What are Upright Rows?

Jessica Gore

Upright rows are strength training exercises that primarily target the deltoids and trapezius muscles of the shoulders and upper back. The exercise is normally performed standing, using a weighted barbell for resistance. Alternatively, dumbbells, an EZ curl bar, or cable machines can be used in place of the barbell. While upright rows are often considered a classic movement for developing size and strength in the shoulders and upper back, certain safety precautions are necessary to prevent shoulder impingement or exacerbation of pre-existing conditions.

Upright rows target the deltoids, upper trapezius, and biceps brachii muscles in the shoulders and upper arms.
Upright rows target the deltoids, upper trapezius, and biceps brachii muscles in the shoulders and upper arms.

Properly performed, upright rows target the deltoids, upper trapezius, and biceps brachii muscles. To a lesser extent, the forearms, gluteal muscles, and core muscles are activated as synergists and stabilizers. During the movement, the deltoid group is primarily responsible for raising the arms to horizontal, after which the trapezius rotates the scapula to allow the final phase of the movement. In general, a wider grip on the barbell will emphasize the stimulus on the deltoids, whereas a shoulder-width grip will focus more on the upper trapezius. Grips narrower than shoulder width should generally be avoided.

The starting position for upright rows entails standing with feet slightly apart, back straight, and core muscles activated. To begin, the barbell is grasped at thigh level using a wide overhand grip. Keeping the elbows high and to the side, the weight is pulled up along the body. If desired, the barbell can be held slightly out from the body, a modification that adds further stimulation to the deltoids.

As the bar reaches the chin, the breath is exhaled forcefully and a brief isometric contraction can be held at the top of the movement. The bar is then lowered to the starting position in a slow and controlled manner. Throughout the exercise, the neck should remain neutral and the eyes should focus forward. The movement should be performed in a rhythmic fashion, with emphasis on the quality of movement rather than the mass of the resistance. Leaning, bouncing, or jerking to assist the weight indicates that too much weight is being attempted, and the resistance should be reduced to allow for proper form.

The shoulder joint has the greatest range of motion of any joint in the human body, and the associated muscles are capable of generating considerable force. As a result, this joint is particularly vulnerable to injury. Upright rows performed with a narrow grip require a greater degree of internal rotation, reducing the space between the humerus and the shoulder girdle. This can lead to impingement of the delicate tissue of the shoulder.

When carried out using proper form, upright rows are a good compound movement for building mass and strength in fit, healthy individuals. The potential for injury during upright rows makes the exercise a poor choice for individuals with pre-existing pain, swelling, or irritation of the shoulder. Any athlete undertaking an exercise program that includes upright rows should take special care to use good form and a sensible load to minimize the chance of injury.

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