If you’re looking to increase shoulder and upper back strength, look no further than the upright row. This exercise targets the traps, which span the upper to mid back, and the deltoids, which wrap around your shoulder.
An upright row is an effective exercise to build strength in the shoulders and upper back.
It’s a pull exercise, meaning you’ll be pulling the weight toward you and targeting your posterior chain, or the muscles on the backside of your body.
Strengthening your posterior chain is hugely beneficial for functional everyday life, especially if you sit all day.
Despite the benefits of incorporating an upright row, the exercise does have a reputation for causing injury.
Your hands are locked into position during the movement, which causes your upper arm to rotate internally in the shoulder and potentially pinch a tendon.
While this doesn’t mean that you should avoid this exercise, it does means that correct form is as crucial as ever.
The nice thing about an upright row is that you can complete it anywhere — you’ll just need a barbell (or dumbbell or kettlebell).
To get moving:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding the barbell with an overhand grip down in front of you with your arms extended. Your grip should be shoulder-width distance.
- Begin to lift the dumbbell up, pulling through your elbows and keeping the weight close to your body as you go. Stop when your elbows are level with your shoulders and the barbell is at chest level. Keep your torso upright throughout the movement.
- Pause at the top, then return to start. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Complete 3 sets of 10–12 reps to start. Although it may be tempting, don’t increase the weight until you’re fully in control of 12 reps, as this can increase the chance of injury.
Adding an upright row to an upper body day can be a great complement to other variations of rows, as well as lat pulldowns, chest presses, pushups, and more.
Alternatively, if you follow a push/pull workout split, add the upright row to a pull day for some variation.
Regardless of how and when you add an upright row to your routine, properly warming up before weightlifting is important.
Make sure to complete 5 to 10 minutes of low- to medium-intensity cardio followed by some dynamic stretching to prime your body for movement.
While you shouldn’t be scared out of integrating the upright row into your routine, there are several mistakes you’ll need to look out for.
Your elbows are too high
Lifting your arms higher than parallel to the ground is what can cause shoulder injury. Ensure that you stop when your elbows reach shoulder level.
You’re lifting too much weight
If your weight is too heavy, the movement will require momentum, which will take the focus away from the shoulders or, even worse, put too much stress on them.
Choose a barbell or weight that’ll allow a nice slow and controlled movement.
You’re not keeping your torso upright
It’s important that your torso stays upright so your core remains engaged. The movement should isolate the shoulders and upper back as much as possible.
Barbells aren’t your only option for upright rows. You can also use:
Using dumbbells allows your hands to move more freely than with a fixed bar, meaning that internal rotation that can cause injury is less pronounced.
Choose dumbbells in a little less than half of the weight of the barbell you were using — so if you opted for a 30-pound barbell, choose a 12-pound dumbbell for each hand to start.
Similarly to dumbbells, kettlebells allow more movement in your wrists and arms and are less likely to force any internal rotation of your shoulder.
Again, opt for a kettlebell in a bit less than half the weight of a barbell you were working with.
There are several variations on an upright row you can try to spice things up.
Using a straight bar or a revolving curl bar on a cable machine, complete the same movement with your arms.
Adding an additional movement to the upright row creates a compound movement, which will give you more bang for your buck in terms of muscle engagement.
Upright row to press
Pull the weight up into an upright row, and then before releasing your arms back down, flip your wrists back and push the weight up into an overhead press.
Upright row to bicep curl
If you’re using dumbbells for your upright row, add a bicep curl at the bottom before rowing upward again.
If an upright row aggravates your shoulders, there are several other exercises you can try to strengthen your shoulders in different ways.
Dumbbell scaption raise
Hold a light dumbbell in each hand down at your sides, and keeping your arms straight, raise them up at a 30-degree angle from your body.
When the dumbbells reach shoulder level, lower back down. Go as slowly as possible throughout the movement.
Banded dumbbell lateral raise
Position a resistance band underneath your feet and hold onto the handles, as well as to a light- to medium-weight dumbbell in each hand.
Put a slight bend in your elbow and raise the dumbbells straight out to your sides, feeling the resistance from the band increasing as you get closer to the top.
An upright row can strengthen the posterior chain muscles, including the shoulders and upper back. With great attention to form, you’ll reap all the benefits.
Nicole Davis is a writer based in Madison, Wisconsin, a personal trainer, and a group fitness instructor whose goal is to help women live stronger, healthier, happier lives. When she’s not working out with her husband or chasing around her young daughter, she’s watching crime TV shows or making sourdough bread from scratch. Find her on Instagram for fitness tidbits, #momlife, and more.