Upright Rows: The GOAT for Shoulder Workouts

Jan 28, 2022 | Exercise guides

Simply put, big shoulders are sexy. If you’re into bodybuilding, you know that your shoulders form the wide top of your hourglass or “V” shape. Having round boulder shoulders is immediately noticeable for your physique aesthetics and usually means the difference between an L and XL t-shirt.

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Your shoulders are responsible for stabilizing your upper trunk and articulating your arms in a bunch of different directions. This makes them injury-prone if neglected or overworked. Strong delts and a well-oiled rotator cuff protect the complex shoulder joint from tears, impingement, and all kinds of weird stuff that can cause shoulder pain. 

The bulk of weight training for shoulder workouts involves presses or jerks—push press, strict/military press, push/power jerk, split jerk—everything that requires holding weight overhead. The strongest shoulders can press big plates. 

But your shoulders are capable of more than just pushing weight above you. Pulling movements like lateral and front raises, dumbbell flys, and upright rows are awesome for hitting your shoulder muscles from different angles. 

Training your shoulders to pull weight vertically also loosely translates to some useful functional movements like carrying groceries, helping a drunk friend up to their feet, or playing tug-o-war with your dog.

Shoulder anatomy & injury myths

Arnold press - anatomy of the delt

Wherever the viral disinformation started that upright rows are bad for your shoulders, we wish it hadn’t. We’re here to dispel some *scary* myths that demonize this exercise for causing shoulder impingement issues.

The idea behind this is when the two bony parts of your shoulder come together at the top, it can cause pain and impingement. But for 95% of us, our anatomy actually allows for this movement to happen. Upright rows themselves aren’t inherently dangerous. 

Whether or not this movement is fine for your body has to do with the shapes of the bones in your shoulders, and most of us are within a normal range. This is absolutely an exercise that your shoulders are capable of performing safely. 

There is just no evidence that supports the idea that upright rows are “a great way to shred your rotator cuff” or that they’re otherwise a hazard.

Check out this video by E3 Rehab if you want to get into the weeds here.

More than likely, if you have pain or symptoms associated with upright rows, it’s probably related to load. Like any exercise, it’s up to you to scale appropriately and make the necessary modifications so you can reap the rewards of adding upright rows to your shoulder workouts.


If your joints are healthy and you lift with good form, upright rows are no more a threat than any other shoulder exercise. And just like how bent-over rows create a strong back, upright rows help build shoulder peaks that would make Mount Fuji jealous. 

So, if you want to grow bulging pumpkin delts like Dana Linn Bailey, this pulling movements is where it’s at. Check out our guide and get to rowing!

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How to do Upright Rows

Points of Performance

Upright rows can be done with a range of equipment: a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebell, EZ-curl bar, or smith machine. We’ll use a barbell to keep things simple, but you can execute everything the same way with dumbbells, too. 

 

Setup

Start standing with your feet between hip and shoulder-width apart. Hold your bar with an overhand grip down at your waist.

 

Grip: Wide vs. Narrow

Grip width preference is basically up to you. The general consensus is that a wider grip will work the side head of your deltoid while a narrower grip hits your traps and front delts a little more. Upright rows hit all three heads of your delts in general—whether you take a wider or narrower grip will change the focus of the movement only slightly. 

Coach’s Tip: A super wide grip upright row looks suspiciously like a snatch grip high pull in Olympic weightlifting. And a narrow grip with a wide stance looks suspiciously like a sumo deadlift high pull.

 

Row

With a tight core and neutral spine, pull your elbows up toward the ceiling. Pull the bar up your body so it lands just under your chin or around the top of your chest with your elbows bent. You don’t need to raise the bar all the way up to forehead level.

Keep your elbows higher than your wrists for the entire movement. Squeeze at the top, then return the weight to your starting position. If you have to swing your torso excessively or “kip” with your hips, the weight is probably too heavy. Check your ego. Unless you’re doing Olympic weightlifting high pulls, upright rows are not intended to be a dynamic/explosive exercise.

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Lily Frei Headshot

Lily frei

Lily is TrainHeroic’s Marketing Content Creator and a CF-L1 with an English background. She was a successful freelance marketer for the functional fitness industry until being scooped up by TrainHeroic. An uncommon combo of bookish, artsy word-nerd and lifelong athlete, Lily is passionately devoted to weightlifting, CrossFit, yoga, dance, and aerial acrobatics. Find her showcasing her artist-athlete hobbies on IG @lilylectric.

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