The Upright Row is an exercise that targets the shoulders when you pull a barbell or dumbbells vertically to shoulder height in front of your body. Although it’s a popular exercise for building bigger shoulders, it has a tendency to cause shoulder pain.
What is an Upright Row?
To perform an Upright Row, hold a barbell or dumbbells in front of your body, pull the weight vertically to about neck height and then lower under control.
According to Dr. John Rusin, strength coach, physical therapist and owner of John Rusin Fitness Systems, the Upright Row is a potent exercise for bodybuilders interested in developing the middle and front portion of their deltoids—i.e, the round muscles on the sides of their shoulders.
But outside of bodybuilding, the exercise doesn’t have much of a purpose. In fact, Rusin says he’s never had a client perform Upright Rows in his entire time in the industry.
The Problem With Upright Rows
Upright Rows effectively target your shoulders. No one is arguing that, and many swear by the exercise. However, it causes a few problems due to the inherent motion of the exercise.
Problem 1: It can cause shoulder pain or injury
Rusin says that as you bring your arms up, the upper arm rotates internally in the shoulder. This isn’t too problematic if you have healthy shoulders, perfect posture and perfect technique, but very few people have all three.
“A vast majority of people don’t have those requisites, so it becomes an injurious motion for them,” Rusin adds.
Doing this exercise might cause you to feel a twinge of pain during a rep that goes away after you finish, or you could exacerbate a pre-existing issue that can lead to a more serious injury.
Upright Rows are typically the most problematic variation because your hands are locked into position, which is more likely to cause a shoulder problem. Using dumbbells or kettlebells can alleviate this problem, because your hands are free to move, but the exercise still isn’t an ideal motion for shoulder health.
Problem 2: It trains muscles that are typically over developed
Athletes have few reasons to train the front portion of their deltoids. Pressing exercises such as the Bench Press, Overhead Press and Push-Ups already take care of that.
Combine this with our propensity to hunch forward looking at a computer screen or mobile phone all day and you have a recipe for tight and overdeveloped front delts, which can throw your shoulders out of whack.
“So many people already have chronic tightness there because we use cell phones, computers and sit at desks,” Rusin says. “So trying to place more training load on that specific tissue really doesn’t add up no matter what the exercise is.”
Instead, spend more time developing your posterior or rear delts with exercises like the Bent-Over Lateral Raise. This will not only make your shoulders stronger and more resistant to injury, it will also help round them out and improve aesthetics, so you get the best of both worlds.
Problem 3: There are far better exercises for targeting your deltoids
The question you have to ask yourself is, “Why?” If you’re an athlete, it’s hard to justify performing an exercise that could put your shoulder health at risk, especially if you’re an overhead athlete like a pitcher or a quarterback. It’s even highly questionable for non-athletes.
A plethora of other exercises effectively train the shoulders and are far easier on the joint, so you there’s nothing that says you have to perform Upright Rows.
Here are two of Rusin’s favorite exercise swaps for the Upright Row:
Dumbbell Scaption Raise
Performing Lateral Raises at a 30-degree angle places your shoulders in a slightly more joint-friendly position, allowing your shoulder blades to move more freely.
How to: Stand with your feet hip-width apart holding dumbbells at your sides with your palms facing in. Bend your elbows slightly. Tighten your core and raise the dumbbells at a 30-degree angle to your body until they reach shoulder height. Lower the dumbbells with control and return to the starting position.
Banded Dumbbell Lateral Raise
According to Rusin, this Lateral Raise variation is a perfect option for athletes because you’re forced to explode up against the dumbbells and resistance of the band, which develops the fast-twitch fibers of your front and middle delts.
How to: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and place a resistance band under your feet. Hold dumbbells and the handles of the resistance band at your sides with your palms facing in. Bend your elbows slightly. Tighten your core and raise the dumbbells to the side until your upper arms are no higher than shoulder height. Lower the dumbbells with control to return to the starting position.