ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Upright Row: Muscles Worked, Benefits, Proper Form & More


Upright Row: Muscles Worked, Benefits, Proper Form & More

Reading Time: 4 minutes 61 seconds


Date: 2022-02-09T00:00:00-05:00

So, what do you need to know about the upright row as a fitness trainer? Prescribing exercise as a personal trainer is like prescribing medication as a doctor. You need to know what that prescription is, how it works, and who it can help. It is equally important that you recognize who shouldn’t take that specific prescription because it might cause that person harm.

The more you know about a specific exercise, the greater your ability to incorporate it into your client’s workout safely and effectively. So, let’s begin by first describing what this exercise is.

What Is an Upright Row?

Also known as a barbell upright row, this movement involves holding a barbell in front of the body horizontally and lifting it to shoulder height.

The amount of weight on the barbell can vary based on the client’s fitness level. For instance, beginners might use no weight, while more advanced exercisers can increase the resistance by using heavier weight plates.

The upright row fits well within an upper body or total bodyweight training program.

Muscles Worked

The upright row is considered a compound exercise since it works many muscle groups at once. That said, the primary target is the deltoid muscle group (shoulder muscle). The delts have three muscle heads:

  • Anterior deltoid

  • Lateral deltoid

  • Posterior deltoid

The barbell row focuses specifically on the anterior and lateral deltoids as opposed to the rear delts. It also activates muscles in the back, namely the rhomboids and trapezius.

The rhomboids lie under the trapezius muscles and assist with upper limb movement. The trapezius plays a role in head movements and posture. The lower and upper trapezius help with upward scapular rotation, while the middle assists with scapula adduction.

Another muscle target of upright rows is the biceps (biceps brachii). This upper arm muscle aids in the lifting and lowering motion, making the exercise a more complete upper body movement.

Benefits of Upright Rows

Performing the upright row can help build muscle mass in the shoulder area. Exercisers might use this move to develop a more defined physique, such as when engaged in bodybuilding competitions. It can also help non-competitive exercisers feel less self-conscious when their shoulder is exposed, like when wearing a sleeveless shirt.

Upright rows also contribute to increased shoulder strength. This strength makes it easier to perform everyday exercises. You may find that you can lift heavier grocery bags or that it isn’t as much of a struggle to pick up your children or grandchildren.

A barbell upright row even helps obtain and retain shoulder health. What does this mean? The stronger the muscles surrounding the shoulder joint, the more it can perform its natural functions without issues or concern. So, strong shoulders are healthy shoulders.

Another benefit of upright rows is that they can aid in the recovery of certain conditions. For instance, one study found that upright rows appear to help relieve chronic neck muscle pain. (The other exercise offering relief was the lateral raise.)

Some scientists have even found that this exercise may be an effective mortality predictor. In this piece of research, it was noted that a subjects’ performance of the upright row exercise helped predict their approximate age of death.

As if this isn’t enough, the fact that the upright row is a compound exercise offers additional benefits. With compound exercises, you can work more muscles at one time. This allows you to shorten your workout without sacrificing your results.

Proper Form for an Upright Row

Proper form is necessary for doing this exercise safely. It also ensures that the correct muscles are targeted.

Here are the instructions you can provide to clients when performing a barbell upright row:

  • Stand with your back straight, shoulders back and down, and stomach muscles tight. Your feet are shoulder-width apart.

  • Grip the barbell with an overhand grip (palms face your body) and hold it so the arms are fully extended. This should place the barbell around the middle to top of the thigh area.

  • Lift the barbell while keeping it close to the front of the body. During the lift, make sure each elbow stays above the forearm.

  • Stop when the barbell reaches shoulder height and lower it to return to the starting position.

Some exercisers prefer to do a Smith machine upright row. The Smith machine is a steel frame designed to control the barbell better. Since the bar is confined between two rails, it is prevented from moving forward or back. This machine is somewhat controversial, mainly for placing people in awkward positions that don’t support natural movements. Though, it may be an option to consider if you’re on the positive side of the fence.

If clients are struggling with form when doing the upright row, they may be trying to lift too much weight. Reduce the weight on the barbell and see if their form improves. Beginners may even want to begin this exercise with an unweighted bar. This enables them to master their form before increasing resistance.

Upright Row Variations and Alternatives

Lifters can vary this exercise to change intensity or work the muscles differently. Here are some variations to consider.

  • Different equipment. The traditional upright row is performed with a barbell. However, you can also swap this out for a set of dumbbells, kettlebells, or a resistance band. The dumbbell upright row is better for activating the traps. Kettlebell training is good for making the core work harder. And if you’re looking for equipment you can take with you wherever you go, the resistance band delivers.

  • Different grip width. The typical grip involves holding the bar closer than shoulder-width apart. If you want to make your lateral deltoids work harder, use a wide grip. To do a wide grip upright row, the hands grip the bar slightly wider than the shoulders. Widening the grip also activates the trapezius muscles.

Including the Upright Row in Your Workout Routine

This shoulder exercise can be included in a variety of different workouts. For instance, if doing a dedicated shoulder workout, add it to other movements such as push-ups, bench presses, and lateral raises.

Another option is to do upper body exercises such as the upright row one day and the next day do lower body exercises like the squat and lunge to work the legs and glutes. One benefit of this approach is that clients can break their strength training routine into smaller chunks. It also allows them to do more sets and reps or use a heavier weight.

Who Shouldn’t Do Upright Rows?

This exercise isn’t recommended for everyone. Individuals with shoulder issues might want to avoid upright rows, for instance. This includes those with shoulder impingement or another type of shoulder pain.

In such cases, an upright row alternative may be safer to perform. The lateral raise, seated snatch, or face pull are options to consider.

Because these exercises also target the shoulder area, it is still recommended that the client obtain their doctor’s approval before doing any of these exercises. This helps ensure that the movements are safe for their physical condition or specific injury.

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