The upright row is an exercise that divides the fitness world. There are those that swear by its effectiveness in building traps—the muscles between the bottom of the neck and the start of your deltoids—while others will hate it due to the ease with which it can cause shoulder impingement. While the way the upright row is done can determine how effective the exercise can be and if it will really cause an injury, most physiotherapists will argue against the internal rotation of the shoulder that the move causes.
An upright row is when you’re holding a bar with a narrow grip in front of the body in a neutral position and lifting them up towards the chest while flaring the elbows out and over your shoulders. This places the shoulder in a position of internal rotation. While internal rotations aren’t necessarily bad on their own, it is the bad technique and overloading that could irritate the tendons in the shoulders. Overloading and excessive use of overhead movements can also cause shoulder impingement, and these include swimming strokes and tennis serves. But doing an upright row in the gym is a choice, and one whose risks might trump the benefits.
The problem with the exercise is that it is mechanically bound to cause issues to the tendons. The moment your elbows get higher than your shoulders, “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,” states a Men’s Health article titled How to Do Upright Rows Without Wrecking Your Shoulders.
For those who want to persist with the upright row, there are some guiding principles to follow, and they’re quite easy to understand. The first is to ditch the bar and go for dumbbells. This will make the move less restrictive. The second is to not pull higher than the shoulder height, as many fitness instructors suggest. And finally, it is important to not just pull the dumbbells up but also slightly behind, hence hitting the entire trapezius muscle group.
A study in The Strength and Conditioning Journal, titled The Upright Row: Implications for Preventing Subacromial Impingement, says that “what constitutes a safe degree of shoulder elevation during upright row performance remains a topic of controversy.”
But those who have painful or sensitive shoulders should stay away from this exercise. Especially because there are so many alternatives to building traps that it is sometimes a needless risk to use this particular exercise. Here are three of the easiest alternatives to build your back and shoulders while avoiding the upright row.
Cable/resistance band face pulls: Face pulls are a brilliant alternative to a lot of painful shoulder movements you might be facing because it changes the angle of where the weight is being pulled from. To hit the traps, it is recommended that you set the cable to a height above your shoulders so you are pulling down rather than pulling up (as you would do in an upright row).
One key tip here is to not entirely straighten the arm out when you are returning to the starting position because that would engage your biceps when you begin the movement for the next rep. Just make sure you are stretching out the traps rather than the arms when you’re returning to neutral. Some even suggest the seated upwards face-pull, where the angle of pulling is from below chest level but higher than a conventional upright row.
Dumbbell/resistance band lateral raises: Yes, just the basic lateral raise can give your traps and deltoids enough of a workout to build muscle without having to push through the complicated mechanics of an upright row. “While the lateral raise mostly works the side delt, many lifters tend to bring the dumbbells slightly higher than shoulder height. This additional travel of the dumbbells causes a small amount of scapular elevation, emphasising the upper traps as well,” says an article on powerliftingtechnique.com. But don’t power through your lateral raises. Instead, use the time-under-tension method and feel the isolation of the side deltoids to make it more effective.
Inverted row: Again slightly ignored on most pull-days, the inverted row, where you’re pulling the body up to a bar on a smith machine, is an excellent addition to your back and shoulder day. Shoulder workouts are unique in their incorporation of push and pull exercises, and the inverted row is something that beginners can start on their knees and scale up to eventually doing them with weights attached to the body. At the end of the day, this isn’t a high impact move, which means you can work up to a sizable amount of reps. It also trains the core and adds another exercise in your list of bodyweight training. YouTube channel BarBend has a comprehensive guide to the inverted row, with a few variations included.
Although upright rows are not always the devil, research has shown that “the execution (of the exercise) is not without risk as a result of the exercise’s propensity to produce subacromial impingement.” Listen to your shoulder joints before making a decision on whether you should continue doing this exercises—and if it revolts in the least—stick to the alternatives and get the same results.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.