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How to Properly Do an Upright Row

Fact Checked

Story at-a-glance -

  • Strengthening your shoulders is crucial for maintaining fitness. Athletes and weightlifters need strong shoulders to perform better
  • The upright row is an exercise aimed at increasing shoulder size and strength, but it also has a reputation for creating injuries
  • To perform the upright row correctly, it is advised to practice perfect form at all times

The shoulder is one of the most intricate parts of your body. In fact, the whole area is called the "shoulder complex" because of how the clavicle, scapula and humerus are all connected together. This entire region gives your upper body the necessary mobility to perform everyday tasks.1

The shoulder complex is also one of the most flexible joints in your body, being able to move in various directions thanks to its interrelationships of various joints.2 It's only logical that training your shoulder muscles can help protect and strengthen this vital area, thus helping you perform strenuous physical tasks better. One exercise in particular, called the upright row, is effective in targeting your shoulder. But is it the right workout for you?

What Is an Upright Row?

The upright row is an exercise designed to target the shoulder muscles, specifically the front and middle areas. Secondary muscles that are targeted are the trapezius. However, this exercise has a reputation for causing shoulder injuries, especially in novice weightlifters.

Hence, only experienced bodybuilders typically perform it.3,4 It is done by standing straight, and raising a barbell to shoulder height.5

What Muscles Do Upright Rows Work?

Upright rows mainly target the deltoids, a muscle group located in the shoulder. According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), humans use the deltoids every day for a variety of movements, such as pushing, pulling or lifting.

The shoulder muscles, along with their corresponding skeletal joints, can extend, and rotate to help the arms perform their responsibilities.6 Here are the three muscles that make up the deltoids:

Anterior (front) deltoid

Lateral (middle) deltoid

Posterior (rear) deltoid

According to Paul Rogers, a certified personal trainer, the upright row mainly targets your front and middle deltoids. Secondary muscles include the rhomboids, trapezius and biceps. Experienced bodybuilders usually perform upright rows. Those who don't have much experience in the gym should do safer exercises if they wish to train their shoulders.7

Benefits of Doing Upright Rows

Strong shoulders are crucial in helping you perform daily tasks easier. For athletes, strengthening the shoulders is an absolute must. According to a study published in the Journal of Athletic Training, shoulder injuries are a common reason for visits to the doctor.8 Training them regularly can help reduce the risk of injury through various shoulder-related exercises.9

Aside from lowering the chances of injuries, training your shoulders may boost athletic performance. The deltoids are involved in a large number of upper and lower torso workouts, such as barbell shrugs and deadlifts. Strengthening the deltoids may make it easier for you to perform other workouts.10

Another reason for training shoulders is for aesthetics. According to ACE, broad shoulders can be visually appealing because they make you look stronger and more confident. With the right fitness plan, big shoulders can even make you look slimmer.11

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How to Do the Upright Row

For the upright row, you will need to use a barbell to perform it correctly. Once you have the equipment, follow these steps from Rogers:12

barbell upright row

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1. Stand straight and grab the barbell with weights, letting it hang in your front. The palms should face your body. Make sure that your hands are in line with your thighs.

2. Inhale, engage your core and lift the barbell upward, staying close to your body. The elbows must lead and your arms should be parallel with your shoulders. Remember to keep standing straight, with your chest up and eyes looking in front of you.

3. Pause once your arm reaches shoulder height. Slowly return to the starting position, exhaling as you lower the bar.

Upright Row Variations to Try

Barbells are the most commonly used gym equipment to perform upright rows. However, you can use other gym tools to perform this exercise depending on the availability. Check out the following upright row variations.

Dumbbell Upright Row

The dumbbell upright row is arguably the most popular variation of the standard upright row, and is also safer for inexperienced weightlifters. Men's Journal recommends using dumbbells to help relieve stress from your shoulders because they will not rotate inward as much as using barbells.13 To do the dumbbell upright row properly, follow these steps:14

dumbbell upright row

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1. Get a pair of dumbbells and place them in front of you, as you would on a standard barbell upright row. Stand straight, your palms facing your body.

2. Raise the dumbbells until they reach your chest, making sure to stop once your arms are parallel with your shoulders.

3. Pause at the top for two seconds, and lower the weights to the starting position.

Upright Cable Row

You may also perform the upright row using a cable machine with a wide bar attached. The cable offers a more challenging workout because of the constant tension during the upward and downward movements.15 It's better to perform this exercise once you've perfected dumbbell or barbell upright rows.

To properly perform a cable upright row, place the cable on the lowest position, attach a bar, then follow these steps from Men's Health:16

1. Hold the bar with your palms facing toward you.

2. Raise the bar using with your arms until they are parallel with the shoulders.

3. Lower the bar down until your arm fully extends down to your thighs.

Wide Grip Upright Row

Widening your grip when performing upright rows may help increase deltoid and trapezius activation, which may help experienced weightlifters get more from this exercise.17 To do this exercise, follow this procedure:18

wide grip upright row

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1. Add weights to a barbell and assume the starting position for a regular upright row.

2. Adjust your grip to slightly wider than your shoulders. Make sure that the palms are still facing toward you.

3. Stand straight and lift the barbell until it is parallel to your shoulders.

4. Pause as the top, and slowly lower the barbell to the starting position.

Smith Machine Upright Row

A Smith machine is a piece of fitness equipment wherein a barbell is mounted on two horizontal rails. It has received lots of criticism because it does not teach beginners the proper form of various exercises.

However, experienced lifters can actually use this to their advantage. Due to the predictability of the Smith machine's travel path, you can target specific muscles using heavy weights without worrying about other muscle groups.19 For those who are looking to do a Smith machine upright row, try following these steps as best as you can:20

1. Set the Smith machine's bar to the middle part of your thighs and add weights.

2. Grip the bar with the palms facing you, and slightly shoulder-width apart.

3. Slightly bend your knees and unlock the bar. Engage your core and pull the bar until the arms become parallel to the shoulders.

4. Lower the bar down to your thighs.

Kettlebell Upright Row

A kettlebell is a free weight made from iron with a handle on top, and is used for lifting exercises.21 In the context of shoulder training, the kettlebell upright row can replace the dumbbell upright row because kettlebells have a more natural grip and may reduce shoulder strain. To do this exercise, follow these steps as explained by Johnny Nasello, a certified personal trainer:22

kettlebell upright row

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1. Place a kettlebell in front of you and spread your feet apart to shoulder-width. Slightly point out your toes and keep your back straight.

2. Grab the kettlebell and raise it up to your chest. Try to raise the elbows higher than the kettlebell to get a good squeeze out of your muscles.

3. Exhale and return the kettlebell to the starting position.

How Many Upright Rows Should You Do?

Figuring out how many repetitions and sets of upright rows you should perform depends on your goal. In the realm of weight lifting, people mainly follow three:23

Hypertrophy — The goal of training for hypertrophy is to increase muscle size, which is common for bodybuilders. Ideally, repetitions should range from eight to 12, with two to five sets.

Strength — This is generally a goal for those who compete in lifting tournaments. Repetitions are usually low, usually one to three, or three to six only, but use heavier weights than those who are training for hypertrophy. Sets may vary depending on the trainer's recommendation.

Endurance — If you want your muscles to last longer during sports competitions, your repetitions should be around 15 to 20. Sets are usually limited to three only. A small side effect is that you may gain some muscle size and power.

Upright Row Exercises for Beginners

The upright row is considered an advanced weightlifting exercise because it may cause injury for inexperienced lifters. However, there are some ways that beginners can incorporate this exercise into their regimen. Rogers recommends dumbbells or a cable machine to make it easier.24

Men's Journal also recommends performing these exercises to make sure your shoulders can handle the upright row:25

Special shoulder warmup

1. Fold a resistance band or jump rope in half.

2. Hold it just wide enough until you can pass the rope or band over and behind your head.

3. Repeat 10 times to warm up the shoulder area.

4. You may also use a pipe or broomstick in place of the resistance band or jump rope.

Front deltoid exercise

1. Get a weighted plate heavy enough to challenge your front deltoids.

2. Grab the weight with both arms extended and elbows unengaged (soft).

3. Raise the weight until you reach shoulder height.

4. Slowly back down. Repeat 10 times for three sets.

Bent over row26

1. Place a barbell in your hands with an overhand grip. The hands should be slightly wider than your shoulders.

2. Slightly bend your knees, with your back straight and almost perpendicular to the floor.

3. Pull the weight towards your lower chest.

4. Pause once the bar reaches your body, and return to the starting position.

Safety Tips When Doing Upright Rows

The upright row is considered one of the most dangerous exercises for your shoulders. It may cause shoulder impingement if done incorrectly, according to Men's Health.27

John Rusin, a fitness expert and physical therapist, says that the upright row causes shoulder injuries because of the nature of the movement. The raising action of the upright row causes the upper arm to rotate internally in the shoulder.28 If you want to incorporate the upright row into your fitness regimen, here are some tips you should follow:

Practice without weights — To make sure you're doing the upright row correctly, you can perform the movement without using any weights first. Simply use a barbell and practice upright rows without worrying.29

Use an EZ-curl bar — The angled grip of this bar can help remove strain from your wrists, making it easier for you to do the exercise.30

Focus on form — Men's Health advises that your upper arms should never move higher than your shoulders. Going any higher can create injuries.31

Use dumbbells — If you find that using a barbell for the upright row is causing problems, try using dumbbells instead. This may be better for your anatomy because it frees up your arms, allowing better range of motion.32

Perform the Upright Row Properly to Avoid Injury

The upright row can be a strong addition to your list of shoulder workouts. However, since it has a reputation of injuring shoulders, the exercise must be done with utmost caution. Make sure that you are practicing perfect form and do not overextend your arms past your shoulders. Once you have enough experience and practice, you can challenge yourself by adding heavier weights to your upright row.

Frequently Asked Questions About Upright Rows

Q: Is the upright row bad for you?

A: The upright row can cause shoulder injuries when performed incorrectly because of the internal rotation the shoulder makes when doing the exercise.33

Q: Is the upright row a good exercise?

A: The upright row can be a powerful addition to your shoulder training regimen, but only when done correctly. Experienced lifters or athletes are the ones who can benefit from this exercise the most.34

Q: Are upright rows effective?

A: Upright rows are effective in targeting the front and middle deltoids, especially when performed by experienced lifters.35

Q: Are upright rows safe?

A: The upright row has a reputation for damaging your shoulders when done improperly. Conversely, it can be done safely when following good form and making adjustments to prevent injury.36