How to Do Upright Rows: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

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The upright row is considered one of the best muscle builders for the back and shoulders. It is also potentially dangerous for the shoulders, requiring perfect form for the best results and to avoid injury. This exercise is generally performed by bodybuilders and is also used in some boot camps and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) classes.

Targets: Shoulders, upper back

Equipment Needed: Barbell (or a kettlebell or a pair of dumbbells)

Level: Advanced

How to Do an Upright Row

Upright Row

Verywell / Ben Goldstein 

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Grasp the barbell and allow it to hang in front of you at the length of your arms. Your palms should be facing your body and your hands in line with the thighs.

  1. Breathe in and brace the abdominals. Keep your back straight, chest up, and eyes focused forward.
  2. Lift the barbell straight up (toward the chin) as you exhale. Lead with the elbows and keep the bar close to the body. Your arms should go no higher than parallel with the shoulders; slightly less is okay.
  3. Pause at the top of the lift.
  4. Lower the barbell as you inhale, returning it to the starting position. 

Benefits of Upright Rows

The upright row works the front and middle heads of the deltoids (shoulder muscles). This exercise also helps build the trapezius and rhomboids (muscles in the middle and upper back), and even the biceps muscles (front of the upper arm).

All of these muscles help make lifting and pulling activities easier. This includes lifting grocery bags off the floor to place them on the counter, pulling your pants on while getting dressed, and other similar movements.

This exercise is often used by bodybuilders who are targeting specific muscles. However, research indicates that the upright row can also be part of an effective strength training routine for others, such as a workout created for career firefighters.

Other Variations of an Upright Row

This exercise can be adjusted to make it more accessible to the beginner and to increase the effort needed as you build strength.

Dumbbell Upright Row

If you don't have a barbell, you can do the upright row with a set of dumbbells. When doing this variation, keep your hands in the same general position as you do during a barbell upright row. Palms should be facing in and hands in line with the thighs.

Use dumbbells only if you know how to do this exercise correctly. Using a barbell is best until you develop your technique.

Kettlebell Upright Row

You can also use a kettlebell when doing upright rows. The benefit of using this type of weight is that you can control it with both hands (like with the barbell) versus having to control each weight individually (as you do with dumbbells).

Cable Upright Row

Another upright row variation is to use a cable machine. The cable system allows for smooth movement and you can easily adjust the weight to match your strength level. This exercise starts by holding the bar at thigh level and pulling it up toward the chest.

Plank Upright Row

You can make the upright row even more challenging by adding a plank to the end of the movement. After doing the upright row and returning the weight to the starting position, lower your body into a plank, hold for a few seconds, then stand back up again.

Plank To Upright Row

Ben Goldstein / Verywell

Common Mistakes

Avoid these errors so you get the most from this exercise and avoid strain or injury.

Arm Position

While lifting, keep your elbows above the level of your forearms. Don't raise the arms above parallel to avoid impingement, which is a condition that reduces your shoulder range of motion.

Grip Position

This exercise can strain the wrists, so use only a wide grip. Shoulder-width apart is recommended for wrist and shoulder safety. Using a wide grip also increases the activation of the deltoid and trapezius muscles.

Keep your wrists supple during the lift, allowing them to flex as needed. Try to keep them from moving down or to the side during the lift as well.

Back and Torso

Keep the torso stationary and the abs braced throughout the lift—no turning or twisting. Keep your back straight with the chest up and your eyes focused ahead. There shouldn't be any movement in the legs (unless you're adding a plank, for instance).

Excessive Weight

Do not lift heavy with this exercise unless you are experienced and trust your shoulder joints. The shoulder joint is a very complex mechanism and injuries to it can severely impact your exercise goals while also being slow to heal. Shoulder impingement can occur with excessive weight.

If you're new to the upright row, start with a barbell with no weight. This will give you a chance to experience the lift, learning the movement and the positioning throughout. Add weight gradually, watching that you don't add too much weight before your shoulders are ready.

Safety and Precautions

The American College of Sports Medicine and the National Federation of Professional Trainers both say this exercise should be avoided by people of all levels of fitness. The American Council on Exercise echoes similar concerns, indicating that this type of exercise can be "counterproductive to normal shoulder function."

If you choose to do upright rows, be sure you use perfect posture and form. Better yet, choose other exercises that work these same muscles but are less dangerous to the shoulder. This includes the bench press, overhead press, and push-ups.

When working the shoulder area, take care to avoid injuring the muscles. This exercise should not be performed by people with back pain and heavy weights should not be used. If pain or inflammation occurs, cease the exercise.

When using a barbell, the "wavy" EZ curl bar makes this exercise a little easier on the wrist joints. Look for an EZ curl bar that allows you to grip the barbell at slight angles to help reduce the strain on the wrists from the angle at the top of the lift.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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8 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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