December 11, 2021 10 min read

The upright row is an exercise that’s gotten a lot of flack in recent years.

That's because if done with improper form, it can lead to shoulder impingement while also engaging certain muscles that are often overdeveloped.

However, the kettlebell is one way to circumvent many of these issues that appear in the conventional upright row.

But as always, the key is proper form, and with enough practice and hard work, you can bring your shoulders and upper back to the next level—gaining shoulders like boulders and an upper back that’ll take any load.

Back view of anonymous bodybuilder doing barbell upright rowing on dark background.

The Benefits of Upright Rows

The upright row is one of the more popular ways to develop the shoulders and the upper back muscles. A compound exercise, it’s best done as a supplemental activity on days where you’ll be hitting these areas of your body with heavier weights.

The muscles worked by rows will all work to make any pulling and lifting movements much easier.

Not only will this have great carryover benefits to other lifts in the gym (such as other row exercises and deadlifts), but also will provide a functional exercise that can help you in day-to-day movements such as lifting grocery bags.

The upright row is often used for bodybuilding since the lift is better programmed with lighter to mid weights. However, as a strength training exercise, the upright row has been shown to even be beneficial for firefighters.

The Benefits of Kettlebells

The conventional benefit of a barbell (or EZ bar) for lifts is that you’re able to use heavier weights, thereby eliciting greater strength gains. This is no less true for barbell upright rows since both sides of your body are working to lift the same load, allowing you to move a greater volume. However, the bar isn’t the best way to perform the upright row because of the issues around shoulder impingement.

Shoulder impingement is when you rotate the upper arm forward and then lift it out to the sides. When you perform this sort of movement, your shoulder blade bone is hit by a piece of bone that projects from your humerus (in the upper arm). This contact is what causes the impingement, and what’ll lead to shoulder pain in the long run.

This is a common problem when using a bar since both of your hands are attached to the same piece of equipment.

The best way to alleviate this is to either use a wider grip or to use dumbbells. Kettlebells, however, are also a good option because they allow you to grasp the weight at a more comfortable angle. This is because they allow more movement in both your wrists and your arms, decreasing the chance of shoulder impingement occurring.

Muscles Worked

The upright row primarily hits the shoulder and upper back muscles. This includes the deltoids, rhomboids, and trapezius muscles. For example, the rhomboids connect your shoulder blades, and developing them will allow for a better posture.

Put together, the upright row will lead to generally better strength and stability in the upper back and shoulder region.

This is an important area of the body that’s used in many different lifts and functional movements that you perform every day.

Along with these primary muscles, your biceps will also experience significant engagement due to the pulling motion in the exercise. Your abdominals and glutes also need to stay engaged during the lift, eliciting some growth in these areas as well.

How to Kettlebell Upright Row

 

Since this exercise plays a relatively high level of stress on the shoulders, it’s good to have them warmed up with shoulder stretches. Loosening up your shoulders will allow you to get more out of the exercise, both in terms and gains and better being able to avoid injuries.

Before you begin, choose an appropriate weight to use.

If this is your first time performing an upright row, it’s best to pick a weight that’s not too heavy. Continue with this lighter weight until you feel comfortable with the form and you think you’ve gotten down the movement pattern well.

Once you’ve chosen a comfortable kettlebell, it’s time to row:

  1. Plant your feet shoulder-width apart or slightly wider. Your toes can be slightly pointed outward. Hinge at the hips, pushing your butt back as you bend over to grab the handle of the kettlebell in front of you. Keep your eyes in front of you and maintain a straight back throughout the lift.
  2. Driving through your feet, straighten your legs, and come to a standing position. Your chest should be pushed up and high, with your knees locked out. Allow the kettlebell to hang in front of you held by both hands. This is going to be your starting position.
  3. Maintain a squeeze in your abdominals and glutes to keep you stable, and have your feet firmly planted into the ground.
  4. Leading with your elbows, drive the kettlebell upward. Raise the kettlebell until it comes up to your chin and bring your elbows up, also pulling back your shoulders. Pause at the top of the movement for a count.
  5. Once you’ve paused, slowly lower the kettlebell back down in a controlled manner. Come back into the starting position and repeat for the desired amount of reps and sets.

Programming Your Kettlebell Workout

When it comes to most weightlifting exercises, there are two ways to approach programming them into your workout routine. You can either aim for strength training, which requires heavier weights done over a lower number of repetitions. Or, you can aim for hypertrophy (or muscle mass gains) where the weight used is low to mid-range, while the rep count is significantly higher.

Since we’re using a kettlebell for this exercise, you’re not going to be able to use as much weight as with a barbell. This makes this lift a great option if you want to build muscle over strength.Choosing a weight that’s not as heavy is also a good idea in terms of trying to avoid any shoulder impingement from occurring.

If you’re just a beginner starting out with the kettlebell upright row, aim for a weight you can comfortably do for 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps. This is going to be the ballpark range you aim for, and you can tweak the rep counts as you become more comfortable with the lift and better understand if it works for you. The upright row should also be done as a finishing move for the shoulders, performed only once you’ve completed your conventional shoulder workout using lifts that require heavier weights.

Tips for a Better Row

The upright row is a relatively simple exercise to perform, but it does put your shoulders in a precarious position. This is why it’s important to do it with perfect form, while also keeping in mind certain things that will make the movement easier on your joints.Here are some of the key things to remember next time you’re kettlebell rowing.  

Too Heavy or Too High

The major thing you want to try to avoid with the upright row is the internal rotation of the shoulders. This can most easily be avoided by not pulling the weight up so high.You want to pause the ascent of the lift before your elbows come up above your shoulders. This is the easiest way to avoid any internal rotation issues, and it’ll better keep the emphasis on the delts.

Usually, once you start raising the kettlebell too high, a lot of the focus shifts towards the traps at the expense of the medial delts. And if you want beefy shoulders, you want to give your medial delts enough attention. This also means you’ll likely not be able to move as much weight during the exercise.

But this is a good thing—you don’t want to destroy your shoulders by using loads that are way too heavy for your joints to support. By limiting the ascent and the amount of weight you use, you’ll be able to avoid much of the internal rotation while also playing into bodybuilding training that emphasizes muscle mass gains.

Pulling the Shoulders Back

Although it is called an upright row, you do want to think of the lift as more than just bringing the kettlebell straight upward.Once you get to the top of the movement—with your elbows slightly below shoulder-level—try to bring your shoulders backward. This movement should sort of replicate a bent-over row, where you squeeze your shoulder blades back to better emphasize the rear delts.

The goal is to get your elbows behind your torso, but this will make the movement a lot more difficult. You can try to rotate your wrists upward slightly to give you an easier range of motion, but you’ll still likely have to use a lighter weight than normal. These things combined will go even further to ensure that your shoulders aren’t being internally rotated.

Back Straight and Engaged Muscles

Pulling your shoulders all the way back will also help in terms of keeping your back straight throughout the lift.While you don’t want to internally rotate your shoulders, you also definitely want to avoid arching your spine. Keeping this neutral spine will be easier if you maintain an engaged core and glutes. Although this is an upper body exercise, you want to feel the tension everywhere in your body.

This will help you keep stable and will also allow you to better generate force in the correct movement pattern. Your chest should be kept up with your eyes looking straight ahead. There also shouldn’t be any motion in the legs. You’re not going to be able to do any of these other things if the rest of your body doesn’t provide a solid base to work from.

Variations of the Kettlebell Upright Row

The kettlebell upright row is already a variation of the conventional upright row, performed with either a regular barbell or an EZ bar. As we saw above, the kettlebell row is a more shoulder-friendly variation over the conventional upright row. However, there are ways to make it even more useful and joint-friendly.Once you get the movement pattern down well, dumbbells are an even safer way to perform the upright row.

This is because both your hands aren’t attached to one weight (i.e., the kettlebell or barbell). Since both of your hands can move upward separately, this means your joints are going to be able to rotate more naturally. At the end of the day, this results in even fewer possibilities for shoulder impingement. Using dumbbells will also require less weight to be used since both arms will be working independently, this goes even further in limiting shoulder impingement.

And lastly, as it’s a unilateral exercise, the dumbbell upright row will also address any left/right muscle imbalances. The cable machine upright row is another option that can bring your row game up to the next level. With a cable, you’ll be introducing a constant level of tension throughout the lift. This will challenge muscle fibers that aren’t normally engaged as much due to the free weight version having easier and more difficult portions of the lift.

Squats and Lunges

If you’re looking to make this a full-body exercise that’s great for high-intensity interval training or as a general aerobic exercise, introducing a lower body portion can get your heart pumping even more.Using the kettlebell to sumo squat followed by an upright row is a great way to further condition your quads, glutes, and hamstrings.

Performing an upright row followed by a lunge is also a good way to condition your lower body while developing your upper body alongside. This works well with lower weights because you’ll be able to perform these movements at a faster pace. This will get your breathing harder, your blood pumping, and will allow for a cardio workout while also conditioning your muscles.

Alternatives to the Kettlebell Row

It’s no secret that the upright row isn’t viewed too favorably by many lifters because of its risks when it comes to shoulder impingement. The lift can be performed safely if done with proper form, but there are other options that work the same or similar muscle groups.

These options rotate your elbow joints in safer ways that don’t place as much unnecessary pressure on this area. They’re also terrific for further conditioning and growing the muscles in the shoulders and the upper back, which makes them a fantastic addition to any workout program looking for lifts that develop these areas.

Dumbbell Scaption Raise

If you’re looking for bigger and better delts, look no further than the dumbbell scaption. This is one of the best exercises for developing the delts while also engaging the upper back. They’re also a lot better for your shoulders than upright rows.

In fact, the scaption raise is a great way to not only avoid shoulder impingement but also increase shoulder health in the long run. By engaging many different muscle fibers around the shoulder region, the scaption raise will prepare your shoulders for heavier and more exertive lifts.

To perform the scaption raise all you need is a pair of dumbbells.

Standing up straight with the dumbbells in your hands and by your side, engage the delts to slowly bring the dumbbells up to shoulder height with your arms straight. Your arms should angle out at 30 to 45 degrees, forming a Y-shape.

Farmers Carry

 

One of the most practical exercises out there, the farmers carry simply requires you to carry a weight in your hand while also walking forward with a straight back.While the movement itself is extremely simple, it’s an amazing exercise for not only developing the shoulders, but also the traps. In fact, the farmers carry does a better job of developing posture than the upright pull.

Instead of pulling the traps upward, the farmers carry pulls them down, effectively counteracting the effects from any desk job. And as a cherry on top, the farmers carry is an amazing exercise for developing the core since you need tight abdominals to keep you upright.

Rowing to Better Upper Body Health

Although the movement itself is simple at first glance, the kettlebell upright row requires a lot of fines to pull off safely while also garnering all of the benefits. With enough practice and hard work, the upright row can become anyone’s shoulder and upper back workout of choice.However, the exercise itself is only going to get you so far towards your fitness goals.

For your athletic and physique goals to be reached, the way you treat your body is going to be the biggest factor that either helps you in your journey or impedes you.This means getting enough rest and eating the right foods. Without all of these tenets in place, even the most perfect upright row form isn’t going to save you.