Cable Upright Row Guide

Comparing 3 Variations to Determine Which Is Best

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTPublished: December 13, 2024

Many people shy away from the upright row exercise because they don’t like how it feels or hear it’s bad for your shoulders. As a result, this critical exercise has gotten a bad reputation.

In this article, I will review some of the common mistakes people make. And teach you how to do the cable upright row exercise properly.

Within a few minutes, you’ll be doing the exercise safely while getting maximum muscle activation.

Cable Upright Row

What Are Upright Rows?

Most rowing exercises involve pulling a weight towards your body, somewhat like rowing a boat. But an upright row is when you pull the weight up the front of your body from your thighs to your shoulders.

Often, you do the upright row exercise with a free-weight barbell. But you can also do it on a low pulley cable apparatus.

Cable Upright Row Benefits

The cable upright row provides some unique advantages over free weight variations of the exercise. For example, the cable offers better variety, versatility, and muscle targeting than free weights.

Here is a detailed explanation of the benefits of the cable upright row:

  1. Variety: The cable upright row allows for a different type of resistance compared to free weights, and the constant tension can help you mix up your routine to work your muscles differently.
  2. Versatility: The cable machine allows for easy adjustments to the height and angle of the pulling force relative to your body.
  3. Targeted Muscle Activation: The cable upright row allows you to target different parts of the shoulders and upper back by adjusting the position of the pulley and your body.

Cable Upright Row Muscles Worked

The cable upright row primarily targets the upper back and posterior shoulder muscles. And you will feel this exercise in your upper traps, rhomboids, and rear delts. Plus, the bicep muscles provide some secondary pulling force.

As you can see, cable upright rows are a compound movement involving multiple joints and muscle groups. But most people perform upright rows to target and build their rear delts. 

So let me show you how to do cable upright rows to target specific muscles.

Cable Upright Row Muscles Worked

3 Ways To Do a Cable Upright Row

As you know, the cable apparatus provides more flexibility to perform upright rows from various angles and body positions. But each variation works your upper back and shoulders slightly differently.

So let’s break down three ways to do the cable upright row.

Cable Upright Row Option 1

Option 1:

One way I see people doing cable upright rows is with their back to the pulley and the cable between their legs. In fact, this is the way my Marcy home gym recommends doing upright rows on their exercise guide.

When using this stance, you pull your hands up and away from your body, which isn’t ideal from a shoulder stability standpoint. Also, the cable tends to hit you in the crotch at the top :|

So I don’t advocate doing cable upright rows this way.

Cable Upright Row Option 2

Option 2:

A better way to do cable upright rows is to stand facing the pulley with the cable right in front of your toes. With this stance, you pull the bar straight up the front of your body as you do during a free-weight upright row.

Although, some of you may still find this variation uncomfortable on your shoulders. And you might have a hard time feeling your rear delts working.

Cable Upright Row Option 3

Option 3:

My favorite way to do the cable upright row is with the pulley in front but then taking a half step back from the cable. One advantage of this stance is that you pull up and back toward your body, like a rear delt row.

In addition, most people should find it easier to feel a deeper burn in their rear delts with this cable upright row variation. And that’s how I program this exercise into my client’s workouts.

To recap, there are three distinct ways to perform cable upright rows with different body positions and cable angles. And each variation results in different body mechanics and muscle activation.

You can also see a side by side comparison of the three cable upright row variations in this 70-second YouTube Video.

My YouTube channel has dozens of videos showing you how to do a variety of bodybuilding exercises. You’ll learn how to target and build specific muscle groups in 90 seconds or less. Click HERE to subscribe, or click on the button below!

Which Cable Upright Row Variation Is Best?

All three cable upright row options work the same general muscle groups. And the best exercise variation for you depends on your body and training goals.

For example, some people may like the between-the-legs variation best because it keeps the cable closer to your body. At the same time, others might want to replicate the barbell cable upright row by facing the pulley and standing close to the cable.

However, I have found that facing the pulley and taking a small step back from the cable results in the best angle for isolating the rear delts. So you should try this exercise in your next pull day or shoulder workout.

Best Cable Upright Row Variation

How to Do A Cable Upright Row

First, you’ll need a low pulley cable apparatus and a handle attachment. And you can use several types of handles, such as a straight bar, EZ bar, or rope attachment.

Here are the steps to perform a cable upright row:

  1. First, stand facing a cable machine with your feet about hip-width apart, and grip the cable handle with both hands using an overhand grip, with your palms facing down.
  2. Begin with your arms extended straight down, your hands in front of your thighs, and the cable under tension.
  3. Pull the cable up towards your chin while keeping your elbows pointed outwards until the cable handle is level with your chin. Keep your wrists straight throughout the movement.
  4. Lower the cable back down to the starting position in a slow and controlled manner, and repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Cable Upright Row Form Tips

The steps above should give you a good idea of how to do a cable upright row. But here are some additional pointers to help you perform this exercise with perfect form.

  • Avoid using momentum or swinging your body to lift the weight. Focus on using your shoulders and upper back muscles to lift the cable.
  • Think about pulling through your elbows instead of your hands to feel it more in your rear delts.
  • Always keep tension on the cable and your muscles, don’t let the weight stack touch at the bottom.
  • Don’t lift the cable too high; keep it close to your body and stop when the handle reaches chin level.
  • Start with a lighter weight to ensure you’re performing the exercise with proper form before increasing the weight.

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Cable Upright Row Alternatives

Of course, you don’t need to use a cable machine to do the upright row exercise. So I will show you how to do upright rows with whatever equipment you have.

Barbell Upright Row

The barbell upright row is probably the most common form of this exercise. And you can perform this variation with anything from an Olympic barbell to an EZ curl bar.

When doing barbell upright rows, keeping the bar close to your body throughout the range of motion is crucial to avoid putting unwanted stress on your shoulders.

Also, start with just the bar and work up to heavier weights as you build shoulder stability and strength.

Smith Machine Upright Row

The Smith machine upright row is the next closest exercise variation to the barbell upright row. However, this machine has vertical rails that guide the bar on a linear path.

While the fixed movement path can help isolate target muscles, some people may find that it feels less natural than free weight or cable upright rows.

Dumbbell Upright Row

Next, you can also perform the upright row exercise using a pair of dumbbells. Each arm must work independently with this unilateral exercise, which is great for stability and preventing imbalances.

However, it can also be trickier to maintain the proper movement path if you’re not used to the upright row exercise yet.

Lateral Deltoid Exercises - Dumbbell Upright Row

Kettlebell Upright Row

Lastly, the kettlebell upright row is another option if you don’t have access to cables. With the kettlebell handle, both arms work in unison as with the barbell upright row.

However, the close grip and compact weight might feel more comfortable for some lifters.

More Back & Shoulder Exercises

Now you know how to do the cable upright row with proper form for maximum rear delt engagement. And you’ve seen several variations and alternatives you can use to keep your workouts fresh.

But you should also include other movements in your shoulder and pull day training. So here are some additional articles you can use to build your complete workout program.

Landmine Shoulder Exercises (With Pictures)

12 Dumbbell Trap Exercises for Upper Back & Neck

Complete Dumbbell Back & Bicep Workout

23 Best Posterior Deltoid Exercises

17 Cable Shoulder Exercises for Chiseled Delts

With this information, you’re well on your way to demolishing your rear delts and building more defined shoulders. So if you found this article useful, I hope you’ll check out some of my other informative content below!

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By |April 29, 2023|Workouts|0 Comments
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