If you want some upright row alternatives that work the same muscles as the upright row, but without hurting your shoulders, this page will show you what to do.
There are several possible reasons why you’re looking for an alternative to the barbell upright row.
Maybe it makes your shoulders hurt, and you want an exercise that works the same muscle groups, but doesn’t cause the same amount of pain.
Perhaps you’ve heard that the upright row is bad for your shoulders, and you’re worried about getting injured.
You just want a safer alternative to the upright row. One that works the same muscles, but with a far lower risk of injury.
At the moment, your shoulder feels fine, and you’d very much like it to stay that way.
Or maybe you just don’t feel the upright row working the muscles it’s supposed to be working, and you want to try something different.
Barbell Upright Row Alternatives
If you want to jump straight to the upright row alternatives, here they are:
- Partial Upright Row
- Cable Upright Row
- EZ Bar Upright Row
- Cable Face Pulls
- Band Face Pulls
- Lateral Raise
- Dumbbell Shrug
Upright Row Muscle Groups
The upright row is a compound exercise, meaning it works a number of different muscle groups at the same time.
The main ones are:
- Lateral deltoid
- Upper trapezius
- Elbow flexors (biceps, brachialis, brachioradialis)
If you want an exercise that works the shoulders at the same time as the elbow flexors, the upright row will get the job done.
However, the extent to which those muscles are recruited does vary depending on how wide your grip is.
A wider grip tends to increase muscle activity in the delts and upper traps, while decreasing it in the biceps.
In one study, scientists had trained subjects perform the upright row with three different grips :
- Narrow grip (half of shoulder width)
- Medium grip (shoulder width)
- Wide grip (2 x shoulder width)
They found that the wide grip upright row increased muscle activity in both the middle and rear deltoid by over 20% compared to using the narrow grip.
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The wide grip upright row also led to increased muscle activity in the upper traps while reducing muscle activity in the biceps.
Are Upright Rows Bad for Your Shoulders… Really?
One of the main arguments against the upright row is that it can lead to shoulder problems. And by shoulder problems, I’m talking about something known as subacromial impingement syndrome.
What does that mean exactly?
When you raise your arm, the space between the acromion (the bony protrusion on top of your shoulder) and the humerus (the bone in the upper part of your arm) tends to narrow.
This can cause problems, because the muscle connecting the humerus and scapula, known as supraspinatus, needs to pass through this gap.
If the gap gets too narrow, supraspinatus can become impinged, leading to inflammation and pain.
Or so the theory goes, anyway.
In fact, there has been some pushback against the subacromial impingement model, with some researchers suggesting that subacromial pain syndrome is a more appropriate term .
Tony Comella, a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Strength & Conditioning Coach at E3 Rehab, talks more about the subject in the video below.
Partial Upright Row
If the upright row does hurt your shoulders, you don’t need to sever ties completely. Sometimes a few adjustments to the way you do the exercise is all that’s needed.
Which brings me to the first upright row alternative: the partial upright row.
What exactly do I mean by that?
The upright row is normally done something like this:
It’s the top part of the movement that tends to cause shoulder pain for most people .
Rather than lift the bar up to the top of your chest, where the elbows are higher than your shoulders, the partial upright row involves raising the bar roughly level with the lower chest.
That is, the upper arms come no higher than the point where they’re parallel with the floor.
You can see what I mean in the video below:
It’s also worth experimenting with different grip widths, to see if one feels better than another.
As I mentioned earlier, the wider grip does tend to increase muscle activation in the lateral delts and upper traps, while decreasing the involvement of the biceps.
However, if taking a wide grip causes shoulder pain, then experiment with a grip that’s closer to shoulder width.
Small differences in muscle activation from one grip width to another should always be a secondary consideration to your ability to perform the upright row in a pain-free range of motion.
Muscle activity during the upright row will drop to zero if you can’t do it anymore because it makes your shoulders hurt
Cable Upright Row
Another alternative to the barbell upright row is to use a cable and a rope, or an EZ bar, both of which can make the upright row feel a little easier on the wrists.
EZ Bar Upright Row
What to Do Instead of Upright Rows
It may be the case that no matter how you perform the exercise, be it with a rope, an EZ bar, or using a shorter range of motion, the upright row still causes pain.
Personally, I stopped doing the upright row years ago, mainly because it causes an old shoulder injury to play up.
Here are some of my favorite upright row alternative exercises that work many of the same muscles, but without causing the same level of pain and discomfort.
Cable Face Pulls
The face pull works both the lateral and posterior delts, the biceps, forearms, along with various muscles in the upper back.
The face pull works many of the same muscles as the upright row, which is one of the reasons I like it as a substitute for the upright row.
However, it does emphasize different regions of those muscles. While the upright row hits the upper region of the trapezius, for example, the face pull shifts the emphasis to the middle portion of the muscle.
Unlike the upright row, the face pull also has a reputation as a very shoulder-friendly exercise.
While there are many different ways to do cable face pulls, depending on which set of muscles you’re trying to emphasize, this is the way I prefer to do them.
Band Face Pulls
If you don’t have access to a cable machine, you can also do face pulls using an exercise band.
Although the two exercises look very different, the lateral raise works many of the same muscles as the upright row, which is why it works so well as an upright row alternative.
If you want to hit the side delts, and to a lesser extent the upper traps, the lateral raise is one of the best ways to go about doing so .
The main difference between the upright row and lateral raise is that the latter doesn’t involve any elbow flexion, so the biceps, brachialis and brachioradialis aren’t involved.
The correct way to do lateral raises is a whole other subject in itself, but this is the way I like to do them.
Finally, if you want to target your upper traps, the dumbbell shrug is one of the best ways to go about doing so.
The upright row is a popular compound lift that works a number of different muscle groups, including the deltoids, elbow flexors and traps. But, for some people anyway, it can lead to pain in your wrist and shoulders.
If you’re one of those people, these upright row alternative exercises let you hit the same muscle groups, but are less likely to cause pain in your shoulders.
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