How to do the Upright Row exercise? – Coplete Video guide!

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Want to build upper back and shoulder muscles? Look no further than upright row exercise. Alternatively known as the standing rows, the upright row exercise is the best option to gain strength and power but is notorious at the same time for causing injury if not done with proper technique. This article guides you on how to safely do upright row exercise, along with its benefits, modifications, variations, common mistakes and much more!

Upright Row exercise Muscles Worked:

The movements involved in the upright row exercise target the upper back and shoulder muscles, playing a key role in developing strength and power. The targeted upright row muscles are:

  1. Upper Trapezius (narrower grip)
  2. Posterior Shoulder/Deltoids (wider grip)
  • Anterior Shoulder/Deltoids (narrower grip)
  1. Biceps
  2. Rhomboids

Some of the main goals of performing the upright row exercise are:

  • Muscle Size & Strength:

The upright row exercise is good for building the muscular size and strength of specifically targeted muscles; the anterior and lateral heads of the deltoids, trapezius, rhomboids, and even the bicep muscles. However, this is of special interest for bodybuilders, requiring perfect form and technique.

  • Bigger Traps:

Stronger deadlifts, squats, and pressing, require developing bigger traps which can be achieved by doing narrow grip upright rows.

upright row exercise
Upright row muscle worked

How to do Upright Row exercise? Step-by-Step Instructions:

upright row exercise

Perfect reinforcement of technique and position is crucial to achieve upright row form and to mitigate the risk of injury. Generally performed by fitness athletes and bodybuilders, upright row exercise are a pulling exercise that can be performed as;

  • Upright row with barbell
  • Upright row with dumbbells
  • Upright row kettlebell
  • Upright row with cable row machine

If you’re interested in trying upright row exercise, 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 row exercise can help you achieve them if performed according to the step-by-step guide given below:

  • Step 1. Choosing Grip Width

First, determine the grip width that best suits your needs e.g. snatch/clean emphasis etc. A wider grip targets more of the posterior shoulders while a narrower grip emphasizes the trapezius more (both grips will target both muscle groups). Your palms should be facing your body.

Coach’s Tip: Start by taking a grip that is about 3 inches outside shoulder width (clean grip, or slightly wider), which allows you to get the best of both posterior shoulder and trapezius.

  • Step 2. Stand Tall

Stand the barbell up to the hip, and pull the chest up tall (assume an erect position).

The shoulders should be pulled back, with the shoulder blades set down the back.  

Coach’s Tip: Once upright, squeeze the barbell so that the knuckles are pointed down towards the floor and the elbows are slightly flared out towards the sides (without allowing the shoulders to round forwards). This will improve your ability to elevate the elbows upwards in the next step.

  • Step 3. Elbows Up

Pull the elbows upwards and slightly out, keeping the barbell close to the body. Lift the barbell/dumbbell 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. Pause at the top of the lift.

Be sure not to let the barbell go out away from the body. If this is the case, your elbows are not staying above the wrists and/or not going upwards, but rather they are most likely going back.

Coach’s Tip: It doesn’t take a lot of weight to get the muscles going, so keep things light and control the entire range of motion. Once the bar reaches as high as you can go, pause slightly and then control the eccentric (lowering) aspect, and repeat.

Return the barbell to the starting position, breathing in as you lower it.  Repeat the move for your defined number of repetitions.

Upright Row: Sets, Reps, and Programming

Recommendations for programming of upright rows for two primary training goals into training programs are stated below:

  • Strength – Reps and Sets:

Upright row programming for strength and application to other movements (e.g. high pulls) is done as:

  • 4-6 sets of 3-8 repetitions
  • Less than 1-3 repetitions with heavy loads are generally not advised as it can often lead to breakdowns in form and potential injury (except with heavy snatch high pulls for weightlifting purposes).
  • Hypertrophy – Reps and Sets:

Upright row programming for muscle hypertrophy is done as:

  • 3-5 sets of 8-15 repetitions can be used to increase muscular fatigue necessary for muscular hypertrophy.
  • There is a wide array of loading, sets, and rep schemes available to coaches to train the size and strength, but the key focus should be on the muscle contractions and “pump”, rather than just mindlessly moving weights. Additionally, the loads themselves do not need to be heavy to have an effect.

Common Mistakes in performing Upright rows:

To avoid strain or injury during upright row exercise, refrain from making the following errors:

Wrist Position:

Upright row wide grip is preferred to avoid wrist strains. 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.

Elbow Position:

While lifting, keep your elbows above the level of your forearms. Don’t raise the arms above parallel to avoid shoulder impingement.

Back & Torso:

Keep the chest stationary and your abs braced throughout the lift—no turning or twisting. Keep your back straight, with the chest up and eyes focused ahead. Do not squat down and up after the initial pose. No movement in the legs should occur.

Heavy Weight:

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.

Modifications & Variations:

Upright row exercise can be modified to make it more accessible for beginners and to increase the effort needed as you build strength. To maximize upper back strength, hypertrophy, and performance, the knowledge of the upright row variations is important. Six such variations are stated below:

  • Upright Rows with Barbell/Narrow Upright Row:

Often done with a barbell, the narrow grip upright row is a vertical rowing variation often done to increase the involvement of the upper traps and back and to increase posterior shoulder strength and performance.

  • Upright Rows Wide Grip/Clean Grip:

The clean grip upright row is a shoulder-width grip (or slightly wider) placement on the barbell that can be used to increase back, traps, posterior shoulder strength, and muscle mass.

  • Snatch Grip Upright Row/Clean High Pull:

The snatch grip upright row is a wide grip variation of the previous two pulling movements, offering increased posterior shoulder and back involvement. The high pull is a movement that employs greater lower body involvement to increase strength and momentum to lift a load from the ground (or low hang) to the shoulders, similar to the upright row.

This exercise, however, has more direct timing and technique application to movements like the snatch and cleans, and therefore is often used to increase total body strength, pulling power, and improve positioning in the extension phases of the snatch and clean.

  • Cable or Band Upright Row/Face Pull:

Bands and other cable machines keep tension on the muscles throughout the entire range of motion, ultimately increasing muscle activation and hypertrophy. The face pull is similar to the upright row in that the muscles often trained are the same.

The difference between the two movements is that the upright row pulls upwards in a vertical manner, whereas the face pull has the load being pulled horizontally or at a slight angle, which can offer slight variations in muscles targeted by the exercise.

  • Dumbbell Upright Row:

The upright row with dumbbells is performed with a dumbbell held in each hand to increase unilateral strength, muscle mass, and movement coordination. Some lifters may have issues moving both loads in unison with precision, often suggesting movement asymmetries and/or muscular imbalances.

  • Muscle Snatch:

The muscle snatch is similar to the upright row and the high pull, however, it entails a lifter to take the load from the end of the high pull and continue to press it overhead. This exercise is a great moment for including both the pulling and pushing muscles into one powerful and muscle-building exercise.

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. If you choose to use it, be sure you are being coached to use perfect posture and form.

Whenever working the shoulder area muscles, care must be taken to avoid injuring the shoulders. Avoid heavy weights with this exercise. If pain or inflammation occurs, cease the exercise.

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