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October 09, 2020 10 min read

We all want to love the upright row. All you need is a bar and some weights, and it targets those muscles on your upper chest that tend to be tricky to sculpt. It turns out, however, that the appealing nature of the exercise is also what makes it so easy to injure those same muscles you’re targeting.

The upright row is perfectly devised to wear down your intricate and delicate shoulder tendons, work against the natural anatomy of your body, and leave you looking for a proper exercise later down the line once you’re left sitting with the regret.

Today we’re going to avoid all of that altogether, we’re going to break down the myth, show you some alternatives, and give you the tools you need for long term effective success.

What Exactly is an Upright Row?

The upright row is a standing exercise that requires perfect form, and even then you’re running the risk for injury. Upright rows are a shoulder exercise that targets the front and middle heads of the deltoids, as well as your trapezius, rhomboids, and even the biceps muscles. If you feel like you absolutely must do them, then here’s what you’re looking for:

Start by grabbing a barbell set. You’re going with an overhand grip with your palms facing you and begin with your arms in line with your thighs, about shoulder-width apart, and make sure not to go any wider than that. Your arms are going to be fully extended when you start this exercise. Easy enough. 

Next, let’s get this in motion. Lift the bar straight up towards your chest. While remaining sure to keep the weight close to your body, continue lifting the bar until your elbows are in line with your shoulders and the barbell is level with your chest. Don’t forget to keep your torso upright, as hinted by the name, and you’ve almost finished your first upright row. Pause for a second once you’ve reached the top, and return to the starting position. 

Why is the Upright Row Bad For You?

Let’s consider our shoulders for a second. Stick your arm out, and make a circle. Do you feel that resistance when you reach the top? Keep your arm in that position, bring your hand in, and apply some downward force with your opposite hand. That hurts, right? The upright row is doing exactly this. You’re working against your natural anatomy and adding the force of the weights you're lifting.

On lifting those weights gravity is forcing an internal rotation to your shoulder, and your rotator cuff doesn’t like that. If we look at your natural range of motion you’ll see that your shoulder is best suited for outward rotation. 

Looking even closer, we see where the humerus slots into the rotator cuff and the tendons attach. That’s the greater tubercle and the source of our problems with the upright row. The motion of the upright row forces the greater tubercle into an uncomfortable position, and when your body is uncomfortable, we have no choice but to listen.

Over a long enough timeline, an upright row with a barbell is creating opportunities for that pesky tubercle to grind away at your shoulder joint and all of your precious tendons. We don’t want that for you. You can alleviate some of that internal rotation by doing your upright row with an EZ bar, but that’s only a half measure, and if you’re wanting to get your workout in without changing your setup, then buying a new bar defeats the purpose.  

A man doing upright rows.

What About Alternatives to the Upright Row? 

What about variants on the upright row? We hear you. Wide grip upright rows are just like the standard upright row, but with a wider grip.

This seems like it would be better for your shoulder joint. It allows for a greater range of motion as well as freeing up valuable real estate in the shoulder region. But the problem lies in the weight and the rigid bar setting your hands into a position unfavorable for your body.

Gravity and the anatomy of your arm are unavoidable. This wider grip does nothing to prevent your arms from turning inwards. That interior motion is going to angle your arms into your shoulder, and no matter how hard you try, you’re going to be sawing away at those precious tendons.

Close grip upright rows are, again, going to run into the same problems. Even though you can trade out the bar for a kettlebell the issue still remains. Taking in your grip is going to turn your arms even further, and here we find ourselves wrestling with the dreaded interior rotation. Remember when we tested our range of motion earlier? Imagine focusing that downward force into an even sharper point. This is something you want to avoid. 

The banded upright row is going to be a variant that allows for the most leeway in your upright rows. But again, the awkward motion of the upright row remains in when we do the banded upright row. The thing we’re trying to avoid most is interior rotation, and all of these variants of the upright row lead to the same outcome.

So you know what an upright row is, you know how to do it, what it does to your body, and why common mistakes can lead to disaster. The upright row has several cousins and disguises, that are essentially the same exercise with a different stance. The real question now is: what can you do instead? There’s a simple answer to that one. If you’re looking for definition, of course, you’re going to want to make sure to burn plenty of fat. Lots of aerobic exercise and cardio along with our supplements are great options for that. Fat burn alone isn’t going to do the trick. You’re going to need some other exercises to build that muscle. The most simple alternative is replacing the barbell with dumbbells.

The dumbbell upright row has the benefit of working the same muscles as the barbell upright row, but removing that bar in the middle allows for a more natural range of movement, which we now know is the biggest issue with the upright row. The exercise is similar as well, meaning you won’t have to learn anything too new. Just adjust your form enough to allow yourself to pull the weight “through” your chest. The dumbbell upright row still tends to create an internal rotation of your arms, again because of the weight and the position you have to be in to get those muscles working in an upright row.

The real solution is to eliminate the risk of injury. We want to work with your body and make healthy habits, and breaking the upright row into a series of simple and effective exercises is going to do exactly that. Let’s start with an old standby. The bicep curl engages your biceps, obviously, but it also works with your body, instead of twisting your arm into potentially harmful angles, and you’re also going to be targeting your front deltoids, which is one of the several goals we were aiming for with the upright row.

1. Bicep Curls

Just in case you’ve forgotten your bicep curls, or you wanted to brush up on the technique, let’s review the bicep curl since they're a great way to work your upper arm. Assign a dumbbell to each of your hands, allowing your elbows to lie at rest at your sides. Your arms should be turned so your forearms are extending out towards the front of your body. Bring the dumbbells up to your shoulders, and once you arrive hold it there for about a second. Lower the weight back to the starting position, and repeat as many times as you need for your workout.

The bicep curl, as well as lateral raises, are better for your arms because you’re keeping your arms in a more natural position, working with your body, and using a range of motion that won’t result in self-induced damage to your tendons. The bicep curl is a simple exercise that targets some of the same muscles as the upright row, with essentially none of the risk, and nearly everyone has a set of dumbbells lying around somewhere. The bicep curl is a simple way to start your workout as well. Getting the ball rolling is always the hardest part, but once you do, it’s easy to slip into a state of focus and bang out the rest of your workout. 

Variations of the Bicep Curl

  • Seated Bicep Curls: Sometimes you want to take a seat when you’re working out. Maybe you’re just tired of standing up straight and watching your posture. The seated bicep curl is no less engaging than it’s standard standing brother. While seated you can focus more on the action of curling. Find your starting position by lining your arms up with your torso, keep them loose, we don’t want to lock our arms. Bring the weights up to your chest, beginning with your palms facing outwards. Once the weights are up to your shoulders, your palms should be facing inwards. Reverse the motion until your arms are hanging at your sides again. Repeat as necessary.
  • Zottman Curl: This scary-sounding curl is actually quite friendly. The Zottman curl begins just like our regular dumbbell curl, palms out, arms to our sides. Bring your weights up to your shoulders, and don’t cheat by throwing them up there with momentum, we’ll know. Once you’ve reached your shoulders, turn your wrists so that your palms are now facing outwards again. Bring the weight down into the starting position, turn your wrists once again to face your palms outwards, and repeat. The Zottman Curl and it's repositioning engages more of your muscle groups than the standard bicep curl.

2. The Front Raise

The front raise is another simple isolation exercise that targets another set of muscles that the upright row sets its sights on.

We can do the front raise with either dumbbells or the barbell. The risk of shoulder impingement from the weight of the barbell is eliminated because the weight is being lifted outwards and along with the line your arm’s natural movement. 

With the front raise, we’re going to be targeting the anterior deltoids. This is another simple exercise, and we want to focus on form to maximize its effectiveness.

To do a barbell front raise you’re going to start with your arms shoulder-width apart with your palms facing you, identical to the starting position of the upright row. Instead of lifting the up and weight towards, and creating all of that interior motion that your shoulders want to avoid, we’re going to bring the weight forward and up to our eye level. Make sure to pause for a second before lowering the weight down to the starting position. A front raise, again, much like the upright row, can be done with dumbbells

When doing a front raise, make sure to focus on not locking your elbows. You want to maintain a healthy amount of blood flow when working out, and remaining slightly relaxed while engaged is the best way to do that. Increased blood flow is also going to make your workout more effective, giving you that jacked look you’re going for.

Variations on the Front Raise

  • Steering Wheel Plate Raises: You can branch out with your front raises as well. If the plates you used to use for your upright rows can be grasped in the ten and two positions, you can start adding steering wheel raises to your routine. Make sure to keep your back straight and your feet firmly planted hip-width apart before you begin. With the plate in hand, raise it slowly with your arms fully outstretched until you get to shoulder height. Pause for a moment and bring it slowly back down to the starting position.
  • Breaststroke With Dumbbells: Grab yourself a pair of dumbbells, and hold them in front of your chest with a hammer grip. Your arms will be in line with your shoulders, and your posture should be upright. Push the weights straight outwards from your chest, and then bring them all the way out opening your chest up. Your upper body should be making a T pose. Bring your arms back into the starting position, and repeat. This should all be a smooth fluid motion, much like swimming, you want to propel the weights methodically and purposefully.

A man doing incline pull ups in a gym.

3. Incline Pull-Ups

The incline pull-up or an Australian push up may seem like “baby’s first pull up” on its face, but we’re here for results, not prestige. This one is also easy to do in the park to break up your jog, or at home, if you have a waist-high bar. Start by positioning your body underneath the bar, line it up with your chest, and use an overhand grip with both hands about shoulder-width apart. Be sure to engage your core to keep your body straight, and begin by pointing yourself in a 45-degree angle. Pull yourself up towards the bar (make sure that chin crosses it!), and lower yourself to the starting position, fully extending your arms before starting your next repetition.

This exercise is going to round out your upright row repertoire. It works your rear delts, and you’ll have the added benefit of a tricep workout. By replacing the upright row with incline pull-ups and a few simple additions we’re scrubbing danger from the gym menu and creating a routine that prioritizes safety and longevity. 

Incline Pull Up Variations

Inverted row: Here we come full circle. The inverted row is completely dissimilar from the upright row. Here we need either a suspension trainer or a bar of some kind. A suspension trainer will allow for the repositioning of your hands to allow for a more comfortable inverted row. Your starting position will be hanging from the straps, shoulder-width apart, and then engage your core and your bottom to create a straight line with your body. Pull your body straight up, or if it helps to imagine your elbows being pushed towards the ground, then do that. Whatever you do, you want to work your arms as well as your back with this exercise. Lower yourself back into your 45-degree position and repeat.

Putting Your Ducks in an Upright Row

The road to fitness is never easy, and there are no shortcuts, and in this case, leave the bench press to the barbell. The upright row, on its face, seems like an excellent exercise to work several tough to target muscles at the same time. If you want to chisel away at those biceps, delts, and upper back, then there are safe and simple ways to do it with many of the same implements you’ll likely be using regardless.

Making minor changes (like swapping the barbell for a resistance band) to the upright row isn't enough to cut common mistakes, and proper form is a great weightlifting safety tip, but you can't get hurt if you remove risk factors.

Shoulder impingement is no joke and it comes with a great deal of shoulder pain, especially when it comes to strength training, and it’s deceptively easy to inflict it on yourself. Your rotator cuff is a natural wonder, but it's a pain if you bust it up.  Upright rows essentially turn your body against itself.

By tilting your arms into an unnatural angle, you slowly, but surely grind away at the intricate and delicate system contained in your shoulders, you open yourself up to injury, especially if you’re dedicated to the craft, and your trips to the gym.

If you’re hitting the gym early and often, then this word of caution goes double for you. Inflammation from other workouts makes it even easier for this sort of upright row related injury, and if you’re hitting the gym often you want to be able to continue hitting the gym by keeping all of your joints in working order. Your personal trainer will thank you.