom of the rep. Don't train to grinding failure. Don't ego lift. Don't stick your neck out like a chicken.

Follow these rules, and you'll greatly reduce the chance of screwing up your shoulders [3] [4].

Limited resistance

muscualr man training his shoulders

While the BTNP does place more of its tension on your delts than a regular shoulder press, I'm not convinced that it builds the delts any faster. Why? Because you have to lighten the weight significantly.

So overall, you delts (probably) aren't getting stimulated any more during a BTNP than in a regular shoulder press. Of course, we'd need to conduct studies to verify this. But who wants to spend time in a lab when you could be smashing some shoulders on 300mg of caffeine?

Not me.

Behind the neck press alternatives

Smith machine shoulder press

sporty woman training her shoulders

Bringing the Smith machine shoulder press back into your routine after doing BTNPs for a while will give your strength an instant boost. You'll be so used to lifting without significant help from your triceps that when your triceps do start firing again, the weights will go up like butter.

Smith machine upright row

young man training in the gym

Performing a Smith machine one arm upright row is a brilliant way to even out any muscle imbalances in your shoulders and traps because you can train each side of your body independently. Plus, you can focus purely on the working muscles since you don't have to stabilise the weight.

In other words, Smith machine upright rows are a recipe for a more aesthetic V-taper.

Smith machine lateral raise

muscular man performing dumbbell lateral raises

Doing Smith machine lateral raises in the gym might earn you a few weird looks. But when your delts blow up, those same onlookers are going to be asking you for your shoulder training secrets. Also, it's a great replacement for the side delt machine, which few modern gyms seem to have these days.

Smith machine rear delt row

bodybuilder training his rear delts with dumbbells

The Smith machine rear delt row is one of the most underrated shoulder builders of all time. It's pretty much like a front press for your rear delts because you can lift so much heavier than on reverse flys. I highly recommended it if you have a pressing-dominant physique.

Recommended training gear for behind the neck presses

Below you'll find my top 3 recommended training tools for the Smith machine seated behind the neck shoulder press. I've selected these workout accessories to improve your pressing strength and lifting safety on the BTNP specifically.

That said, I've used them on many other exercises, too, with excellent results.

1. Resistance bands

Whenever I'm doing the behind the neck military press on Smith machine stations, I always warm up my shoulders first with my Bestope Resistance Band.

a red bestope resistance band

You can buy all kinds of fancy mobility training tools these days. But based on my experience, most of them are just a gimmick. I much prefer the simplicity of resistance bands because you can do virtually any rotator cuff exercise with them.

This particular resistance is one of the most durable that I own (and I've amassed a significant collection over the course of my lifting career).

topelek resistance bands

It's constructed from environmentally-friendly latex, and it's not one of those bands that loses its elasticity after a few months. It was recommended to me by my physio, and I can't say enough good things about, especially for the price.

I've also got the TOPELEK Resistance Band set for when I want to increase the resistance.

I prefer my Bestope band for warming up. But for actual training sessions (if I'm travelling or something) I always use my TOPELEK bands because they essentially mimic the cable machines that you'd find at the gym.

2. Wrist wraps

I'm not ashamed to admit it. I'm one of those bloke's with small joints. My wrists seem to hurt when I lift anything past 50kg, and having a desk job definitely does ease my pain.

man wrapping his wrists before a workout

So I've made it a point to start wearing supportive wrist wraps for every push session. And I personally use the Beast Gear Wrist Wraps.

I was thinking about getting some more "professional" powerlifting wrist wraps, but I ended up settling on these Bear Gear wrist wraps to save myself a couple of quid. Now, I've tried many supposed pro-grade wrist wraps before, and I have to say, I couldn't tell the difference between those and my Beast Gear Wrist Wraps.

What I like most about the Beast Gear wraps is the heavy-duty velcro fastener. My wraps never feel like they're going to come undone mid-set and leave my wrists exposed, which definitely gives me the confidence to lift hard and heavy. Even while cutting, I've set quite a few new PRs in these wraps, and I'm really chuffed with the price I paid.

aqf wrist wraps

I also went ahead and ordered the AQF Power Weight Lifting Wrist Wraps.

Obviously, I don't use both every session. But I wanted a point of reference to see how well my Beast Gears stacked up.

Anyway, for less than a tenner, these AQF wraps are solid. The cotton and elastic provide plenty of joint support without actually restricting my range of motion. If I'm picky, though, they could be a little more comfortable. But really, for the price, I can't complain at all. I prefer my Beast Gears, but there's not much difference between the two.

3. Weightlifting chalk

I train at home now, but when I used to lift in commercial gyms, I mastered the art of using chalk on the sly.

liquid chalk sizes

The trick is to always chalk up with the liquid variety.

That way, you don't leave any obvious evidence (dust clouds) behind that confirms your guilt. Now, I personally see nothing wrong with using chalk. But it seems that most gym employees don't share my vision.

I usually use liquid chalk since I stocked up on it ages ago. However, if you're on a budget, then this Psychi Chalk ball is also a great option.

psychi chalk ball

It's not as inconspicuous as liquid chalk, but it does come with a mesh covering to reduce wastage and keep dust clouds to a minimum.

I've used both on the Smith machine behind the neck shoulder press and have no complaints with either. The liquid variety is more convenient, but traditional chalk makes you feel more hardcore!

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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