There are some exercises that people consider essential regardless of your training goal or level. The deadlift, squat and bench press are a few of those that people consider essential exercises however there are some exercises that are highly debated and are even considered bad by some lifters.
The behind the neck press and behind the neck lat pulldown are two of those examples, some will say they are good exercises and never experience any issues with them in their routine while others say they will do more harm than good.
Another very common exercise that causes divided opinion is the upright row. The upright row has long been a bodybuilding staple exercise and if you look at any classic weight training routine you’ll find that this was often a featured/compound exercise for shoulder sessions.
Over the years however, this exercise has fallen in popularity due to advancements in understanding exercise mechanics and a lot of people finding that the upright row is not an optimal exercise, especially when it comes to shoulder joint health.
Upright row alternatives? The upright row causes many people shoulder discomfort and joint irritation due to the range of motion of the exercise. Some good upright row alternatives to correct this are the low cable rope upright row, barbell high pull, incline YTW and plate front raises.
In this article I’ll take you through the upright row as an exercise and then list out some of the best alternatives that you can use to save your shoulders in the long run whilst still building muscle in the process.
Upright Row Explained
The upright row is a classic shoulder and trap building exercise that has been a staple in many bodybuilding routines. It works multiple muscle groups and allows you to work up to heavy loads making it a consideration as a compound exercise for the shoulders/upper body.
An upright row is a vertical based row taking the bar from a hanging position at your upper thigh to your collarbone for peak contraction. The two moving joints during this exercise are the elbow and shoulder joint (though this movement at the shoulder joint is known to cause issues which we’ll come to shortly).
What Muscles Do Upright Rows Work
As the upright row utilizes movement at two joints it’s a fair point to consider this movement a compound exercise. This is because any movement that involves more than one joint will typically require the use of multiple muscle groups to perform each rep.
For a barbell or EZ bar upright row, the primary muscle groups utilized are the following:
- Lateral (side) deltoid
- Anterior (front) deltoid
- Upper trapezius
The primary muscle groups active during an upright row are the lateral deltoid and upper traps, though the anterior deltoid will also be active due to the internal rotation of the shoulder brought about by the exercise.
Before moving forward with this article I want to point out a personal (and industry wide) opinion with regards to the effectiveness of the upright row exercise as a muscle builder. The reason I specify muscle builder is because any exercise utilizing multiple muscle groups will have a higher strength potential for the exercise but most will do upright rows to build muscle rather than strength.
The reason I don’t like it is because for one, I can’t do it pain free. My shoulder often clicks and I don’t have the mobility to do it safely even if I wanted to. Secondly and more importantly, there are better exercises for muscle engagement and growth that use a better resistance curve and perform the muscles actual function.
That is a bit wordy so I’ll use an example, the function of the upper traps is to shrug (elevate) your shoulders. The upright row will involve some shrugging of the shoulders but raising the elbows simultaneously will mean that you never fully contract the upper traps (a full contraction occurs when the muscle is fully shortened which would be your shoulders coming up against your ears).
You are also limited by the weight you can use, you’ll see some poor form with barbell shrugs as people bounce the weight up and use a smaller range of motion but excluding that point, you can use significantly more weight for a shrug than you can for an upright row.
Load is one of the key factors for muscle growth and therefore the more weight you can use the more potential for muscle growth there is in most cases.
The points I’ve just made aren’t to say that the upright row is an awful exercise but rather that even though it uses multiple muscle groups, there are already exercises that can target these muscle groups a lot more effectively and also in a safer, joint friendly way.
Are Upright Rows Bad
It’s first worth noting that the shoulder joint is one of the most mobile joints in the body and being a ball and socket joint it can move freely in a range of planes and positions. This is great in terms of freedom of movement but not so good in terms of exercise selection and lifting weights.
The reason for this is that the more mobile a joint the greater the risk of injury when it’s loaded externally (ie, weightlifting). The reason many people think that the upright row is a bad exercise (myself included) is because it takes the shoulder through a range of internal rotation which is often an issue for many lifters.
The reason internal rotation of the shoulder joint is bad for most lifters is because of 21st century lifestyles and training habits. Posture is really key here, I’m going to generalize a bit for demonstrative purposes but this section will apply to the vast majority of people reading this.
Most people overtrain their anterior muscles and in particular the chest and front delts, this is due to a lot of focus on bench pressing and overhead pressing work as well as the fact that a lot of people will train the pushing muscles more frequently than the pulling muscle.
This leads to a weakened or underdeveloped posterior chain (particularly the upper back and rear delts) and is the cause of hunched shoulders. This combined with the fact that a lot of people work a desk job and spend a lot of time ‘hunched over’ on their phones mean that you will spend a lot more time with the shoulders internally rotated.
This leads to an over development of the anterior muscles and also muscle tightness and impingement issues in the chest and front delts. For a full rundown on these issues you can check out this article that explains in more detail how the upright row flares up these already underlying issues.
As most people don’t have the mobility to comfortably and effectively internally rotate the shoulders naturally, this issue is greatly impacted as soon as you start to add an external load through weightlifting.
The upright row, particularly when using a fixed bar and narrow grip (the description of the basic upright row) places the shoulders in an incredibly internally rotated position which in itself is a bad thing but what is even worse is the fact that you can load this exercise with a lot of weight.
The upright row uses the side delts, the front delts, the upper traps, the rhomboids and even the bicep and forearm muscles and this is why many consider the upright row to be a compound exercise for the shoulders and upper body.
All of these muscle groups contributing to the lift means that you can load the bar with a significant amount of weight over time and this is when the issues compound and start to cause shoulder pain.
For the rare combination of people that have a well balanced physique, great thoracic mobility, full shoulder mobility and strong joints, the upright row can actually be a good muscle builder. For the 99% of the population that don’t have all these attributes however, then trying to work this exercise into your routine is almost asking for shoulder trouble.
Are Upright Rows Necessary
Hopefully the last few sections have shown not only my view but also the view that the industry professionals take when it comes to the upright row as an exercise. People often ask online and on the forums whether the upright row is a necessary exercise in your routine and the answer is a resounding no.
I’ve covered some points on why the upright row is not only non essential to your training routines but also why it’s far from an effective exercise. The internal rotation of the shoulder when grasping a fixed bar and performing the upright row can often cause pain due to the shoulder impingement of the movement pattern.
One point that I did not mention is that when a doctor or medical professional does a test for a shoulder impingement (shoulder impingement syndrome, SIS) the testing movement that they have you do is an identical movement to the upright row!
A professional test for an impingement is one that many people are not only doing for an exercise but also one that they are then loading with significant weight. I’m a big fan of joint health and taking a muscle through its natural movement and then getting stronger in that movement pattern.
Therefore, not only are upright rows not necessary in a routine but I’d go as far as recommending you avoid them completely. Even if you experience no issue with this exercise in the short term I find it hard to see why you should risk an injury when there are quite simply better exercises that you can use to build muscle.
Upright Row Alternatives
The following exercises are alternatives to the upright rows and each have a different function. The upright row works specific muscle groups and is therefore difficult to replicate, however if you are looking for an alternative in the first place then it shouldn’t be an issue.
The following are some of the best exercises that you can use to replace the traditional barbell upright row and will range in skill level and difficulty from low technical skill requirements for beginners right through to highly technical exercises for a more advanced lifter.
Single Arm Dumbbell Upright Row
This exercise is less of an alternative and move of an honorable mention. While the upright row is not a great movement for the shoulder joint, most of the issues come from having a fixed and narrow grip which causes the excessive internal shoulder rotation.
A dumbbell and single arm approach will allow you to perform a hybrid between a high pull/clean and a lateral raise. Taking a wider starting position will allow you to line the elbow and wrist joint and will also prevent your elbows from coming above your shoulder.
This will keep tension on the upper trap and lateral delt with a significantly reduced range of motion (often range of motion is good but the upright row brings the shoulder through different ranges of motion which is the issue).
This is also a good starting point before working up to the main alternative to an upright row which is a barbell high pull.
Barbell High Pull
The barbell high pull looks very similar to an upright row however the two should not be confused, the barbell high pull is the exercise that should have been popularized from day 1 instead of the upright row.
The reason for this is the difference in hand positioning and technical aspect of the movement. The high pull is a technical movement that is used in Olympic weightlifting as an accessory movement to train the clean and snatch movements.
Therefore there are a few technical aspects that need to be learned as a beginner and the below video gives an in depth example of how to train the barbell high pull.
You’ll see that the high pull has a much wider grip, the elbows come inline with the shoulders at the top of the movement and the trap engagement is much more obvious. This is an explosive movement and is included here purely to show that there is a straight alternative to the upright row if you really want to use the movement.
Plate Front Raise
A plate front raise is a great exercise to target the front delt and upper traps and the neutral grip required to grasp the plate helps to prevent any internal rotation of the shoulder.
I keep mentioning internal rotation of the shoulder joint and it’s not that internal rotation is a bad thing, it’s the fact that loading a joint at its extreme range of motion is a recipe for injury and this is combined with the fact that a high percentage of people are susceptible to shoulder impingement syndrome as a result of 21st century life.
Reducing the internal rotation with a neutral grip makes the plate front raise an excellent exercise to build up your front delts.
The reason I like the plate raise over the dumbbell front raise is because the additional extension overhead will engage the upper traps more if this is something you want from the exercise. A traditional front raise will see you raise the weight until the forearm is straight and parallel to the floor.
This keeps the tension solely on the front delt however as soon as you go past parallel and start to bring the arms overhead and your shoulder moves closer to your ear then your traps will become more active and engaged.
You won’t be able to use heavy weight on this exercise however high rep overhead front raises are a great way to fatigue the slow twitch muscle fibres of the front delt and upper traps to stimulate muscle growth.
I mentioned this exercise earlier so I won’t focus on this exercise too much besides stating that the barbell shrug is a far superior trap developer than the upright row which more than warrants using it as an alternative.
Not only can you load the barbell shrug with more weight than an upright row but you can also take the traps through a greater range of motion and the combination of these to things will lead to significantly more trap growth.
Overhead Barbell Shrug
A more direct alternative to the upright row is actually the overhead barbell shrug. For this you can’t use as much weight as a regular shrug however holding the barbell overhead will increase the shoulder activation for the lift, particularly the lateral delts.
This is also a much more difficult exercise from a technical viewpoint when compared to a regular barbell shrug and therefore you will stimulate the traps differently and recruit a different number/type of muscle fibre as a result.
Incline or TRX YTW’s
The final exercise that you can use as an upright row alternative is the incline or TRX YTW. This exercise is a shoulder complex aimed at hitting all three heads of the shoulder.
The TRX version above will involve more core strength and the use of stabilizing muscles, whilst the incline version (lying forwards on an inclined bench) using dumbbells will allow you to use slightly more weight for a bodybuilding version.
The Y movement will hit the front delts, the T movement hitting the side delts and the W movement will hit the rear delts and rotator cuff muscles. This can be used as an activation exercise first thing in your routine or as a burnout exercise at the very end of a shoulder session.
If you have come across this article then it’s likely you were already aware that the upright row is not a great exercise and are therefore not too surprised by how one sided I’ve been. I rarely take a definitive stance when it comes to training or nutrition because there are so many variables and everyone responds differently.
When it comes to the upright row however, I truly don’t see why you would need to keep it in your routine when there are so many other exercises out there that are better suited to building your shoulders and traps.
Therefore the key takeaway should be to remove the upright row from your routine (even if you think it works for you) and instead look to use some of the alternatives listed above. Your shoulders will thank you for it in the long run!
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