When it comes to controversial workout moves, you may think of pushing tires across a room, using gymnastic rings, and other Crossfit-style exercises that are risky to perform without proper training and supervision and that resemble acrobatics more than they do pumping iron. Upright rows are probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of this category of exercise. Despite that, this relatively simple workout move has its detractors, with some going so far as to claim you shouldn’t do them at all.
We wanted to find out more about upright rows, including why and how a muscle-building, straightforward move could potentially be problematic. To learn everything possible about upright rows, we spoke to WeStrive App trainer, student doctor of physical therapy, performance enhancement specialist, and certified nutrition coach Tommy Hockenjos of Compass Performance and Olympic-level USA boxing coach Cary Williams, CEO of boxingandbarbells.
Meet the Expert
What Are Upright Rows?
Also known as standing rows, upright rows are an upper body exercise. To do an upright row, you hold either dumbbells or a barbell with weights at the ends in your hands in an overhand grip. Williams explains to “hold the weight shoulder-width apart with palms facing you and allow the weight to hang in front of you.” Then, lift the weight up to your collarbone in front of you, close to your body, before slowly releasing it back down again. Williams suggests keeping your elbows ”above the level of your forearm and allow your wrists to flex with the movement,” while keeping your core engaged. This move uses both the front and back of your arms, which means it works your triceps as well as your biceps.
Beyond being a workout move, Hockenjos says that the motion involved in an upright row is “a common movement pattern that is needed for life and sport,” and “the upright row looks like a movement that is needed to take off your shirt.” It’s always helpful to strengthen the muscles we use in everyday life, which upright rows can assist with.
What Are the Benefits of Doing Them?
The upright row strengthens your shoulders, arms, and upper back. Hockenjos tells us that “in the lifting world, especially Crossfit and Olympic lifting, the upright row helps improve the 'pull' section.” That’s beneficial because pulling exercises are necessary for us to acquire equal strength between our pulling and pushing muscles, the latter of which are generally much stronger naturally.
There are more benefits to upright rows than that already important list. Hockenjos says that they increase muscle mass, help prevent injuries from other exercises thanks to the strength they help you build, and improve your performance in other lifting workouts.
What Are the Risks?
Before delving into injury potential, it’s important to note that we’re presenting and detailing the below risks out of an abundance of caution, and upright rows are highly unlikely to be a major problem for the average person who has some workout experience. Personally, I do them with light dumbbells regularly—and I’m a 43-year-old with a missing chunk of scapula bone, who has undergone multiple shoulder surgeries. Upright rows require caution, which we will also discuss at length, but they’re generally a safe part of a workout regimen.
Williams describes the risks of upright rows simply, stating, “I think upright rows are bad on the shoulders and actually wouldn’t recommend doing them.” Hockenjos got into it for us with a bit more detail. He says, “Upright rows have a bad reputation because they put us in shoulder abduction and shoulder internal rotation. Due to our functional anatomy, this position really limits the space between our humerus and acromion in our 'shoulder joint.' For some, this 'impingement' caused by lack of space can cause irritation and pain.”
Unlike Williams, Hockenjos thinks that this risk can be mitigated with proper form, and he finds upright rows to be a beneficial exercise that’s worth doing. He recommends you do them with proper form so as to avoid any risk of injury from this move.
Keys to Proper Form
Because upright rows can cause harm if not done properly, it’s vital to follow guidance on form to avoid any risk of injury. Here are Hockenjos' key points to ensure you accomplish that goal.
- Your hands should be placed wider than your hips. He says that “this wider position will help limit the amount of internal rotation your shoulder goes into.”
- Both your shoulders and your shoulder blades should be drawn back, avoiding any rounded shoulder positioning.
- If you’re prone to shoulder pain, opt for a smaller range of motion.
Upright Row Variations
- To better focus on the move while doing it, use dumbbells instead of a barbell and lift one arm at a time. Hockenjos says that doing the move this way is “very important for people who have asymmetrical range of motion, where one arm may not be able to go into as much internal rotation.”
- Use a cable row machine. To do a cable upright row, you’ll pick up the straight bar attached to the machine from a low position, then stand with your arms straightened (but not locked). From there, you move the bar close to your chest and lift it toward your collarbone. Similar to doing the move with a barbell or dumbbells, your hand grip is pronated and your elbows move up with your arms.
Upright rows are a pulling exercise done with a barbell or dumbbells, though they can also be done with a cable row machine. They work numerous muscles throughout your shoulders, back, and arms. While the motion can be difficult on your shoulders, risk of injury can be mitigated with proper form. If you’re interested in trying upright rows, using a barbell without any weight added, or light dumbbells, is the safest way to start. Be cautious of your body positioning, and your shoulder position in particular, and start slow. Well-muscled shoulders can be yours, and upright rows can help you achieve them.
Kolber MJ, Cheatham SW, Salamh PA, Hanney WJ. Characteristics of shoulder impingement in the recreational weight-training population. J Strength Cond Res. 2014;28(4):1081-1089. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000250