Upright Row: Muscle Worked, Form, Benefits, Variations

If you’re looking to increase shoulder and upper back strength, look no further than the upright row.

The shoulder upright row is an upper body exercise that predominantly targets the anterior and lateral deltoids, which are responsible for adding width to your shoulders.

This exercise also challenges your trapezius (traps), a large muscle in the back that helps you shrug your shoulders, as well as the rhomboids, and even the biceps — making it a great addition to any full-body workout.

What is an upright row?

An upright row is a vertical, upward pulling movement that builds and strengthens the deltoids and upper traps

When performed correctly, the upright row can be a fantastic muscle-building exercise for the upper back and shoulders, which can help to shape your upper arms and torso.

Upright rows are an exercise, usually performed using dumbbells, cable, or a barbell. It’s a simple exercise, but requires perfect execution to achieve the best results and avoid injury. Follow our tips on how to master this exercise.

Muscle Worked During Upright Row Exercise

Upright rows are a compound movement that use several different joints and muscles at the same time.

A real upper body powerhouse, the upright row targets some of the body’s most integral muscle groups, including:

  • Shoulders: Working on the deltoids and trapezius muscles, it is perfect for building strength, muscle, and stability in the shoulder and upper back region.
  • Rhomboids: Upper back muscles that connect the shoulder blades and offer a great deal of support, working on your rhomboids will improve your posture.
  • Biceps & Forearm: As major arm muscles, building your biceps will significantly enhance your upper body strength as well as general upper body resilience.
Muscle Worked In Upright Row Exercise

Benefits of an upright row

Here are the benefits of an upright row :

  • Muscle strength & growth: Due to its targeted pulling motion, a large group of major upper body muscles are targeted during the upright row. As a result, performing this exercise regularly is likely to accelerate your muscle growth and strength in your back, biceps, and shoulders.
  • Stability & conditioning: It activates all major areas of the shoulders, making it excellent for upper body stability and conditioning. By doing frequent shoulder upright rows, you will improve your posture while protecting yourself from injury.
  • Arm power: It is great for the biceps, which will make your arms more powerful, improving your performance in other exercises and activities as a result.

Is the Upright Row Bad for You?

The upright row exercise is either good or bad, it mainly depends on how it’s performed.

The classic version of the move has you standing with an EZ curl bar or a barbell held at your hips, and your hands are relatively close, sometimes even at the center of the bar. And pulling the bar up to your neck, driving your elbows as high as possible.

When your elbows are higher than your shoulders, the bar pulls your shoulder joint into something called “internal rotation”. This is especially true if you’re going heavy on your upright rows.

Suddenly, the head of your humerus (or upper arm bone) starts closing the space between other bones in the area, and all the bones in your shoulder become prone to rubbing against rotator cuff tendons and soft tissue. All of this can lead to injury over time.

You shouldn’t be scared out of integrating the shoulder upright row into your routine, there are several ways you’ll need to look out to improve the technique to perform the upright exercises in a safe and effective way.

The correct and safe way to Do Upright Rows

We are going to teach you how to do an upright row correctly with form and techniques that best avoid shoulder pain and injury, so you can take advantage of this great lateral delt and upper trap isolation exercise.

1. Make sure your hands aren’t too close together

Placing your hands too close together can increase the amount of ulnar deviation (how much your wrist must bend to the side). This can result in injury at the wrist, and it can be easily avoided by simply moving your grip width to be slightly wider so that it is more comfortable for you as you lift.

2. You’re lifting too much weight

If your weight is too heavy, the movement will require momentum, which will take the focus away from the shoulders or, even worse, put too much stress on them.

Choose a barbell or weight that’ll allow a nice, slow and controlled movement.

3. Don’t pull the bar too high

Pulling the bar too high can result in increased compression of the acromioclavicular joint, and thus can increase the likelihood of an impingement injury at the shoulder.

Controlling the movement and limiting your elbows to reach the same height as your shoulders ensure you are not exerting your shoulder and potentially causing an injury

4. Brace your core and keep your torso upright

As with any lift, maintaining a strong and stable core throughout the lift will aid with bracing and thus protect the spine.

When it comes to upright rows, this will also help to reduce or prevent swinging the weight away from your center of mass.

5. Don’t roll shoulder forward

When lowering the weight, make sure your chest is proud and shoulders pulled back/together (known as scapular retraction).

Retracting the scapulae puts the shoulders in a strong position to lift and will help focus the exercise on the deltoid.

Best variation of Shoulder Upright row exercise

You can use a barbell, smith machine, free weights, or cable to perform upright rows. It is helpful to build for huge shoulders and traps.

Beginners are recommended to start with a cable machine, dumbbells, EZ bar, or bands

1. Wide Grip Barbell Upright Row

Barbell upright row is an excellent exercise to build huge Trapezius muscles and create that deltopectoral separation. Upright along with shrugs build massive traps.

Upright rows can be done with both narrow grips and wider ones. The narrow grip focuses on the trapezius, and the wider focuses on the entire shoulder girdle. Also, the wider grip allows some cheating movement, thereby allowing you to lift more weight.

Barbell Upright Row

How To Do Wide Grip Barbell Upright Row

  1. Hold a barbell with overhand grip and stand with your feet hip-width apart. Your grip on the barbell should be wider than shoulder-width apart. Let it hang in front of you.
  2. While keeping your barbell close to your body, lift the bar and get it up to chest height using your arms. Allow your shoulder blades to move naturally with your shoulder joints. Pause at the top of the movement.
  3. Now, lower the bar under controlled motion until it comes back to its starting position.
  4. Repeat the wide-grip upright row for your desired number of repetitions.

Tips

  • Focus on keeping your elbows higher than your forearms.
  • Keep a controlled motion and avoid jerky movements.
  • Keep your body upright, your shoulders back, and your chest out.

2. Dumbbell Upright Row

The dumbbell upright row is a compound exercise that builds stronger and bigger traps, and rear deltoids (Shoulder). 

This exercises variations allow for a greater range of movement (ROM). Dumbbells require more balance than barbells or machines, which can lead to greater muscle fiber recruitment.

It is a simple exercise to perform. You hold a dumbbell in each hand and lift them vertically until they’re level with your collarbone, before lowering them back down.

Muscle Worked during Dumbbell Upright Row

How To Do Upright Row With Dumbbell

  1. Hold a dumbbell with a narrow overhand grip and let it hang in front of you.
  2. Lift the dumbbell, get it as close as possible to the chest height using your arms, and elevate your shoulders to squeeze your trapezius muscles.
  3. Now, lower the dumbbell under controlled motion until it comes back to its starting position.

Tips

  • Remember to exhale while you exert.
  • Keep a controlled motion and avoid jerky movements.

3. Cable Upright Row

The cable upright row is a variation of the upright row and an exercise used to build the muscles of the shoulders and traps.

A cable pulley machine can be used for an shoulder upright row in that it provides constant tension on the target muscles as you move the weight through the range of motion.

Cable machines keep tension on the muscles throughout the entire range of motion, ultimately increasing muscle activation and hypertrophy.

Cable Upright Row

How To Do Upright Row With Cable

  1. Attach a straight bar to a low cable pulley. Grab the bar using a shoulder-width or wider overhand grip.
  2. Stand close to the pulley with your body upright, your shoulders pulled back.
  3. Exhale as you pull the bar up the front of your body until it reaches the level of your lower or middle chest.
  4. Do not pull the bar up any higher. Hold for a count of two. Inhale as you lower the bar to the starting position.

Tips

  • Bend slightly at the knees and stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Keep your shoulders back, chest out, and body upright.

4. One-Arm Dumbbell Upright Row

The single arm upright row is an upper body exercise that predominantly targets the anterior and lateral deltoids, which are responsible for adding width to your shoulders.

One arm dumbbell shoulder upright row is the unilateral variation on the dumbbell upright. The single-arm dumbbell upright is a popular movement for building stronger and bigger traps and shoulders.

One Arm Dumbbell Shrug

How To Do an Upright Row With One Arm

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in your left hand at your side.
  2. Slowly shrug your left shoulder up toward your ear. At the top, pause for a moment and contract the muscles.
  3. Slowly lower the weight back to the starting position.
  4. After completing all reps on the left side, repeat on the right side. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Tips

  • Keep a controlled motion and avoid jerky movements.
  • Keep your back straight and core tight.
  • Pause and squeeze the traps at the top of the movement, and then lower the dumbbells really slowly if you want to add a bit of intensity to the exercise.

5. Smith Machine Upright Row

The Smith machine upright row is a variation of the upright row and an exercise used to target the muscles of the shoulders.

The Smith machine provides a fixed movement pattern to better isolate the muscles of the shoulders.

Smith Machine Upright Row

How To Do Upright Row With Smith Machine

  1. Select the desired weight and load it onto a barbell. Unpack the bar by rotating the safety latches off the j-hooks.
  2. Inhale, brace your abs, and then lead the movement by driving the elbows high as you pull the bar to chest height.
  3. When the bar has reached its peak, reverse the movement slowly while controlling the bar back to the starting position.
  4. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Tips

  • Focus on keeping your elbows higher than your forearms.
  • Avoid using momentum to lift the bar. Instead, focus on deriving power from the upper body.

6. Kettlebell Upright Row

The Kettlebell upright row is a variation of the dumbbell shoulder upright row, and It allows more movement in your wrists and arms and is less likely to force any internal rotation of your shoulder.

Again, opt for a kettlebell in a bit less than half the weight of a barbell you were working with.

Kettlebell Upright Row

How To Do Upright Row With Kettlebell

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and the kettlebell in both hands.
  2. Tighten your core and lift the kettlebell by raising your elbows to your shoulders. Keep your elbows above your wrists.
  3. Control the kettlebell on the way back down, making sure to lower the kettlebell all the way down, so your arms are fully straightened.
  4. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Tips

  • Do not swing your upper body, try to keep your body steady and only move your arms.
  • Keep a controlled motion and avoid jerky movements.
  • Keep your back straight.

7. Prone incline wide-grip upright row

The upright row is an excellent exercise to build huge Trapezius muscles and create that deltopectoral separation. Shoulder Upright Rows along with shrugs can build massive traps.

Prone incline wide-grip upright row

How To Do Prone incline wide-grip upright row

  1. Lie chest down on an incline bench set to about 45 degrees and rest your knees on the seat.
  2. Holding a loaded barbell with a shoulder-width, pronated (overhand) grip, and let your arms fully extend.
  3. Row the weight up until elbows are bent at 90 degrees and then slowly lower it back down.
  4. Repeat for the prescribed number of repetitions.

Tips

  • For shoulder safety, avoid using a narrow grip with all upright rowing exercises.
  • Keep a controlled motion and avoid jerky movements.

Frequently Asked Question

Are upright rows bad for your elbow?

No, the upright row is not harmful to your shoulders, wrists, and elbows. It is important to make sure you are performing the upright row with proper technique, modifying the exercise based on your individual needs, and considering your training program as a whole.

Which muscles do upright rows work?

Upright rows primarily target your lateral delts and trap muscles. You will also feel them in your front shoulders, rear shoulders, arms, and core if you are standing.

How much weight should I use for an upright row?

It depends on your goals and how strong you are. You should not do this exercise with a lot of weight and few repetitions because it is a risky exercise for your joints. Pick a weight that will allow you to do 10 to 20 reps and 3-4 sets.

If you don’t use enough weight, you won’t get the benefits of the exercise, but if you use too much weight, you’ll end up with bad form and the possibility of getting hurt. Start with a weight that you are able to lift around 15 times with good intensity.

Takeaway

Upright row is an almost total upper body movement, targeting your shoulders, traps, forearms, and biceps. You can alter the movement by switching to dumbbells or by isolating your lateral delts further by utilizing lateral raises.

Try placing this exercise early on in your workout as it involves a lot of muscles, and you will want to smash this one whilst you’re fresh.

Thanks for reading.

Know More About Upright Workouts

References

1. Schoenfeld, Brad MSc, CSCS; Kolber, Morey J PT, PhD, CSCS; Haimes, Jonathan E BS, CSCS: The Upright Row: Implications for Preventing Subacromial ImpingementStrength and Conditioning Journal: October 2011 – Volume 33 – Issue 5 – p 25-28

2. Ronai, Peter MS, CSCS, RCEP: Exercise Modifications and Strategies to Enhance Shoulder Function. Strength and Conditioning Journal: August 2005 – Volume 27 – Issue 4 – p 36-45

3. McAllister M, Schilling B, Hammond K, Weiss L, Farney T. Effect of grip width on electromyographic activity during the upright rowJ Strength Cond PMID: 22362088 DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31824f23ad

4.Cools AM, Witvrouw EE, Declercq GA, Danneels LA, Cambier DC. Scapular muscle recruitment patterns: Trapezius muscle latency with and without impingement symptoms. Am J Sports Med 31: 542–549, 2003.

5. Int J Environ Res Public Health. Trapezius muscle timing during selected shoulder rehabilitation exercises. 2021 Jun 14;18(12):6444. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18126444.PMID: 34198674

6. Lorenzetti S, Dayer R, Pluss M, List R. Pulling exercises for strength training and rehabilitation: movements and loading conditionsJ Funct Morphol Kinesiol. 2017;2(3):33. doi:10.3390/jfmk2030033

7. Mazur LJ, Yetman RJ, Risser WL. Weight-training injuries. Common injuries and preventative methods. Sports Med 16: 57–63, 1993.

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