A wide-grip pullup is a safer alternative to the behind-the-head pullup.
The pullup is a classic back exercise that not only targets the latissimus dorsi, which are the large back muscles that run down each side of your spine, but it also works your biceps, rhomboids and traps. After mastering the basic pullup, you might look for variations to add some freshness to your routine. The behind-the-head pullup is one such variation; however, the risks of performing this variation may not be worth the novelty, especially since there are other, safer pullup variations available.
A behind-the-head pullup starts in the same manner as a standard pullup. Hang from a pullup bar with a slightly-wider-than-shoulder-width grip. Squeeze your back muscles together and down, and pull your body up toward the bar. For a standard pullup, pull your chin or upper chest into the bar, but for a behind-the-head pullup, tuck your head under the bar and pull until the back of your neck or traps touch the pullup bar.
Rear Its Ugly Head
The shoulder joint is the most mobile joint in your body, but it is also the least stable joint, sacrificing stability for mobility. During the behind-the-head pullup, your shoulder is in extreme external rotation and abduction -- it is pulled back while the upper arm is lifted. This extreme position places undue stress on the rotator cuff muscles and the shoulder ligaments while they are under a high load, greatly increasing your risk for injury. Your neck is also at risk for injury as it is forced into forward flexion so you can get your head in front of the pullup bar.
Risk Your Neck
Sometimes risk is worth the possible payoff. So if the behind-the-head pullup provides a better workout for the back muscles than the standard version, it may be worth including in your routine, especially if you don't have any previous shoulder or neck issues. However, researchers studied the muscle activity of participants performing lat pulldowns to the front and lat pulldowns to the rear. Although the study wasn't performed using the pullup exercise, the joint movements of the lat pulldown and pullup are identical, meaning the results would likely be applicable to both exercises. The 2002 study, published in "The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research," concluded that a wide-grip front pulldown produced greater muscle activity in the latissimus dorsi than did a behind-the-head pulldown.
Put It Behind You
If you want to add more variety to your back routine, try other, safer pullup variations. Use different pullup grips, including a close grip, wide grip, neutral grip and reverse grip. You can also incorporate advanced variations of the pullup, such as archer pullups, weighted pullups and towel pullups. The pullup offers dozens of alternatives that don't come with an increased risk of injury.