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Upright rows for bigger, stronger shoulders

With ‘row’ type exercises being one of the most effective additions to your back and shoulder workouts, following on from our article on bent over barbell rows is a look at upright rows.

In this article we will take a look at the different variations of the exercise, how to perform the lift safely, and provide a sample workout plan for how you can include it in your next back or shoulder workout.

Variations of the upright row

The two muscle groups that offer possibly the widest variation in exercises are the shoulders and back. This not only provides you with a range of different ways to perform the exercise to keep your workouts fresh, but also means you are much more likely to be able to perform the exercise at home, even if you only have limited weights equipment.

Barbell upright rows

Generally considered the most effective variation if you are looking to add size and strength to your shoulders and traps due to the increased amount of weight you can lift compared to the dumbbell and kettlebell versions.

Your arms and shoulders will follow the same range of motion as other variations, but will also offer you the choice of a narrow or wide grip position.

Grip position

For many people, being able to alter their grip position will be the main reason for choosing to perform upright rows with a barbell. By changing to a grip slightly wider than shoulder width you probably won’t be able to bring the bar up as high, but will place much more focus on working the lateral head of the deltoid.

A narrow grip will place more emphasis on the traps, while a wider grip focuses more on the medial head of the deltoids

The combination of a wider grip and not bringing the bar up beyond your lower chest will also be a more comfortable movement if you suffer from a wrist or shoulder injury, or if you experience any discomfort in the wrists when lifting with a close grip.

If you do choose to lift with a close grip because you want to target your biceps, forearms and traps a bit more, then performing the upright barbell row with a cambered bar instead of a straight bar can take a lot of the strain out of the wrists if you pull the bar above your lower chest height.

Dumbbell upright rows

One of the key advantages of using dumbbells to perform upright rows is the fact that they can move independently of each other. This means you can keep them closer together for the close grip version, but also alternate to a wider grip whenever you need to, even during the same set.

Upright dumbbell rows require much more control than the barbell version, but allow for much more wrist movement

By taking away the rigidity of a barbell, this also makes the exercise much more comfortable for anyone that may be experiencing wrist pain when performing the exercise using a barbell. The dumbbells can twist to suit the angle of your wrist while still following the necessary plane of motion that will work your shoulders, traps and rhomboids effectively.

To add more focus to improving your grip and forearm strength, whether performing upright rows with a barbell or dumbbells, you can even increase the width of the bar using an attachment such as a set of Fat Gripz.

Kettlebell upright rows

Performing the exercise using kettlebells can actually offer the best variation when it comes to hand positioning and building overall strength.

The only real downside is most commercial gyms are very limited in the weight range of kettlebells
they hold, unlike the barbell version where the weight limit is really only restricted by how many plates you can fit on the bar.

The extra thickness of the handles helps to improve your grip as well as building stronger forearms, while the wider handle means you can either grip one kettlebell with both hands for the close grip version, or use two kettlebells to perform the exercise with a wider grip.

Kettlebells can be an excellent way to also build more strength in your forearms when performing upright rows

Cable upright rows

While dumbbells can certainly add more freedom to the range of motion and limit the stress on your wrists, one way to keep the movement as natural and unrestricted as possible is to use a rope cable attachment.

When the rope is at the lowest point of the exercise, your hands will be resting side by side, very close together. As you start to bring the rope attachment up towards your shoulders, the suppleness of the rope will adjust to meet your wrist position.

This means you will still be able to move the weight through the full range of motion, but with very limited restriction on the wrist position.

As well as the rope attachment, upright rows using a cable pulley system can also be effective if you use a straight bar, cambered bar, or even single handle attachment.

Muscles worked

Synergists
  • Deltoid, Anterior
  • Supraspinatus
  • Brachialis
  • Brachioradialis
  • Biceps Brachii
  • Trapezius, Middle
  • Trapezius, Lower
  • Serratus Anterior, Inferior Digitations
  • Infraspinatus
  • Teres Minor
Target
  • Deltoid, Lateral

Stabilizers

  • Trapezius, Upper
  • Levator Scapulae

5 common upright row mistakes

  1. Lifting the weight too quickly – Trying to heave the bar up too quickly reduces the amount of muscle fiber activation and can be the cause of lower back injuries if too much weight is on the bar
  2. Lifting too much weight – The movement should be smooth and controlled, both when raising the bar and lowering it to the start position. If not then you have too much weight on the bar. Don’t let ego get in the way of effectively working your delts and traps if you want to maintain strength and size gains.
  3. Leaning forward – Towards the end of a set it can be tempting to lean forward and let your lats help with getting the bar moving. Stand straight up at all times and feel your shoulders doing the work even if you can only squeeze out half reps for the last couple.
  4. Ignoring wrist pain – While muscle soreness can be a good sign you have effectively worked your muscles, wrist pain is a sign that you shouldn’t be performing the exercise in that way.Switch to a cambered bar, rope cable attachment, or dumbbells and see if this helps. If not then stop performing the exercise and switch to lateral raises for the medial delts and shrugs for the traps.
  5. Lack of control lowering the weight – If you let the weight drop too quickly at the top of the movement then you are cheating yourself out of half the work. Yes you may be able to lift 2 or 3 more reps, but it’s more important to keep the tension on your muscles throughout the set.

How to perform barbell upright rows safely

  1. Take a barbell and load the bar up with the required weight on each side. To prevent having to deadlift the bar off the floor and adjust your body position this is best performed with the bar resting on safety rails in a power cage if available.
  2. Standing with your feet shoulder width apart, grasp the barbell with an overhand grip that is slightly less than shoulder width apart.
  3. Maintain a slight bend in the elbows as you take the strain of the weight and allow the bar to rest on your upper thigh.
  4. Inhale before starting the movement and begin raising the bar up with your elbows high and to the sides, always keeping your back straight.
  5. Keeping the bar close to your body, continue to lift the bar until it passes at least your lower chest, exhaling as you lift.
  6. When the bar reaches the top of the range of motion, pause for a second before slowly lowering the bar back to the starting position.
  7. Repeat for the required number of sets and repetitions.

Including upright rows in your shoulder workouts

Although there are many possible variations to the exercise, the following workout plan is provided as a guide for increasing strength and size in your traps, shoulders, forearms, rhomboids, and even biceps when using the straight bar.

Exercise
Standing barbell presses
Upright barbell rows
Dumbbell lateral raises
Rear dumbbell fly
Sets
5
4
4
3
Repetitions
6 – 8
8 – 10
8 – 12
8 – 12

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