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The Ultimate Guide To The Upright Row

upright row exercise

Developing Strength And Size In The Back and Shoulders

For years, the upright row has been used by strength, power, and fitness athletes in order to develop back and shoulder strength and size.

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While the exercise itself is fairly straightforward, if performed incorrectly it may inhibit your progress or, even worse, lead to injury.

This comprehensive guide will provide all the detail you require to allow you to perform the upright row safely and effectively.

Three-Step Guide To Performing The Upright Row

While dumbbells, kettlebells, bands, and cables can all be used for the upright row, the following technique is specifically for a barbell upright row.

Work through the following three steps to perform the perfect upright row.

1) Pick Your Grip

Before you even lift the bar from the floor, you need to determine which grip you are going to use.

A wider grip on the bar will emphasize the posterior deltoids while a narrower grip will target the trapezius muscle and biceps to a greater degree (1).

For those who wish to get the best of both worlds, use a grip that is approximately three inches wider than shoulder-width.

Ideally, you should select the grip that is most applicable to you and any sport you participate in. For example, weightlifters should consider using clean and snatch grips when performing the upright row.

2) Stand With The Bar

Once you have gripped the bar, lift the bar up to the hips and stand up tall. When lifting any heavy object from the floor, it’s important to lift the chest and keep the core engaged.

Once standing, think about pulling the shoulder blades back and down all while maintaining a tall chest and braced core.

Focus on squeezing the barbell tightly so that the knuckles stay pointed down and the elbows flare out slightly. This will allow you to pull the elbows upward with greater efficiency.

3) Drive The Elbows Up

Powerfully drive the elbows up and slightly out all while keeping the bar as tight to the body as possible.

Letting the bar drift away from the body will interfere with the path of the elbows and will likely cause them to move backward rather than staying over the wrists.

Ensure that you do not excessively load the bar. Use a weight that allows you to use a full range of motion and control the eccentric (lowering) phase.

Upright Row Benefits

The upright row is associated with a number of benefits that will be discussed in the below section.

1) Increasing Shoulder Strength and Hypertrophy

The most obvious benefit of the upright row is increasing strength and size in the shoulders as the movement recruits a variety of muscles around the shoulder joint.

Therefore, for those who aspire to increase shoulder strength or size, pressing abilities, or general strength, the upright row is a great option.

To maximize strength development, it is critical that the technique used is high-quality. Failing to prioritize form may interfere with time under tension and muscle activation thus inhibiting progress.

2) Targeting The Traps

The trapezius muscles play a key role in a number of compound exercises such as the deadlift, squat, and pressing exercising. Having large traps is also a physical feature that many desire.

These muscles are specifically targeted during the upright row and regularly performing this exercise can lead to significant improvements in trap strength and size.

To maximize trap development, use a narrower grip as a wider grip will place more demand on the posterior delts.

3) Enhance Clean and Snatch Performance

In the second pull during the clean and snatch, the lifter must replicate a motion that is not dissimilar to the upright row.

They must explosively pull the bar upwards by elevating the shoulders and elbows all while keeping it tight to the body. 

Therefore, becoming proficient at the upright row may transfer directly to a stronger, more efficient second pull during the clean and snatch.

Upright Row Muscles Worked

As highlighted, the upright row specifically targets the shoulder muscles. However, there are many other muscles that must engage to allow the elbows to be pulled upward.

The muscles worked in an upright row include:

  • Deltoids (anterior, lateral, and posterior)
  • Trapezius
  • Rhomboids
  • Biceps

Who Should Perform Upright Rows?

Before loading the exercise it is crucial to assess whether or not the lifter can successfully elevate the hands while keeping them close to the body without experiencing pain or asymmetry.

Performing the upright row with poor form has been associated with shoulder impingement (2), therefore, caution is required and form must always be the top priority.

While anyone can really perform upright rows, there are specific populations that may gain greatly from them.

1) Powerlifters

Increasing the strength and size of the upper back and shoulders may translate to a better performance with the squat, deadlift, and bench press.

2) Strongmen

The vast majority of strongmen events require a large degree of upper back and shoulder strength. Consequently, the upright row can be used as an accessory to facilitate strength performance.

3) Olympic Lifters

As briefly touched on, there are similarities between the upright row and the Olympic lifts. Practicing the upright row regularly will not only increase strength but will also reinforce the correct movement patterns.

Upright Row Programming Considerations

The load and volume that you perform will determine the fitness component that you predominantly develop.

If you are looking to increase strength, focus on heavier weight and lower reps as studies have consistently shown this to be most effective (3). 4-6 sets of 3-8 repetitions will suffice.

Extremely heavy loads and low reps (1-3) are not recommended as this may lead to the breakdown of form and injury.

For muscle growth, muscle fatigue and time under tension appear to be influential factors (4). Therefore, utilizing a slightly higher rep range may help you achieve this. Focus on 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps.

When performing upright rows for size, concentrate on the muscular contractions and look to increase time under tension as much as possible. Moderate weight is often best for this.

Upright Row Variations

This section will provide five excellent upright row variations that will allow you to maximize upper back and shoulder development. 

1) Narrow Upright Row

As mentioned, assuming a narrower grip on the bar will place a greater demand on the traps. Therefore, to optimize trap development, the narrow grip variation is recommended.

As the name suggests, this variation simply involves reducing the distance between the two hands. However, be wary that this variation may place additional stress on the wrists and shoulder if done incorrectly.

2) Clean Grip Upright Row

When performing a clean, the hands are placed on the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width. Therefore, for the clean grip upright row, simply replicate this grip.

For any lifter who regularly performs cleans, this variation may help to improve the second pull both in terms of power production and movement.

3) Snatch Grip Upright Row

The snatch has a much wider grip than the clean. While each lifter’s hand position will likely differ, the grip should be wide enough so that the bar sits at the crease of the hips.

Once the bar is in this position, simply perform an upright row. Because this grip is much wider, there is a greater emphasis on the posterior deltoids.

4) Band or Cable Upright Row

While barbells are excellent resistance training tools, they aren’t the only ones. Bands and cable are superb tools that can accelerate strength development.

One of the biggest benefits associated with bands and cables is that they sustain tension on the muscle throughout the entirety of the movement.

5) Dumbbell Upright Row

Although it is typically possible to lift a heavier weight with a barbell in comparison to a dumbbell, barbells may mask strength imbalances.

Using two individual dumbbells, however, will firstly help you determine whether or not imbalances or asymmetries exist and secondly, allow you to eliminate them.

Alternatives To The Upright Row

Some may find the upright row to be an unsuitable exercise due to previous injury or mobility concerns, for example. 

Here are three superb alternatives to the upright row that target similar musculature and allow you to develop strength, size, and performance.

1) Clean / Snatch High Pull

The high pull shares characteristics with the upright row with the primary difference being the involvement of the lower body. It will help to develop full-body strength, timing, positioning, and power output.

To perform a high pull, hinge forward and allow the bar to descend towards the knees before powerfully driving the hips through and simultaneously pulling the bar upwards.

2) Muscle Clean / Snatch

The muscle clean and snatch is an advancement on the high pull and upright row. In terms of developing muscular strength and recruitment, there are few exercises that compare.

For these exercises, the high pull will be performed, however, instead of returning the bar to the hips, it will be pressed directly overhead.

3) Face Pull

Although the plane in which this exercise is different from the upright row, the face pull highly activates the same muscle groups and, therefore, can improve upper back and shoulder strength.

For this, you will need to use a cable or band. Grasp the ends of the equipment with both hands and pull it towards the face all while keeping the elbows high.

Final Word

There is a vast array of upper back and shoulder strengthening exercises, however, the upright row is one of the most effective.

It is particularly useful for those who partake in powerlifting, strongman, and Olympic lifting. Becoming proficient with the upright row may facilitate an improved performance in these sports.

References:

1 – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22362088/  McAllister, Matthew J.; Schilling, Brian K.; Hammond, Kelley G.; Weiss, Lawrence W.; Farney, Tyler M. (2013-01). “Effect of grip width on electromyographic activity during the upright row”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 27 (1): 181–187. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31824f23ad. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 22362088.

2 – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24077379/ Kolber, Morey J.; Cheatham, Scott W.; Salamh, Paul A.; Hanney, William J. (2014-04). “Characteristics of shoulder impingement in the recreational weight-training population”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 28 (4): 1081–1089. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000250. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 24077379.

3 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5131226/  Schoenfeld, Brad J.; Contreras, Bret; Vigotsky, Andrew D.; Peterson, Mark (2016-12-01). “Differential Effects of Heavy Versus Moderate Loads on Measures of Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men”. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. 15 (4): 715–722. ISSN 1303-2968. PMC 5131226. PMID 27928218.

4 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3285070/   Burd, Nicholas A; Andrews, Richard J; West, Daniel WD; Little, Jonathan P; Cochran, Andrew JR; Hector, Amy J; Cashaback, Joshua GA; Gibala, Martin J; Potvin, James R; Baker, Steven K; Phillips, Stuart M (2012-01-15). “Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates differential muscle protein sub-fractional synthetic responses in men”. The Journal of Physiology. 590 (Pt 2): 351–362. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2011.221200. ISSN 0022-3751. PMC 3285070. PMID 22106173.

*Header image courtesy of Everkinetic via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

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