How to Do Upright Rows Without Wrecking Your Shoulders

How to Do Upright Rows Without Wrecking Your Shoulders

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If you’ve been lifting weights for a long time (or even if you’re a beginner using old-school workout plans) you’ve likely encountered the upright row. The exercise was a staple in classic bodybuilding routines for building up big-time shoulder muscle, and its simplicity makes it seem like a movement that should be fundamentally sound for anyone to do. As it’s most commonly performed, the upright row requires you to stand straight up (hence the name), and lift a barbell or EZ bar straight up to your upper chest, keeping the weight close to your torso. Simple, right?

This technique might make for an effective way to build mass in your shoulder muscles (particularly the lateral head of your delts and even your traps) as proven by the physiques of bodybuilding legends like Arnold Schwarzenegger who included the movement in their workout plans. Unfortunately, upright rows come at a cost. The exercise puts the shoulders into a compromised position, putting exercisers at risk of injury if they continue loading the movement over their training lifetime.

The brings the modern trainee to a crossroads. Should you totally avoid the upright row? Is there a way that you can reap the movement’s shoulder-building benefits without taking on the risk of injury?

Let’s break down everything that you need to know about the upright row, including the risks in performing the exercise and a variation that you can use to build up shoulder muscle without taking on as much risk of injury as the old school bodybuilders who made it a staple.

Benefits of the Upright Row

As stated earlier, the upright row is a well-known shoulder exercise popular among bodybuilders and CrossFitters that can pack size onto your rear delts. Exercisers use the movement in upper body workouts to build shoulder muscle and strength. But those gains can come at a cost.

How Upright Rows Can Lead to Injury

The problem is that the classic upright row can put you in a risky spot. The most common variation of the upright row requires that you standing with an EZ curl bar or a barbell held at your hips, hands relatively close (sometimes even at the center of the bar). From there, you’re often taught to pull the bar up to your neck, driving your elbows as high as possible.

That’s an instantly problematic position for your shoulders. The moment your elbows get higher than your shoulders, the bar pulls your shoulder joint is in something called “internal rotation.” This is especially true if you’re going heavy on your upright rows. Suddenly, the head of your humerus (or upper arm bone) starts closing the space between other bones in the area, and all the bones in your shoulder become prone to rubbing against rotator cuff tendons and soft tissue.

Over time, all of this can lead to injury. And it’s not even developing your shoulders all that much, either. One of the key functions of your rear delts is to pull your upper arms behind your torso, but because of the rigidity of the bar, your elbows never actually wind up behind your torso. “You’re lifting heavy,” says Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., “but not pushing for the strength or muscle you really want.”

The Better Way to Do the Upright Row

To get the benefits of upright rows without the injury concerns, you should make three key adjustments. But even then, tread cautiously. “There are plenty of other rear delt exercises out there,” says Samuel. “And really, if you’re attacking standard rows on back day, you may not even need upright rows in your program.”

If you want the move in your program, though, tweak your form to attack both the function of the muscles you’re aiming to hit, and to keep yourself out of internal rotation.

How to Do the Dumbbell Upright Row

1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells in a pronated position (palms facing in).

2. Squeeze your glutes and engage your core to prep yourself for movement.

3. Raise the dumbbells straight up (think vertical pull).

4. Once your elbows are slightly lower than your shoulders, pull back (think horizontal pull) and squeeze your shoulders for the row.

5. Only lift the weights to a position parallel to your shoulders.

6. Lower the weights back to the starting position with control.

Ditch the Bar

Forget barbells and EZ curl bars for upright rows; neither implement lets your shoulders move with the freedom they need. Instead, grab a pair of dumbbells. Suddenly, your arms will be freed from their close-grip setup. “This means you can start with tighter posture,” says Samuel. “Start standing, with your abs and glutes tight, and squeeze your shoulder blades too. The dumbbells will let you do this.”

Hold the dumbbells naturally. And yes, dumbbells (and not kettlebells) are key to making this work. Having the loads on either side of your hand (instead of below your hand, as is the case with a kettlebell) will help keep you out of internal rotation.

Don’t Pull So High

Instead of pull upwards so your elbows wind up higher than your shoulders, stop a hair below shoulder-height, says Samuel. This will keep your shoulders from shifting into internal rotation, and it’ll do more than that, too: It’ll keep tension on your medial deltoid.

“Once elbow height exceeds shoulder height, you’re very often taking tension off your shoulders,” says Samuel, “and shifting it into your traps. By stopping with your elbows slightly below your shoulders, you’re essentially mimicking a lateral raise, with a shorter lever.”

Yes, that means you’ll need to use lighter weights, but, truth be told, you shouldn’t be pounding out ultra-heavy reps on upright rows, anyway. By using a lighter weight, you’ll be able to keep your shoulders from shifting into internal rotation.

After You Pull Up, Pull Back

Instead of thinking of upright rows as pulling straight up, think of them as a two-part motion. Pull up so your elbows are slightly lower than your shoulders, and then pull back, as if doing a wide-grip bent-over barbell row. “Aim to get your elbows behind your torso and squeeze your shoulder blades,” says Samuel. “If you’re here for rear delt development, take advantage of this moment. It’s in this moment that your rear delts must work in concert with a lot of your shoulder stabilizing muscles.”

Adding this motion in reinforces the upright row as a rear delt developer, but don’t expect it to be easy. Think of rotating your wrists upwards slightly (as an added bonus, this insures your external rotators fire), and then pulling back with slight body English. It won’t be easy, says Samuel, but it will be beneficial.

All of this guidance adds up to a better, safer, more shoulder-sustainable upright row. Yes, you’ll be working with lighter weights, but you’ll still get plenty of muscle burn.

When to Do the Upright Row

Think of doing 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps on shoulder day, as a finishing move for shoulders, after you’ve done more traditional moves at higher weights. This shouldn’t be your go-to shoulder move, but you can still include it in your workout if you feel like you must.

Want to master even more moves? Check out our entire Form Check series.

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