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 with less wear and tear.
Or 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, you’ve got healthy shoulders and you’d very much like them 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.
Today, I want to show you some alternative ways to do the upright row, along with several shoulder-friendly substitutes that work the same muscles.
Upright Row: Muscles Worked
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 upright row (half of shoulder width)
- Medium grip upright row (shoulder width)
- Wide grip upright row (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.
The wide grip upright row also led to increased muscle activity in the upper traps while reducing muscle activity in the biceps.
Upright Row Alternatives
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, where the bar comes up towards the chin, 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 shoulder level, 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.
As well as shortening the range of motion by raising the bar no higher than the lower chest, it’s also worth experimenting with different grip widths, to see if one feels better than another.
The upright row is typically performed with your hands relatively close together. However, using a narrow grip does tend to increase internal rotation of the shoulder, which can lead to shoulder problems in some people.
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Take a wider grip on the bar, so there’s a bigger gap between your hands.
One of the benefits of using a wider grip is that it won’t internally rotate your shoulders to the same degree as a narrow grip, which makes it a more shoulder-friendly way to perform the upright row.
Using a wider grip does also tends to increase muscle activation in the lateral delts and upper traps, while decreasing the involvement of the biceps .
Rope Upright Row
Another alternative to the barbell upright row is to use a cable and rope attachment, which can make the upright row feel a little easier on the wrists.
- Attach a rope handle to a cable machine.
- Take hold of the rope with a double overhand grip.
- Rather than row straight up, lean back slightly.
- Pull the rope up the front of the torso.
- Raise the arms until the elbows are roughly in line with the shoulders.
- Think about pulling the rope apart as you raise the arms.
- Lower the weight under control to the start position, roughly level with the hips.
EZ Bar Upright Row
Like the rope upright row, using an EZ bar rather than a straight barbell can make the exercise feel easier on the wrists.
- Hold the EZ bar with a thumbless finger grip.
- Raise the bar only to the point where your hands are level with the lower chest.
- Stop when your upper arms are roughly parallel to the floor.
- In the top position, your elbows should point out to the side.
- Lower the bar under control to the starting position.
Dumbbell Upright Row
The dumbbells allow you to adjust the position and angle of your hands in such a way that the exercise can be done through a pain-free range of motion.
Angled Cable Upright Row
This exercise involves attaching a bar to a cable pulley machine.
Then you step back from the pulley machine, and pull the bar towards you at roughly a 45-degree angle, rather than straight up and down.
Pulling the bar up at an angle hits the upper traps harder than a regular upright row, while using the wide grip makes it easier on your shoulders.
Upright Row Substitutes
It may be the case that no matter how you perform the exercise, be it using a rope, an EZ bar, or using a shorter range of motion, the upright row still causes pain.
If so, here are the exercises I think serve as some of the best upright row alternatives. They work similar muscle groups, but without causing the same level of pain and discomfort.
Cable Face Pulls
The cable face pull works both the side and rear delts, the forearms, along with various muscles in the upper back involved in scapular retraction and external rotation, such as the rhomboids and teres minor.
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 trapezius muscles, for example, the face pull shifts the emphasis to the middle portion of the muscle, along with the rhomboids.
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.
Barbell Face Pulls
If you don’t have access to a cable machine, you can also do face pulls using a barbell. Using a barbell does put your hands are in a fixed position, so it’s not quite as joint-friendly as cable face pulls done with a rope. But if you can do the exercise without pain in your wrists or shoulders, it’s certainly a viable option.
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
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 substitute.
If you want to hit the lateral delts, and to a lesser extent the upper traps, studies show that 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.
- Take hold of a light dumbbell in both hands.
- Start with the feet about shoulder width apart, hands positioned beside your thighs roughly level with the hips.
- Retract your shoulder blades slightly.
- Maintaining a slight bend in the arms, raise your arms to shoulder height.
- Lower the dumbbells under control to the start position.
Rather than lifting the dumbbells directly out to the side (the 0° position in the image below), raise them in the scapular plane (around 15-30° degrees in the image below).
Some research shows that doing the lateral raise with the little finger higher than the thumb hits the side delts a little harder than keeping the hands neutral .
However, doing so may well increase the risk of shoulder impingement issues. I think your delts will grow just as well with your hands kept in a neutral position, but it’s worth experimenting with different hand positions to see what feels right for you.
The lateral raise is one of those exercises where you’re better off avoiding heavy loads, and lifting a lighter weight for more reps.
If you go too heavy, your technique can quickly go down the pan. Remember, hypertrophy can be stimulated just as well with higher reps and lighter weights as it can with lower reps and heavier weights.
Cable Lateral Raise
If you have access to a cable machine, you can also do the lateral raise using a cable rather than dumbbells.
The advantage of using a cable machine rather than a dumbbell is that you put the delts under more tension at the bottom of the movement, which can help to stimulate a little more growth.
Leaning away from the cable machine also means that you’re working the delts through a slightly larger range of motion compared to a more upright position.
Finally, if you want to target your upper traps, the dumbbell shrug is one of the best ways to go about doing so.
Are Upright Rows Bad for Your Shoulders?
One of the main arguments against the upright row is that it can lead to problems with the shoulder joint. 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 .
That’s because there are question marks against the idea that the shoulder pain associated with subacromial impingement syndrome is actually being caused by tissue impingement in the first place.
In fact, research shows that tests commonly used to diagnose impingement syndrome, such as the Hawkins-Kennedy Test (pain on internal rotation with the arm elevated to 90 degrees), have limited diagnostic accuracy .
Mark Surdyka, a physical therapist at E3 Rehab, talks more about the subject in the video below.
None of this means the upright row doesn’t have the potential to cause shoulder pain, just that the causes of that pain are not quite as clear cut as was once believed.
My Experience with the Upright Row
The Upright Row: Popular Questions
Do upright rows work biceps?
Because it involves elbow flexion, upright rows do work the biceps to a degree, along with several other muscles that flex the elbow, namely brachioradialis (a muscle in the forearm) and the brachialis (a muscle in the upper arm that sits between the biceps and triceps).
Do upright rows work the entire shoulder?
Upright rows work mainly the lateral deltoid (the side delts) and upper traps, with a relatively small amount of involvement from the anterior (front delts) and posterior deltoid (rear delts).
Which is better for building the side delts, wide grip upright rows or lateral raises?
Given a choice between the two, I’d go for the lateral raise. I think it’s more of a shoulder-friendly way to work the side delts compared to the wide grip upright row.
However, if you’ve tried both exercises, and you feel the wide grip upright row more in your side delts, and it doesn’t cause any pain or discomfort, then go with the exercise that feels better to you.
Do upright rows target the rear delts?
There is going to be some work done by the rear delts, but not much. If you want to hit the posterior shoulder, you’ll need to include exercises like the bent-over barbell row or bent-over lateral raise in your training program.
Is the upright band row a good alternative to upright barbell rows?
With a barbell, your hands are locked into a fixed pronated position for the entire movement. But with a resistance band, you can adjust your hand position in such a way that the exercise feels easier on your wrists and/or shoulders.
However, the same rules still apply with a band as they do with a barbell in that you want to avoid raising the upper arm much above shoulder level. That is, don’t go any higher than the point where your hands are level with the lower part of your chest.
The main weakness with upright band rows (and exercises done using resistance bands in general) is that the resistance is greatest at the top of the movement, as you pull your hands up towards your head. Then, as you straighten your arms, the resistance is reduced.
Rather than constant tension, as you get with upright rows done with a barbell, dumbbell or cable machine, the tension varies throughout the exercise.
The band provides more resistance at the top of the movement, when your arms are bent, than it does at the bottom when your arms are straight.
Why does that matter?
One of the things that stimulates growth in a muscle is subjecting it to high levels of tension when it’s in a lengthened position, known as stretch-mediated hypertrophy.
But with upright band rows, you get low levels of tension at long muscle lengths, which isn’t ideal from a muscle-building perspective.
That doesn’t mean upright band rows are worthless. But they won’t work as well for muscle growth compared to rows done with a barbell, dumbbell or cable machine.
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 shoulder injuries.
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