How to Perform the Upright Row Exercise

Work the Shoulders and Upper Back With Good Form

Man with a barbell
Gabriel Visintin/EyeEm/Getty Images

The upright row is considered one of the best muscle builders for the back and shoulders. It exercises the front and middle heads of the deltoids, as well as the trapezius, rhomboids, and even biceps muscles. This is a lift that requires good form for the best results and to avoid injury. Whenever working the shoulder area muscles, care must be taken to avoid injuring the shoulders. Avoid heavy weights with this exercise.

Keep your back straight during the upright row, with the chest up and eyes focused ahead. Your stance should be about shoulder width. This exercise can strain the wrists, so use only a wide grip. Also, 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. Don't raise the arms above parallel to avoid shoulder impingement. Find out more about weight training fundamentals if you need background information before you try this exercise.

Starting Position

Upright row start
Photo (c): Paul Rogers / Cooloola Fitness
  1. Stand with legs at a comfortable distance apart—shoulder width is about right.
  2. Grasp a barbell or dumbbells and allow it to hang in front of you at the length of your arms. Your palms should be facing your body.
  3. Standing up straight, adjust your grip so that your hands are about in line with the thighs. That is, not too close together.
  4. A "wavy" EZ curl bar makes this exercise a little easier on the wrist joints. (See picture.)

Exercise Movement

Upright row exercise
Photo (c): Paul Rogers / Cooloola Fitness
  1. Breathe in and brace the abdominals, keep the back straight, chest up and eyes focused forward.
  2. Lift the barbell straight up toward the chin, leading with the elbows and keeping the bar close to the body. Breathe out during the effort. Your arms should go no higher than parallel with the shoulders. Slightly less is OK.
  3. Pause at the top of the lift.
  4. Return the barbell back to the starting position, breathing in as you lower it. 
  5. Repeat the move for your defined number of repetitions.

Tips for Good Form

  • 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, and don't add too much weight before your shoulders are ready.
  • Keep your wrists supple during the lift, allowing them to flex as needed. Try to keep the wrists from moving down or to the side during the lift.
  • While lifting, keep your elbows above the level of your forearms.
  • Keep the torso stationary and your abs braced throughout the lift, no turning or twisting.
  • Do not squat down and up after the initial pose. No movement in the legs should occur.
  • Do not lift heavy with this exercise unless you are experienced and trust your shoulder joints. Shoulder impingement has been reported with excessive weight or poor form. The shoulder joint is a very complex mechanism and injuries to it can severely impact your exercise goals and can be slow to heal.
  • If pain or inflammation occurs, cease the exercise.
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