Contraindications for Exercises With the Arms Overhead

Behind-the-neck lat pulldowns are bad for your rotator cuffs.
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If you go to the gym regularly, you've probably witnessed someone performing risky exercises. Although they are usually done with good intentions, contraindicated exercises can lead to painful injuries. Some exercises that require participants to extend their arms above their head are particularly unsafe for the neck, rotator cuffs and individuals with high blood pressure. Avoid these exercises and always use proper form to keep your workouts injury-free.

When Exercises Are Contraindicated

The risks associated with an exercise come from biomechanics and ergonomics research. The safety of an exercise is determined by multiple variables surrounding the load that's being moved, including how the load is applied, the size of the load, and the fitness of the tissues required to move the load. While there are some movements, such as the hurdler's stretch, deep squats and straight-legged sit-ups, which are considered unsafe for the general population, other exercises may be contraindicated only for those with certain characteristics. For example, someone with herniated discs in their back should probably avoid barbell squats due to the pressure the movement places on the back; however, someone with a healthy back could safely include squats in their workout routine.

Behind-the-Neck Lat Pulldown and Shoulder Press

The lat pulldown is a common exercise for the back that is safely performed in a seated position while pulling the bar down in front of your head to the top of your chest. However, when the movement is performed by pulling the bar down behind the neck, there is a heightened risk for cervical injury and the lats are not activated as much. A similar rule applies to the shoulder press. When performed by resting a barbell on the chest and pressing the weight overhead, the shoulder press is an effective shoulder exercise. However, when performed behind the neck, the shoulder press can injure the rotator cuff and cervical spine.


Backbends or bridges are common movements performed in yoga and gymnastics. Full backbend involves lying on your back, placing your hands palms down on the floor above your head, and pushing your body upward to stretch the spine. This is a contraindicated exercises that hyperextend the vertebrae and can damage the spine over time.

High Blood Pressure

Resistance training alone can raise blood pressure, so those with hypertension should talk with their doctors before starting a weight lifting program. Exercises that require you to lift your hands above your head, such as the dumbbell shoulder press, can further elevate blood pressure and may be contraindicated for hypertensive people.

Precaution and Tips

Consult with your doctor before beginning a new exercise program. If you're not sure how to perform an exercise, ask for help from a fitness professional before proceeding. Many exercises are contraindicated when performed improperly.

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