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June 13, 2022 8 min read

The Smith Machine upright row is a variation of the upright row that can help get you bigger deltoids and trapezius muscles. The Smith Machine can give you an advantage over dumbbell upright rows or upright rows with a barbell.

This upper back and shoulder workout can effectively replace or complement deltoid raise and a lateral raise. The Smith machine is the perfect tool for the upright row, which is a finicky movement that requires balanced movement with every rep of the barbell.

The Smith Machine Upright Row

Doing upright rows with a barbell or dumbbells can be an awkward movement for beginners.

Upright rows are a great exercise on their own, but the Smith Machine allows for an opportunity to increase stability in our lift and alleviate the need to focus on balance and spacing. 

Due to the nature of the Smith Machine being on a track, once you establish your footing, it’s easy. The barbell is stuck in a vertical plane, so all you have to worry about is your arm spacing. 

Extra stability is just one of the many benefits the Smith Machine upright row can provide. 

Benefits of a Smith Machine Upright Row

Upright rows and Smith Machine upright rows are great exercises to isolate the delts, triceps, and upper back muscles, specifically the upper trapezius.

If you’re looking for a good upper body compound movement exercise to incorporate into your next back and shoulder day, then the upright row with a Smith Machine may be right up your alley.

The Smith Machine upright row is a good option for anyone who struggles with shoulder mobility during exercises like the lateral raise, delt raise, or rear delt fly.

It is easier to move since it can only go up or down. If your form with free weights is sloppy, the Smith Machine is your friend. The Smith Machine is a valuable tool that can help train and practice ideal form, but with overuse it can also become a crutch, making up for a lack of stability.

This variation of the upright row is popular in bodybuilding because of how extremely effective it can be at targeting the trapezius.

Tip: It should be noted that you want to be healthy enough to train the shoulders before attempting this exercise. Upright rows can exacerbate any musculoskeletal issues in the shoulders, rotator cuffs, wrists, and forearms. If you are dealing with any pains or sprains, chronic or acute, then try this exercise only with caution.

How to do a Smith Machine Upright Row

The Smith Machine row can be tricky at first, but once you master hand placement and elbow movement, it’s easy.

To perform a Smith Machine upright row:

  1. Set the bar just above your waist. Load the barbell with weight. Your ideal weight will be a little less than your bicep curls weight and a little more than your reverse curls weight. Try adding 30 lbs to the barbell and go from there.
  2. In the starting position, stand front and center of the bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart, just outside of your thighs. The bar should be just a few inches in front of you.
  3. Unlatch the barbell from the Smith Machine with an overhand grip. Hold onto the bar and let it drop down to your waist.
  4. Lift the barbell up to your chest. Use your elbows to drive the lift. Your elbows should be above your wrists.
  5. Pull up with your elbows, until your elbows reach about ear level. Your arms should be making a wide V shape. Squeeze your back on the way up, as if you were squeezing a coin between your rhomboids. Keep the bar close to your chest.
  6. Slowly release the barbell back down to the starting position.
  7. Repeat for 10-30 repetitions. Try 4-6 sets of this exercise, depending on your training styles and goals, or until your delts are thoroughly worked out.

Smith Machine Upright Row Alternatives

The upright row can be beneficial for your upper body, but there are different ways to perform it in case the equipment isn't available, or you just want some variety.

Cable Upright Rows

The closest alternative to a Smith Machine upright row is the cable upright row. The cable will feel similar to a Smith Machine, because the range of motion is relatively static.

The cable can help you stay on track, but you will have more control than you would with a Smith Machine.

Another similarity with the cable is that it easily facilitates a slow, controlled descent. With a cable, you have the option of transforming the upright row into a time under tension upper body exercise.

To perform a cable upright row:

  1. Set a single low pulley cable to the bottom setting, near the floor.
  2. Attach a bar to the cable. Make sure it is large enough to have at least a comfortable shoulder-width grip.
  3. Position yourself so that the cable is up and down in a vertical plane. You don’t the cable to go up, not out towards you.
  4. Set your weight. Most athletic beginners should try about  30 lbs to start and work their way up from there.
  5. Grab the bar with an overhand grip (knuckles facing up), shoulder width apart. Your hands should be just outside of your knees
  6. Step just a few inches away from the bar.
  7. Lift the bar with your elbows,  all the way up to your chest. Stop when your elbows hit ear level.
  8. Repeat for 10-30 repetitions, depending on training style and ability.

Close Grip Smith Machine Upright Rows


You can also do a close grip upright row on the Smith Machine. The benefit of a close grip upright row is that it allows your elbows to go even higher, thereby increasing deltoid engagement.

The close grip upright row also incorporates the bicep more than a shoulder-width grip or wide grip upright row.

A word of caution, however. Close grip upright rows do increase tension on the rotator cuff. If you have shoulder pain and/or mobility problems, attempt the close grip version of this exercise with caution. You do not want to cause rotation of your upper arm because you went too close and too high.

To perform a close grip Smith Machine upright row:

  1. Set the bar just above your waist. Load the barbell with weight like you would with a wider grip.
  2. In the starting position, stand front and center of the bar (from the inside of the Smith Machine, facing out) with your hands about shoulder width apart with an overhand grip just outside of your thighs. The bar should be just a few inches in front of you.
  3. Unlatch the barbell from the Smith Machine with an overhand grip. Hold onto the bar and let it drop down to your waist.
  4. Lift the barbell up to your chest. Use your elbows to drive the lift. Your elbows should be above your wrists.
  5. Pull up with your elbows, until your elbows reach about ear level, but no further. Your arms should make a V shape. Squeeze your back on the way up, as if you were squeezing a coin between your rhomboids. Keep the bar close to your chest and lean back.
  6. Bring the barbell up to ear height. Exhale at the apex of each of your reps.
  7. Slowly release the barbell back down to the starting position, breathing on the way down.
  8. Repeat for 10-30 repetitions. Try 4-6 sets of this exercise, depending on your training styles and goals, or until your delts are thoroughly worked out.

Smith Machine Wide Grip Upright Rows


For those who are beginners at the upright row, you may want to start off with a wide grip. A stance where your hands are placed just outside of your shoulders is best to start out. Then, experiment with going wider. A wide grip upright row with a Smith Machine, according to Jim Stoppani, will target all three heads of the deltoid—the anterior deltoid, posterior deltoid and medial deltoid.

To perform a wide grip Smith Machine upright row:

  1. Set the bar just above your waist. Load the barbell with weight just like if you were doing a standard grip Smith Machine upright row.
  2. In the starting position, stand front and center of the bar (from the inside of the Smith Machine, facing out) with your hands in an overhand grip, about 4-6 inches wider than shoulder-width apart, just outside of your thighs. The bar should be just a few inches in front of you.
  3. Unlatch the barbell from the Smith Machine with an overhand grip. Hold onto the bar and let it drop down to your waist.
  4. Lift the barbell up to your chest. Use your elbows to drive the lift. Your elbows should be above your wrists.
  5. Pull up with your elbows, until your elbows reach about ear level, but no further. Your arms will make less of a V shape than if you were doing a standard grip or close grip upright row. Squeeze your lats, trapezius muscles, and rhomboids on the way up, as if you were squeezing a coin between your rhomboids. Keep the bar close to your chest and lean back.
  6. Bring the bar all the way up to about ear height, at least to your shoulders. If you can’t bring it up to your shoulders then your weight is too heavy.
  7. Slowly release the barbell back down to the starting position.
  8. Repeat for 10-20 repetitions. Try 4-6 sets of this exercise, depending on your training styles and goals, or until your delts are thoroughly worked out.

The best overall deltoid engagement in the upright row can happen when lifters use a wide grip on the barbell.

Form and Strategy Tips

  • Try both sides of the Smith Machine. There is a slight angle to the track of the Smith Machine. The upright row can be accomplished from both sides of the track. If your upright row feels awkward, like you are leaning forward, then try standing on the inside of the rack, facing outward. The angle on the tracks of Smith Machine will allow you to lean back slightly, engaging your delts even more effectively.
  • Lighten up! This is not a machine to go heavy on. There is no reason to try to max out on an upright row. This is a compound exercise with some isolated delt benefits. This isn’t a competitive exercise, and it isn’t cool to tear your rotator cuff. Play it safe. Light weight, high rep is the way to go with any upright row.
  • Tune out distractions. The upright row is an advanced movement that requires concentration in order to be executed safely and correctly. Supplements can help. For extreme focus when you need it, try FOCUSED-AF.
  • Be mindful of your range of motion. Lifting the bar up too high or too low will be detrimental to your gains with this particular upper body workout. You want to bring your elbows up to your ears, but not above them. The minimum height you need to get decent deltoid engagement in the upright row is shoulder height. With the Smith Machine, it’s easier to get the bar up higher. Use it to your advantage!
  • Recover with protein. This may sound obvious, but getting adequate macronutrients is vital for muscle growth, so eating after strength training is important. To ensure that you’re getting your protein calories in, try the delicious, VEG-PRO protein.

Try Out the Smith Machine 

The Smith Machine upright row is a great alternative to traditional dumbbell upright rows and barbell upright rows. The track simplifies the movement so effectively, that it makes deltoid engagement easy, and it is one of the best movements to target your trapezius muscles and the rest of your upper back and triceps.

Muscle growth in the delts will help you get that defined V-cut look that you are looking for, and the Smith Machine upright row is the way to do it.

If you are mindful of your range of motion throughout every one of your reps, your hand placement, and your keep the weight light enough to handle at least 10-20 solid reps, then you’re on your way to mastering the Smith Machine upright row.

For more advanced back exercises, check out the 10 best back exercises for strength.