The Only Right Way to Upright Row – T Nation Content – COMMUNITY

Build More Muscle, Save Your Joints

Build your shoulders and traps with this controversial exercise. Here’s how to avoid all the risks and make all the gains.

Upright rows are a time-tested exercise that builds big shoulders and traps. But if you’re not careful, it can cause some damage. Here’s everything you need to know.

Why The Heck Even Do Them?

Upright rows are great at building bigger delts, especially the front and middle portions. You can also do them to emphasize your upper traps by performing them with more of a shrugging motion. They’ll also work your shoulder stabilizers, specifically strengthening the infraspinatus, part of your rotator cuff group.

In fact, there’s not much of a difference between an upright row and a cable face pull, except one has a great reputation for bulletproofing your shoulders and the other is frequently featured on lists of “what not to do.”

With the face pull, the load pulls you more from a forward direction. Due to the direction of the load, your shoulder joints aren’t loaded or forced into internal rotation. But the same can’t be said for upright rows.

During upright rows, as you raise the cable or dumbbells (or barbell or kettlebells), your shoulders get fixed into a path of internal rotation. The narrower the grip, the more this happens. Internal rotation isn’t inherently bad, but it ” compresses” the space inside your shoulder joints more and puts you at greater risk of impingement. This is where the supraspinatus tendon can press against the acromion process, causing pain and inflammation.

When you combine this compressed-shoulder position with loading and dozens of reps, the risk is even greater. Some feel shoulder pain immediately and (hopefully) stop to avoid it. Others continue to rep out more upright rows and then wonder why their shoulders always feel nasty and inflamed.

The thing is, upright rows aren’t inherently dangerous since everyone’s shoulders – especially the shape of the acromion – come in all different shapes and sizes. But if you have anything other than the right parents and perfectly built shoulders, you’re probably best off doing something else.

If you’re going to use the exercise anyway, here’s how to fix the drawbacks.

Upright Row the Right Way

  1. First off, never use a barbell. Your position on the straight bar allows very little freedom at your shoulder joints. Few can get away with these, and those who do tend to turn them into more of a front raise anyway, with the bar further out in front of the body.

  2. Stick with cable, dumbbell, and kettlebell variations. Kettlebells work great, too, and you’d use them with a similar technique as the dumbbells.

  3. If using a cable, simply step back a little. This changes the direction of the resistance a little, so you’re not in as much of an internally rotated position at the shoulder joints. Watch the video for the specific tips.

  4. If you’re using dumbbells or even kettlebells, lean forward a bit. Not so much that it turns into a wide-elbowed row, but just enough that the dumbbells naturally hang further away from your chest, and you’re no longer in the same degree of internal rotation. It’s a little different with these versus the cable since gravity is pulling those suckers straight down. As a bonus, switching to this technique will also work your rear delts a little more.


Use modified upright rows towards the end of your workouts to give your shoulders some extra attention. You shouldn’t need to go too heavy, but you’ll still want to get close to failure for hypertrophy.

Focus on pulling with your elbows out to the sides rather than just “lifting” the weight. Emphasize form and the feeling in your shoulders over the weight that you’re lifting. Do 2-3 challenging sets of 12-20 reps.


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