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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
March 11, 2022
The upright row is a vertical pulling exercise and a foundational movement pattern that is the basis of a lot of Olympic lifting and other vertical pulling variations. Upright rows can be performed with a variety of tools including a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, EZ bar, cable machine, and resistance bands. But the granddaddy and most performed variation is the barbell upright row. It’s the variation that allows you to build the most strength and power...but it’s not for everyone. With the shoulders being internally rotated and abducted from your body it is a vulnerable place for your shoulder joint for those who lack good shoulder mobility.
If the upright row is uncomfortable for you, no worries, there are plenty of good alternatives. Here we will go into the upright row, how to do it, movements and muscles trained, and 9 exercises that can replace the upright row.
Ready to get a bigger yoke and upper back? Let’s get into it.
The upright barbell row is a vertical pulling exercise where the bar is at a dead hang at arm’s length and only using your upper body, you row the barbell up towards your collarbone. It forms the basis of Olympic lifting exercises, such as the clean and snatch.
The upright row is usually performed with a shoulder-width grip, but you can adjust your grip slightly to emphasize certain muscles over others. For example, a close grip focuses on the shoulders and a wide grip focuses on the traps
Stand up straight with that barbell held at arm’s length by your waist. With your arms relaxed, your shoulders down and back and your knuckles pointed towards the ground. Engage your quads and glutes to keep the back neutral. Then bend your elbows and pull them straight up and out while keeping the barbell close to your body until it reaches chest height. Control the movement on the way down and rest and repeat.
The upright core is mainly an upper body exercise with the core area giving support to allow the upper body muscles to do their job.
Here are the muscles trained by the upright row...
Trapezius & Other Upper Back Muscles: The traps are involved in pulling or shrugging the barbell up. The scapula outwardly rotates and adducts to pull the barbell up powerfully and this is in the trap's wheelhouse. The vertical pulling motion of this exercise allows the traps to take over in pulling the barbell up.
The upper back has a few roles with the upright row. First, upward rotation of the shoulder blades to initiate the pull. Plus, because the weight is anterior you engage your upper back to remain in an upright posture and to keep the bar close to your body.
Deltoids: All three heads of the delts (anterior, middle, and posterior) are involved in driving shoulder abduction and to the upward motion of the upright row. The delts are the driving force for pulling the barbell up to your chest.
Biceps: The fast-bending motion of your during the upright row is where elbow flexion comes in. The biceps work in concert with the deltoids and upper back to pull the barbell close to your body.
Anterior and Posterior Core: The muscles surrounding the spine contract isometrically to remain in good posture and for the larger muscles above to do their job.
The upright row is a great exercise to develop the shoulders and traps. But on the other hand, it’s not the greatest exercise for your shoulder joint. This is particularly true with close-grip upright rows or when pulling too high.
With the internal rotation of the shoulder joint at the start combined with shoulder abduction during the pull, some tendons in the shoulder can get pinched by the bones in your shoulder.
This is known as impingement. And this may not hurt you immediately but when the tendon gets worn down over time, it becomes a problem. This is why you need to pay attention to your pain levels, modify your form, and reduce volume if your shoulders begin to hurt. OR just do an alternative exercise to the upright row.
Those with existing shoulder issues or mobility issues are better to work on horizontal rows and some of the alternatives below while also working on their shoulder mobility.
The prime movers with the upright row are the:
The upright row requires shoulder abduction and scapular upward rotation and the prime moves for these are the upper traps and lateral deltoids. So, when considering an alternative, it is a must to include these muscles and movements.
Although the upper back and biceps are trained, they are involved to a lesser extent and are trained with many other exercises. Better to focus on modifications, performing shoulder abduction and upward rotation with other tools.
If the upright row bothers your shoulders or you’re looking for variety, take these 9 upright row alternatives out for a spin.
The dumbbell upright row can be performed with one or two dumbbells. When holding one dumbbell, you can explore more comfortable ranges of motion due to the freedom of movement. It's better to work unilaterally to strengthen imbalances between sides and to put the shoulder joint at less risk while still training the same movement pattern.
The barbell inverted row is an upper back and bicep back staple. But it locks your grip into an over or under position which may be problematic if you have any joint issues. Enter the TRX Inverted row and your ability to change grip, positions and the instability of the suspension straps improves core stability. This is all helpful if you have any wrist, elbow, or shoulder issues.
The snatch pull trains lower and upper body power because the lower body is involved in pulling the barbell up. This exercise mimics the snatch deadlift (set-up) and the pulling part of the upright row but with a snatch grip to row the barbell up. Because you’re using the lower body, you’re able to use more weight than the strict upright row. The wide grip is a little easier on your shoulder joint but tougher on your upper back.
The barbell high pull is a great alternative for the upright row, as it mimics the upright row and uses similar muscle groups. The difference between the two is the lower body drive provided by the hip hinge. This momentum helps with the pull and allows you to use more weight the strict upright row. There's no need to row too high (elbows to shoulder height is fine if your mobility is limited).
The unilateral dumbbell snatch is a powerful unilateral exercise where the middle part of the movement closely resembles the upright row, making it a good alternative. Like with the snatch pull and barbell high pull, the lower body drive is trained here so you’ll train more muscle and total body power.
When you want to train your lateral delts, look no further than the dumbbell lateral raise. This is a great alternative if the upright row bothers your shoulders. The lateral raise mostly trains the lateral deltoid but if you take it above shoulder height, you’ll get some upper trap engagement also.
The cable or band face pull trains the upper back, deltoids, and biceps making it a solid substitute to the upright row. The external rotation at the end of the face pull will help pull the shoulders down and back, activating the traps and rhomboids, No need to go heavy here because you want to ‘feel’ those muscles working and not let your biceps take over too much.
Related: Face Pull Alternatives
The TRX YTW is almost three exercises in one and strengthens the upper back and traps from different angles without aggravating the shoulder joint. This is a great upright row alternative, correcting poor posture and strengthening the muscles surrounding the shoulder. As an extra bonus, the W part of the move strengthens the rear deltoids and the rotator cuff to help improve the mobility and health of your shoulders.
Overhead carries puts your whole body under tension and every step is a test of your single-leg balance. This means it’s better to start on the lighter side somewhere between 60-80% of your overhead press 1RM. Overhead carries give your deltoids, upper back, and upper traps significant time under tension making it a great alternative to the upright row even though there is no pulling involved.
Note: There are many other overhead carry variations (such as with dumbbells or kettlebells - both unilateral and double) all with similar benefits.
Except for the overhead carry, here are a few programming suggestions for the eight other upright row alternatives.
The power full-body variations, the high pull, dumbbell snatch, and the snatch pull are best trained explosively for lower reps and a weight you can move quickly. Lower reps of around four to eight and three to five sets work well. These are best trained when you’re fresh and have the most energy.
The other upright row alternatives are best trained for muscular endurance, hypertrophy, and shoring-up weakness. Two to four sets of between 12-15 reps is a good start. Train these movements after your big strength movement for the day as part of your accessory exercise routine.
The barbell upright row is an exercise that builds size and strength in your upper traps and shoulders, but it is not for everybody. It’s a move that’s tough on the shoulder joint. But rather than scrap it completely, these 9 upright row alternatives will train the movement and the muscles of the upright row. Happy training.
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