The upright row is an effective way to build strength in the rear part of the deltoids, the muscles that cover the shoulders.
Yet this row variation has a reputation for being equally effective at causing shoulder pain. This bad rap is largely a consequence of user error. Poor form, the wrong tools, and a lack of understanding of the exercise’s intention can all contribute to issues.
The upright row looks easy enough: Stand up, holding a barbell or EZ bar in your hands, and pull the weight up to shoulder height. But using a barbell or EZ bar fixes your hands in a position that places undue stress on the shoulder joint. And focusing on pulling the weight up high means the rear deltoids get bypassed.
Two adjustments can elevate the experience and effectiveness of this move. First, swap the barbell or EZ bar for dumbbells or a cable machine with a rope attachment. Second, raise your elbows no higher than shoulder height — and when you reach the top, think about drawing your elbows slightly back. Using dumbbells or a rope attachment allows you to perform the important up-and-back movement.
If, despite these adjustments, the upright row still doesn’t feel good or right, don’t worry. Other, more forgiving exercises that target the rear delts include single-arm bent-over rows and standing bent-over lateral raises.
Try these tips to make the most of your upright rows.
- Standing tall, grasp a pair of dumbbells and extend your arms straight down, palms facing the fronts of your thighs.
- Keeping the dumbbells close to your body, with your shoulders relaxed, bend your elbows and raise the weights until your elbows reach shoulder height. Maintain a neutral neck and spine, and hold your gaze in front of you.
- At the apex of the move, retract your shoulder blades subtly to draw your elbows slightly back. Avoid scrunching your shoulders up.
- Reverse the movement, lowering the weights back to the starting position.
- Perform two or three sets of eight to 12 reps.
This article originally appeared as “The Upright Row” in the November 2021 issue of Experience Life.