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January 10, 2022
Although the upright row is a great exercise to build up the shoulders and traps, it is also very easy to mess up your shoulder joint if you have bad form or go too heavy.
So, the question becomes, is it even worth doing? We think yes, but you really need to make sure you are doing it with the right technique and avoiding common mistakes.
With any exercise, there is a risk-reward ratio that you need to assess to determine if it's right for you. Any exercise can lead to injury, some are just more prone to injury than others. And while the upright row is among the more risky, with correct form and technique, all should be stellar.
With that in mind, 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.
An upright row is a vertical, upward pulling movement that builds and strengthens the deltoids and upper traps.
While the upright row can be performed with a variety of different equipment, we will briefly explain how it is performed with a barbell:
Holding a barbell with an overhand grip about shoulder-width (or more) apart (feet hip-to-shoulder-width apart, chest tall, shoulders retracted, and core engaged), lift the barbell upward by bending at the elbows and bringing them up toward the ceiling (almost as if there were strings on your elbows and someone was pulling them straight up in the air), while keeping the barbell close to your torso throughout lift. When the barbell is at about chest height, pause then slowly lower your arms back down until they reach full extension. Repeat the movement for the desired number of repetitions.
There are various types of equipment that can be used for an upright row.
Beginners are recommended to start with a cable machine, dumbbells, EZ bar, or bands.
Upright rows are considered to be a compound movement, since there are several different joints and muscles that are working at the same time in order to complete the movement:
The rhomboids, teres major, lats, and core muscles are also engaged during an upright row, although their actions aren’t as prominent as the ones listed above (aside from the core, which should be turned on and working throughout the entire movement).
While the upright row is certainly a controversial exercise (and honestly, can injure the shoulders if done incorrectly), it does have undeniable benefits.
Firstly, it's an effective isolation exercise to build beefy traps and delts. This is the main reason people do them...
...but if you need more benefits than that...
When considering upper body pulling motions, you have horizontal pulls and vertical pulls - You are likely doing plenty of horizontal pulls (i.e. seated rows and bent over rows) and vertical downward pulls (i.e. pull ups or lat pull downs), but are you doing vertical upward pulls? Likely, not.
As such, it's a good movement to train just based on well-roundedness.
As humans, if we are able to move in a certain way, such as an upward pulling motion with our arms, then we should be able to strengthen that motion too! It's not as if this exercise is moving you in a way that is unnatural. In life, you do pull upward against resistance occasionally, right?
If you are wondering when, let us give you two simple examples - pulling groceries up into your trunk or lifting your suitcase onto the weight scale at the airport.
So, it's not like you will only be doing it in the gym, and thus, it makes sense on a functional and aesthetic level.
It’s also important to note that strengthening the shoulders and upper back will translate into things like improvements in posture. While this might not be a forerunner in upright row benefits, it’s an important one, especially since so much of our posture is focused on the upper back, like the shoulder blades. Strengthening and stabilizing these muscles will only work for our good.
Note: In terms of performance, the upright row is particularly useful for those who do powerlifting, strongman, and Olympic lifting. For example, the upright row will directly help to improve the Snatch and Clean.
With the overhand grip that is present during an upright row, the shoulders are placed into an internally rotated position, which decreases mobility and can possibly squish or pinch tendons within the shoulder joint as you raise your elbows into the air. With added resistance and too great of a range of motion, this can lead to a shoulder injury, often an impingement, especially if there has been previous injury to that particular site.
There can be several factors at play here if pain in the shoulders is present with an upright row (such as performing the movement incorrectly, or using too much weight), and even more so if you already have a shoulder complication.
Upright rows should probably not be a part of your lifting routine if you haven’t been cleared by your physical therapist and/or orthopedic doctor after an injury or surgery. Even if you don’t have an injury, upright rows should still be approached with caution.
Another reason shoulder pain is common with this movement is because of a lack of a decent warmup, therefore putting your shoulders (and the corresponding musculature) at risk of injury. The shoulders are very complex, and also very unstable – meaning that exercises done involving this particular joint should be approached thoughtfully and carefully, and integrated with other upper body movements. A dynamic warmup, including moves like the active dead hang, that allow for proper movement, increased mobility, and improved blood flow to the area will help prepare the body for upright rows. So, ensure that you have a well-rounded program that can incorporate this movement correctly.
If your shoulders are healthy and you follow these simple rules, you should not have any issues with pain:
1. NEVER USE A NARROW GRIP:
The narrow grip puts undue stress on the delicate muscles of your rotator cuff. Put simply, if you have pre-existing issues with your shoulder, stay away from close-grip upright rows. No questions asked. And if you have concern for future injuries, also avoid narrow grip. The only reason a narrow grip makes sense is that it better targets the traps and forearms, but in the end, the risk-reward is not worth it as there are better exercises for the traps and forearms.
As for a wide grip upright row, there is much less risk for shoulder joint issues, and the wider grip emphasizes the side delts more, which is why most people do upright rows in the first place - win win.
Below is the perfect example of a grip width that is safe for the shoulders.
2. DON'T PULL UP PAST YOUR SHOULDERS:
A study performed by the Strength and Conditioning Journal noted that impingement within the shoulder joint normally happens between 70 and 120 degrees as the upper arm elevates, so stopping at just below a 90-degree angle – essentially, stopping the pull as your elbow reaches shoulder height – can help reduce or completely eliminate pain.
The point is, only pull up as far as you are comfortable and the general rule of thumb is no more than shoulder height for your elbows.
3. KEEP THE MOTION CLOSE TO YOUR BODY:
As you pull upward, the implement must stay close to the body. Keep it in a direct upward path just in front of your body. Keeping the path close to your body can help you reach your desired elbow height appropriately, without trying to pull the weight up while it is hanging way out in front of your body.
4. DON'T GO TOO HEAVY:
Don't go heavier than you can handle. Although this is true for every exercise, it is particularly true for upright rows. Always start light and work up from there.
Even then, upright rows are going to be better done with lighter weight in the 15-20 rep range rather than heavy for 6-10 reps. So, keep that in mind too.
5. USE THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT:
As long as you follow the points above, you can use any of the equipment we mentioned. However, if you are still worried about your shoulders, we highly recommend using dumbbells, cable pulley machine or an EZ bar with a wide grip. These are generally more forgiving on the joints. Resistance bands are also a good alternative.
Most people who experience pain from upright rows with free weights find doing an upright row on a cable machine with a straight bar handle using a wide grip to be completely pain free.
Overall, switching up the means of resistance in regards to your upright rows can help reduce or eliminate shoulder pain, since different implements might change your range of motion or the amount of weight you can lift. Regardless of which piece of equipment you choose, make sure that you can perform the upright row with proper form and technique before adding any extra weight!
How to do an upright row correctly:
Upright Row Training Variables
Because the upright row is a complex movement, it is a good idea to start with the weight low until your form and technique are where they need to be – especially if you are dealing with (or have dealt previously) with a shoulder injury.
Also, go slow. This is not a speed exercise. Upright rows place the shoulders into internal rotation, which can cause injury if precise technique is not followed.
Generally speaking, upright rows are better done with light-to-moderate weight in the 15-20 rep range, as well as moderate weight in the 10-15 rep range when you are very comfortable with the movement and your shoulder strength.
If you are concerned about your shoulders while doing upright rows, there are several other alternatives that you can incorporate into your fitness routine that will work the same muscle groups – without the possible pinching at the shoulder joint.
The lateral raise is what most people recommend to those who are worried about upright rows because they target the side deltoids too. The lateral raise is a great isolation exercise for the side delts. That said, it's not without its risk either. Heavy lateral raises really fall into the same boat as upright rows when it comes to impingement of the rotator cuff tendons. Nevertheless, as along as you are doing them correctly and not overreaching with weight, you should be fine. It's best to go light with high reps. The side delts respond best to this. While dumbbells are good, cables and resistance bands are also good options for lateral raises as they are more forgiving to the shoulder joint.
If you were thinking to do upright rows for your traps, then traps raises would be a great alternative. Trap raises are pretty damn safe, so not much to say on that front. In terms of training variables, since the traps have a higher ratio of slow twitch muscle fibers (endurance muscle), it's best to hit them with moderate weight for higher reps. Aim for sets of 12 or even 15+. That said, it's good to work in various rep ranges.
Armpit rows work both your traps and delts like an upright row, in addition to the biceps. The general movement is actually quite similar, but the major difference is your hands are in a neutral position at your sides which means there is no internal rotation of the shoulder joint. Of course, this eliminates the concern that you get with the upright row.
Other good alternatives:
While the upright row can be a good exercise for strengthening the upper body when done correctly, it’s not the perfect exercise for everyone. Because of the ever-present possibility of injury, form is crucial with this movement – as is starting light and moving the weight properly, while keeping your shoulders active and your core engaged. If you have any concern, speak with a local fitness specialist or personal trainer (and of course, your PCP) before adding upright rows into your routine.
To sum up how to do upright rows without shoulder pain, just remember these tips:
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