I’m trying to add some thickness to my back and build up solid muscle mass in my upper body. I would like to know the difference between doing a lat pulldown to the front compared to doing pulldowns to the rear behind my head? Some people in the gym say they are both great exercises for building muscle in your back while other people say to never do lat pulldowns behind your head since its terrible for your shoulders and rotator cuffs. Who is right?
I have to agree with the people who tell you to avoid pulldowns behind the head and this comes from personal experience. I used to do a bunch of heavy lat pulldowns behind my head and over time my rotator cuffs have really suffered from it. When you pull the weight down to the rear instead of the front, it places a large amount of stress on your rotator cuff which consists of 4 different muscles around the shoulder area. The rotator cuff is very susceptible to stress and if you already have weak muscles in this area, you are flirting with danger if you continue to do pulldowns to the rear behind your head.
If you watch someone perform the pulldown exercise, the normal functional motion is to pull the weight down in front of the head and have a very slight lean in your back while you reach the bottom of the exercise. This hits the lats very well and places maximum tension on the back muscles. Then, watch someone who pulls the weight down behind their head and you will instantly notice a hunching of the back, while the head moves forward in order for the bar to pass behind it. This causes undue stress on your neck, shoulders and rotator cuff muscles. The shoulder is not meant to rotate to that odd angle with pressure on it and this is what causes stress and possible injury to the rotator cuff.
Along with avoiding lat pulldowns to the rear, you also want to avoid doing barbell shoulder presses where you lower the bar behind your head. Always lower the barbell down in front of your head since this is the most functional and safe motion for your shoulders and places the most stress on your deltoids and not the weaker part of your shoulders which are your rotator cuff muscles. Once again the angle of your shoulder is not made to move in that direction and over time it will cause issues. Behind the head shoulder presses are a common exercise you see people performing in the gym and they are potentially placing massive amounts of undue stress on different injury prone areas of the body.
I would also like to touch on another key item in your question which has to do with adding muscle mass to your back. It’s extremely important to use mass building, multi-joint exercises in your workout routine to stimulate the most muscle growth in your back. The king of all back building exercises is the deadlift and it should be the cornerstone exercise you include in your back workouts if your goal is to pack on slabs of thick muscle mass. Not only does the deadlift work your back extremely well, but it’s also an excellent whole body exercise that stimulates growth in your legs, arms and core! Here is a great mass building back workout for you to try:
- Deadlifts (4 sets of 8-10 reps)
- Seated Cable Rows (4 sets of 8-10 reps)
- Lat Pulldowns (to the front) (4 sets of 8-10 reps)
Along with using the right muscle building back exercises, remember that in order to get big, you need to eat big! Your diet is critical for adding lean muscle tissue since you need to give your body the fuel it needs to power you through an intense workout, recover from hard training and rebuild torn down muscle fibers after training. Read our Nutrition 101 article to learn about the best foods to include in your diet to build muscle and get huge!