Upright Row Guide

Exercise Tutorial and Variations Explained by Personal Trainer

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: March 27, 2024

The upright row sometimes gets a bad rap as an exercise you should avoid. But it can also be one of the most valuable movements for developing your shoulders and upper back.

I will show you how to do upright rows safely and effectively in this article. And give you 13 variations and alternatives to fit your training needs.

Barbell Upright Row

What Is An Upright Row?

An upright row is a resistance training exercise where you pull the weight up your body from your thighs to your shoulders. This upward motion changes the body mechanics compared to other rowing movements.

To illustrate, traditional rowing exercises involve pulling a weight horizontally toward your body, somewhat like rowing a boat. By comparison, the upright row is a vertical pulling motion, which changes which muscles get worked.

Upright Row Muscles Worked

With seated rows or bent-over rows, you target the larger muscle groups of your back. But upright rows primarily target the posterior deltoid with help from the rhomboid, teres, and upper trapezius.

In layman’s terms, the posterior deltoid is simply the muscle segment on the back of your shoulder. While the upper rhomboid and teres support the shoulder blades in your upper back, and the traps sit between your shoulders and neck.

Upright Row Muscles Worked

Are Upright Rows Bad?

One knock against upright rows is that they can put a lot of stress on your shoulder joints. While it’s true that the shoulders take most of the load, that doesn’t make this exercise inherently bad or dangerous.

The key to safely performing upright rows is using an appropriate weight and proper form. This way, you can improve the strength and stability of your shoulder joint as you progress.

In addition, upright rows are great for targeting the neglected muscles of the rear delts. With this exercise, you can add an extra dimension to your shoulders when viewed from the side or back.

Upright Row Benefits & Limitations

As with any exercise, doing upright rows has pros and cons. So it’s helpful to understand and weigh the risk vs. reward before starting this movement.

Here are the pros and cons of the upright row exercise:

Pros

  • Great for targeting rear delts and traps
  • It can strengthen shoulder joints when done properly
  • Improves pulling strength on other lifts (rows, cleans, snatches)
  • Many variations to fit your equipment and training needs

Cons

  • Possible to cause shoulder pain if done incorrectly (or too heavy)

How To Do Barbell Upright Rows

For this tutorial, I’ll explain how to do upright rows with a barbell using a narrow grip, which is most commonly used to target the rear delts.

Start by grabbing the bar with an overhand grip and hands 6-12 inches apart. Next, stand straight up with the barbell resting against your thighs. Keep your chest up and your shoulders back.

Pull the bar straight up the front of your body from this starting position until you reach about chest level. Now lower the weight back down to your thighs in a slow and controlled manner.

Continue this movement for the desired reps, then set the bar down.

To recap, here is how to do an upright row step-by-step:

  1. Grab the bar with an overhand grip, hands 6-12” apart
  2. Pull the bar straight up the front of your body
  3. Lower the bar back down to your thighs
  4. Keep the bar close to your body throughout the movement
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps

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Upright Row Form

When doing the upright row, it’s essential to move the weight in a controlled fashion through the correct movement path. This proper form is the best way to avoid shoulder pain or injury.

Keep your hands close to the front of your body as you perform the exercise. If your hands move away from your body too much, you put unnecessary stress on the shoulder joint.

In addition, think about pulling through your elbows instead of your hand and pointing your elbows straight up toward the ceiling. This visualization helps you keep the weight close to your body.

Barbell Upright Row Top
Barbell Upright Row Mid
Barbell Upright Row Top

Upright Row Variations

You can use several upright row variations depending on the type of equipment you have available. Also, each variation slightly changes the movement and muscles used.

1. Barbell Upright Row

So far, I’ve been showing you the barbell upright row since this is the most common variation. And the bar makes it easier to coordinate the movement since both hands are connected.

2. Smith Machine Upright Row

The Smith machine upright row is another way to simulate the barbell exercise. With this variation, the bar travels on rails that dictate the movement path.

The benefit is that you don’t have to stabilize the bar, which can help you focus on contracting your rear delts and traps.

3. Wide Grip Upright Row

Another variation involves holding the weight with a wider grip. Typically a wide grip upright row is around shoulder width. But it could be slightly narrower or wider than shoulder width as well.

The wider grip emphasizes the posterior delts because you get more shoulder rotation to the rear. And you use less traps since your elbows don’t travel as high.

Wide Barbell Upright Row

4. Kettlebell Upright Row

The KB upright row is very similar to the dumbbell version except for the shape of the weights. This variation is most prevalent at CrossFit gyms.

5. Dumbbell Upright Row

You can do upright rows with dumbbells if you don’t have a barbell or Smith machine. One benefit of using dumbbells is that each arm works independently. So the movement feels more natural while working more stabilizer muscles.

Dumbbell Upright Row

6. Cable Upright Row

You perform the cable upright row with a low pulley and bar attachment. One advantage of this variation is that you can change the angle of the movement based on where you stand.

When you stand close to the pulley, the movement path is like the free weight variations. While stepping back makes the angle somewhat less vertical.

With these adjustments, this upright row variation is sort of like three exercises in one. But they’re not all equal, so check out the quick video below to see which one I recommend!

7. Rope Upright Row

With the rope attachment on the cable machine, your hands stay closer together like the narrow grip upright row. This hand position works more rear delt.

8. Single Arm Upright Row

The single-arm upright row involves performing the exercise with one arm using a dumbbell or single cable attachment. But you could also try this variation on the Smith machine.

Working one arm at a time can make it easier to concentrate on contracting the target muscles of the rear delt and traps.

Single Arm Upright Row

9. Resistance Band Upright Row

You can also do a banded upright row for those working out at home. Start by standing in the center of the band and holding one end in each hand.

Then hold your hands at the desired width and perform the movement.

11 Best Resistance Band Shoulder Exercises

Resistance Band Upright Row

10. Bent Over Upright Row

You perform this variation at the same body angle as a bent-over barbell row. However, you pull the weight towards your shoulders instead of your stomach.

Also, you can do this exercise while lying face down on an incline bench to stabilize your body better.

11. Reverse Upright Row

The reverse variation is performed with a barbell behind the back instead of in front of the body. This bar placement helps to isolate the rear delts. But it also results in a shorter range of motion.

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Upright Row Alternatives

Here are some alternatives if you can’t perform the upright row exercise or want to mix it up.

Face Pulls

Face pulls are performed on a cable machine with the pulley set at about head level. This movement is also great for targeting the rear delts and upper traps.

Start with your arms extended straight out in front of you. Then pull your hands straight back to the sides of your face.

Rear Delt Fly

A rear delt fly is a shoulder exercise for isolating the posterior deltoid. And you can do this exercise using cables, dumbbells, or a machine. Below is a demonstration of how to do machine rear delt flyes.

More Shoulder & Back Exercises

The upright row is an excellent exercise for developing your upper back and posterior shoulders. But to reach your overall fitness goals, you need a complete workout plan designed for muscle gain.

So here are some related articles to help you create your ultimate workout routine:

17 Cable Shoulder Exercises for Chiseld Delts

12 Dumbbell Trap Exercises

9 Landmine Shoulder Exercises (with pictures)

Barbell Front Raise for Front Delts

Best Anterior Delt Exercises

Lateral Delt Exercises for Wider Shoulders

See More Posterior Delt Exercises

With this information, you’re well on your way to building a better body. And if you found this article useful, I hope you’ll check out some of my other informative content below!

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