8 Best Upright Row Alternatives

Although some people get on just fine with the upright row, for others it can be extremely painful to attempt as well as perform.

While it’s a relatively popular exercise, but for a lot of lifters, it’s the cause of excruciating shoulder, neck, and back pain. This is part of the reason why it has become a highly controversial strength training exercise. The upright row leaves no room for regression or progression, and for this reason, many people find it to be too limiting. 

The problems that come along with practicing the upright row are well known among the fitness community. This is why there have been multiple modifications made to make this exercise a little easier on the shoulders. Despite this, it’s best to steer clear of the upright row altogether. 

Fortunately, there are many alternatives to the upright row that provide almost the same results. In this article, we will take a look at 8 effective upright row alternatives to add to your regular workout regime. 

Muscles Targeted in an Upright Row

The muscles used when performing the upright row are:

  • Biceps
  • Rhomboids
  • Upper traps
  • Lateral delts

What are the benefits of the upright row?

Despite its notoriety for being hard on the shoulders, elbows, and wrists, there are a few reasons the upright row has become so popular. The upright row is what’s known as a compound exercise.

This means that it involves multiple muscles and joints working together in unison. This makes this a very time-efficient exercise. Upright rows are a great choice for those who want to work out their upper traps and shoulders at the same time, as well as their biceps. 

The upright row is an ideal exercise to increase strength and size through the upper body that’s needed for performance. This is why the movement became so popular among weightlifters a few decades ago. However, many people who integrate the upright row into their workout nowadays are doing so for aesthetic benefits.

The upright row is known for helping the performer achieve that “power” look. That being said, you’ll need to consider whether the impressive physique is worth destroying your shoulders for. 

Why do you need upright row alternatives?

Upright rows not only cause short-term pain, but they heighten the risk of long-term injury too. A common injury that’s often caused by the upright row is shoulder impingement.

This happens when fibrous tissue inside the shoulder joint becomes trapped between the bone protrusion at the top of the scapula and the top of the upper arm.

As the upright row requires a lot of arm rotation, those who practice this exercise are more likely to experience this. Shoulder impingement eventually prevents you from functioning correctly due to fatigue, weakness, and pain. In some cases, shoulder tendons are known to fray and lead to rotator cuff tear. 

The upright row can also lead to excessive loading, due to the way the shoulder rotates internally as the bar is gripped. If you notice any joint pain due to the upright row, or any exercise or move, stop and have it checked out by a medical professional. No exercise is worth risking your health. 

To prevent experiencing any of these painful side-effects of the upright row yourself, take a look at these 8 great alternatives!

Upright Row Alternatives

Lateral Raises

The lateral raise using dumbells is a classic routine- and for good reason. Although this workout looks absolutely nothing like the upright row, it surprisingly targets very similar muscle groups.

The shoulder movements involved in both exercises are almost identical, as they both use shoulder joint abduction. 

The lateral raise is very effective at increasing shoulder hypertrophy (posterior, anterior, and medial heads) depending on angle and grip.

This exercise is considered safer than the upright row as it requires no shoulder joint rotation. You don’t have to be a gigantic weightlifter to do lateral raises either, they’re safe for pretty much everyone of all training abilities to try. 

How it’s done:

  1. Begin by standing up straight with your feet hip-width apart. Let your arms hang freely at your sides with a dumbbell in each hand. 
  2. Hold the dumbbells so that the palm of your hands are facing towards you.
  3. While keeping your torso and back straight, lift both of your arms straight up until they’re parallel with your shoulders.
  4. Hold this position for a second.
  5. Finally, slowly lower your arms back down to your sides.
  6. Repeat these steps for however many repetitions you’d like. 

Pro Tip: Don’t make the mistake of propelling the dumbbell upwards too fast as this can create a swinging motion, that eliminates the whole premise of this exercise. Instead, if you start noticing that you’re using your back and legs instead of your delts, promptly take a break and reduce the weight. 

Cable Face Pull

Unlike the upright row, a cable face pull doesn’t require any internal shoulder joint rotation or painful wrist flexion. However, it is still a great workout for your upper back and shoulders.

In this exercise, you’ll be using a machine rather than barbells, so you’ll need to focus on controlling your movements effectively.

The cable face pull makes a great substitute for the upright row because it targets similar muscle groups. The movement is ideal for those who are trying to improve their posterior deltoid, trap, and rhomboid hypertrophy.

It’s technically more of a horizontal row, but you can merge it into a combined horizontal and vertical row by manipulating your starting position. When performing a cable face pull, you’re able to customize your positioning by adjusting your angle and grip as your train.

How it’s done:

  1. Firstly, you’re going to need access to a cable machine.
  2. Attach your rope to the carabiner securely- it should be at lower-chest height.
  3. Hold onto the rope with a neutral grip with both of your palms facing towards you.
  4. Walk the cable out a little and hold a split stance. Your weight should be supported by your front foot and you should have a slight bend in that knee.
  5. Use your core to pull the rope towards your face. Avoid moving your torso as you pull. 
  6. Don’t stop pulling the rope until they become parallel with your ears.
  7. Hold for a second and squeeze your shoulder blades together hard.
  8. Steadily and slowly return to the starting position.

Pro Tip: When you’re pulling on the cable, try to imagine that you’re attempting to touch your nose with it, rather than aiming for the shoulders. Many lifters make the mistake of not lifting high enough to target the same muscles that an upright row would.

Barbell High Pull

The barbell high pull offers everything the upright row can- plus more! Lt’s designed to work your shoulders, biceps, upper, middle, and lower traps, as well as your whole posterior chain.

The barbell high pull makes for a great substitute for the upright row as it targets very similar areas and muscle groups.

The main difference between a barbell high pull and the upright row is that the latter requires very little effort from the legs and lower body to propel the bar upwards. 

How it’s done:

  1. Place a barbell on the floor and stand in front of it with your feet spread shoulder-width apart. Squat down and hold the bar using an overhand grip. 
  2. Drop your hips, lift your chest, brace your core, and look straight ahead. Your arms should be straight at this point. 
  3. In one swift movement, stand up and, and as the bar passes your knees, pull with your arms. Leading with your elbows, pull the bar up to around your sternum. Shrug your shoulders up and back as you do so in order to shift the weight higher. 
  4. Once the barbell reaches its highest point, do not attempt to catch it but, instead, lower it back to your thighs, and then to the floor.
  5. To do this exercise from the hang position, stand with the weight in your hands, bend your knees slightly, push your hips back, and lower the bar to just above your knees.

Pro Tip: When performing a barbell high pull, some lifters make the mistake of letting the barbell drift too far away from them. If this happens, it can be distracting and can cause you to fall. 

It also isn’t such a great workout for your upper traps this way. Personal trainers claim that you should aim to “skim your shirt” as you lift, this should help you to keep it close enough to your body. 

Barbell Hang Clean

Hang cleans are often seen in Olympic weightlifting tournaments and are primarily used to improve strength, power, and speed.

Several joint actions are involved and some of the primary muscles activated include the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, quadriceps, trapezius, latissimus dorsi, deltoids, gastrocnemius, and soleus.

Although the barbell hang clean isn’t an exact substitute for an upright row, as it actually works out more muscle groups than the latter.

A barbell hang clean essentially works out your whole body, including those all-important trapezius muscles. The momentum you create with your lower body when performing a barbell hang clean takes the pressure off your shoulders. This is a perfect alternative for lifters who are concerned about internal joint rotation or pain caused by concentrated loads. 

How it’s done:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and have your barbell placed on the floor in front of you.
  2. Stand up straight, keep your shoulders back, your chest forward, and shift your weight to your heels.
  3. Using your core, lower yourself down into a squat and grasp the barbell tightly. Keep your back straight.
  4. Fully extend your arms and elbows and ensure that your grip is slightly wider than shoulder-width. 
  5. Next, while pushing with your feet and keeping the bar close to your shins, steadily lift the bar and bring it to the starting hang clean position. This is roughly the mid-thigh level.
  6. As your body reaches full extension, powerfully and swiftly pull the barbell upwards while flicking your wrists and elbows under it. 
  7. You should end in a front rack standing position. Return to the starting position and repeat for as many reps as you’d like. 

Pro Tip: Many lifters make the mistake of allowing the bar to swing away from their body during lifting, which can result in injury and pain. Instead, focus on keeping the bar as close to your body as possible to ensure the correct form and posture. 

Barbell Farmer’s Carry

This next upright row alternative is ideal if you’re trying to develop muscle, strength, and power as well as shape through your shoulders and forearms, too.

The barbells used in this exercise make it particularly challenging as you’ll need to balance the length of the barbells, rather than much smaller dumbbells. 

These benefits include developing a strong core brace, which ensures the spine remains neutral by protecting against both shear and compressive forces; enhanced proprioception (your sense of where your body parts are positioned) because you must move with the load while maintaining a braced core. If you’ve never tried it, it’s worth giving the farmer’s carry a whirl.

How it’s done: 

  1. Stand in between two barbells racked with an appropriate weight.
  2. Grab each barbell in the middle with an overhand grip and lift to a standing position, keeping your spine neutral. 
  3. Once standing up straight, each barbell should be on an extended arm, directly next to each of your sides.
  4. Retract your shoulder blades, keep your core on and walk in a steady motion without swinging the barbells back and forwards or from side to side.
  5. At the end of your distance/time, place the barbells back down on the ground with bent knees and a neutral spine to avoid injury.

Pro Tip: If you’re finding it tricky to navigate a barbell farmer’s carry at home, consider switching to some heavy dumbbells or kettlebells (20-30kg). You can then work your way up to a small, lightweight barbell. Some gyms will even have specific farmer’s walk barbells or handles that you can attach to some heavier disk weights. 

Seated Muscle Snatch

If your fitness goals involve building your shoulders and traps, then the seated muscle snatch may be the perfect movement for you.

This exercise is an Olympic weightlifting exercise that offers many of the same benefits as the high pull. However, the seated muscle snatch also works the shoulder pressing and external rotation that ultimately makes the movement well balanced. 

This movement makes a great alternative to the upright row as it targets the traps, posterior shoulder, and upper body as they are forced to move during the pull.

However, if you avoid performing the upright row due to pain, this may not be the best move for you. As it closely resembles the upright row, you may still experience the same issues. 

How it’s done:

  1. Begin this exercise by holding a barbell of your desired weight in the snatch grip position.
  2. Gently seat yourself on a box or stable surface so that your legs are at around a 90-degree angle.
  3. With the bar sitting on the top of your quads, forcefully pull the bar up by driving your elbows up.
  4. As the bar travels past your chin, start swinging your elbows downwards.
  5. Complete the lift by extending your arms up overhead.
  6. Return the bar back to your lap under control. 

Pro Tip: Some lifters find that the snatch grip can take its toll on their wrists. To combat this, try allowing your wrist to extend slightly more than usual. This will place the bar where your forearm bones would usually dig into your wrists, thus creating a more efficient grip.

Scapular Pull-Ups

This next movement is a great exercise if you’re looking to work out your shoulders and your upper back. It is used to develop proper pulling motion and stance.

It’s even said to aid in increasing performance in rows and lifts such as the deadlift. Well, a scapular pull-up will do pretty much the same thing, making it a great alternative to the upright row.

Performing this movement regularly will lead to improved kinesthetic awareness of your scapula position and allow you to climb harder and for longer with good form.

Being able to quickly engage the lower trapezius muscles will help you to keep your scapula in the correct position when training.

How it’s done:

  1. Begin in a standard pull up a position with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you) just over shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hanging on extended arms, draw your scapular down and together. This will raise your body without you having to bend your arms.
  3. Instead of moving your shoulders up towards your ears, you are drawing your shoulders back and down, thus raising your chest.
  4. When you reach the top of the movement, hold for a second before returning to a full hang.
  5. When you first try this movement you will probably only move an inch or two. However, once you’ve practiced a little, you can expect to have a range of motion of about one foot.

Pro Tip: Breathing is important when performing any movement, but especially when doing sitting exercises. Be sure to breathe along with your movements and straighten your back to make the most out of your diaphragm and core.

Single Arm Kettlebell High Pull

Finally, we have the single-arm kettlebell high pull. It’s a great exercise for improving power and function.

It’s unilateral too- which essentially means that you’re going to build strength, power, and style equally on both the left and right sides of your body. 

How it’s done:

  1. Begin by performing a single-arm kettlebell swing using your hips and slightly bending your knee. 
  2. Once your arm is parallel to the ground, pull the kettlebell towards your shoulder steadily in a horizontal line. Make sure that your elbow is facing wide outwards and your shoulder blades are retracted. Push it back out along the same plane of movement.
  3. Allow the kettlebell to drop and swing back. Repeat.
  4. Keep your breathing steady and controlled throughout the movement. 
  5. Complete your desired amount of reps on both your left and right side. 

Pro Tip: Don’t start out too light with this exercise. It’s going to need to be somewhat heavy and challenging to have the same effects as the upright row. 

Kevin Harris
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