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

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

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 helps to avoid injury. Incorporate upright rows into your comprehensive upper body or shoulder training day.

Targets: Shoulders, upper back; primarily the side delts and traps

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

Level: Advanced

How to Do an 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 up (toward the chin) as you exhale. Lead with the elbows and keep the bar close to the body.
  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.

Ben Goldstein / Verywell

Common Mistakes

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

Incorrect Range of Motion

A lack of full range of motion when performing the upright row will impede your results, as with any exercise. To ensure a full range of motion, it's vital you know what your individual abilities are. Never use a range of motion that causes you pain or discomfort. Reduce the range if you experience pain, or perform a different exercise altogether.

Aim to lift the bar to your clavicle so long as are able to do this safely and without pain. Pulling higher will likely mean you need to use less weight than you would only pulling to chest height. However, a greater range of motion with less weight is superior to more weight with a reduced range.

Not Controlling the Descent

Not controlling the weight as it lowers is a common mistake that will cause you to miss out on results. The eccentric lowering phase of the exercise is very stimulating. It will help you to build muscle and strength, but only if you control it instead of allowing gravity to take over.

Dropping the weight dramatically also puts you at a higher risk of injury due to tugging your shoulder joints and ligaments. It's best to control the movement through the pulling and lowering phases.

Bar Travelling Too Far From Your Body

Avoid arcing the bar out from your body and instead, keep it close to you by raising your elbows up instead of out. Keeping the bar closer will help activate all the muscles in your shoulder correctly, including your side delts, which won't be activated as much if you arc the bar away from you.

Be Consistent

One important factor no matter which grip or technique you use is to remain consistent from rep to rep and set to set. Keep each rep the same for your entire training cycle to ensure you are progressing under the same conditions.

Grip Position

If this exercise strains the wrists, you can try a wider grip. Shoulder-width apart is sometimes recommended for wrist and shoulder safety. Using a wide grip also increases the activation of the deltoid and trapezius muscles.

However, shoulder joints vary from person to person, so finding a grip that works for you and sticking to it is vital. Not one particular grip is best for everyone, and some people feel better using a narrow grip.

Pay attention to your joints, avoid any grip that causes pain, and also notice which grip seems to provide the best stimulus so you can get the most out of the exercise. You should be able to feel your side delts and traps working, fatiguing, and experiencing a pump and weakness caused by effectively working the muscles.

Using Momentum

Keep the torso stationary and the abs braced throughout the lift—no turning, arching, or twisting. There shouldn't be any movement in the legs. Keep your back straight, your chest up, and your eyes focused ahead.

Don't use your hips or legs to generate momentum that gets the weight up. If you can't get the weight up with proper form, reduce the weight you are lifting.

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 people of all levels of fitness should avoid this exercise. 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. People with back pain should not perform this exercise 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are some alternatives to upright rows?

    Alternatives to upright rows include front raises, side lateral raise, face pulls and rear delt flyes. The upright row primarily targets your traps and side delts, so any exercise for these areas will work as an alternative.

  • Which muscles do upright rows work?

    Upright rows primarily target your side delts and trap muscles. You will also feel them in your front delts, rear delts, arms, and core if you are standing.

  • How much weight should I use for an upright row?

    How much weight you use for an upright row depends on your strength level and goals. This is not an exercise you should perform with high weight and low repetitions due to the nature of the exercise and risks involved for your joints. Instead choose a weight that allows you to perform 10 to 30 repetitions.

Try It Out

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

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10 Sources
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