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Best Upright Row Alternatives to Try Now

Upright rows are an exercise that have come in for a lot of criticism over the years. Anecdotal and scientific research suggests they’re an exercise that can exasperate shoulder issues. If you’re a sufferer of shoulder impingements, they’re best avoided.

But what should you do instead? What are the best upright row alternatives?

In this article I’m going to run you through some of the alternatives to the upright row that I use in my own training and with my personal training clients. They’re exercises that don’t risk shoulder damage and help to improve athleticism and technique on other lifts. 

Upright rows – the problem

Whilst I don’t like the over-simplified, click bait claims made by many personal trainers, I can see why there’s a lot of criticism of the upright row. There’s a risk of shoulder pain because of the nature of the movement and how it interacts with the physiology of the shoulder joint.

When you perform an upright row you have to internally rotate your shoulders (think squeezing your shoulder in towards your chest). As you lift the weight, you put pressure on the shoulder joint and force the rotator cuff and bicep tendons to rub across the acromion process (that little boney lump at the top of your shoulder). 

Over time this creates pain and inflammation.

There’s a very good chance you can perform the exercise without issue, but it’s a case of the dripping tap – the damage isn’t done after a few sets, it’s multiple sets over an extended period of time – some people struggle with the movement on their first go, for others it takes years. 

As a question of risk vs reward, there’s better options than the upright row.

What muscles does the upright row target?

Upright rows target the muscles of the upper back (traps, rhomboids) and the medial and posterior deltoid (middle and back of the shoulders). There’s secondary activation of the bicep muscle group, but they aren’t a target muscle for the exercise. 

It’s primarily used as a bodybuilding exercise rather than for athletic development. It has a limited range of movement and isn’t usually associated with big, explosive movements or heavy weights. 

Variations of the exercise will include using a kettlebell or an EZ bar. It’s largely down to personal taste because there isn’t an obvious difference in effectiveness between each when the grip width doesn’t vary much. 

What we do know from the research though is that as the grip gets wider, the muscle activation changes somewhat. A wide grip generates more activation in the traps and rear deltoids, and the narrow grip reduces activation of these and activates the biceps brachii more instead. 

When you consider the actions of the joints, this is obvious. A wider grip stops the elbows bending as far, and the biceps are responsible for elbow flexion. Less elbow flexion automatically means less bicep recruitment.

Why upright row alternatives are safer than upright rows

The main reason the upright row is dangerous is due to the degree of internal rotation of the shoulder. The further inward the shoulders are during the lift, the more chance there is of impingements, therefore pain and inflammation.

By opening the grip out wider, the joint has more room to move and there’s a lower chance of impingement. This means the overall structure of the shoulder is protected. 

Furthermore there’s a situation where the long term effects of the wider grip protects the shoulder health. As we already know, the wide grip activates the trapezius and rear deltoids more effectively, and there is evidence to suggest that weak lower trapezius muscles can contribute to shoulder impingement

By using an exercise that targets the traps more effectively than the upright row, you can hopefully contribute to preventing and correcting the issues that contribute to the impingement. 

This rebalancing of the shoulder musculature can help to prevent ‘upper cross syndrome’ which is a known contributor to shoulder and neck pathologies…

By using exercises that counterbalance these issues, shoulder health is protected for the long term, reducing injury risk and ultimately improving athleticism.

Upright row alternatives

As with all of  my ‘alternative exercise’ articles, I want to stick as closely to the original exercise as possible, replicating the movement patterns as best as I can. I also want to stick to exercises that use equipment you’ll realistically have access to in a home gym

The good news is there are some excellent options here. In my work coaching weightlifters, we use a few exercises that replicate the upright row perfectly, but they have the added benefits of improving on the original. They’re safer and they’re also more explosive, so they have a better athletic carryover too.

Here’s the best upright row alternatives that I use with my clients…

1. Snatch Grip High Pulls (from hip)

The snatch grip high pull is a perfect replication of the upright row, but removes the dangerous element by spacing the grip much wider. It’s an exercise that doesn’t require much in the way of advanced technical skill, but there’s a good athletic trade off.

The wider grip and the more explosive movement recruits a lot of muscle, turning it into a great back exercise as well as traps, rhomboids and rear delts.

Equipment needed for snatch grip high pulls:

  • Barbell

How to do snatch grip high pulls:

  1. Take the bar with a snatch grip (double overhand, wide grip)
  2. Keep your back straight and pull directly upwards
  3. Initiate the movement by pulling the elbows up high and squeezing the shoulder blades together
  4. Emphasize the elbows travelling upwards and keeping the bar close to the body
  5. Lower the bar under control
  6. Repeat as many times as required

Snatch grip high pulls muscles worked:

  • All muscles of the upper back
  • Rear deltoids
  • Erector spinae

2. Snatch Panda Pulls

The snatch panda pull is a more technical weightlifting exercise, but it’s one that is a suitable upright row alternative because it mimics the movement, activates the same muscles and avoids the dangerous aspects of the upright row by shifting the grip wide.

The other good reason to include panda pulls is the athletic development aspect of the lift. It’s a powerful, explosive movement that has crossover benefits for anything requiring power generation with the upper body. This includes throwing sports, swimming, fight sports etc.

Equipment needed for panda pulls:

  • Barbell

How to do panda pulls:

  1. Take the bar with a snatch grip (double overhand, wide grip)
  2. Bend your knees, keeping your back straight and the chest high
  3. Drive with your legs, keep your back straight and pull directly upwards
  4. Pull the elbows up high and squeeze the shoulder blades together
  5. As the bar travels upwards and reaches the top of the lift, bend your knees slightly to ‘dip’ your chest lower relative to the bar – this makes the traps work even more
  6. Keep the bar close to the body throughout
  7. Lower the bar under control
  8. Repeat as many times as required

Panda pulls muscles worked:

  • All muscles of the upper back
  • Rear deltoids
  • Erector spinae
  • Legs
  • Glutes

3. Single arm dumbbell snatch high pull

There are two good reasons for including the single arm dumbbell snatch high pull in this list. The first one is that it’s an exercise that follows the same movement pattern as the upright row, with the added element of making it a more explosive, athletic exercise.

The second is that it’s a single arm movement, so you have the benefit of training both sides of the body equally. Your dominant side can’t over-rule the movement. This helps to bring up the weaker side and also makes you a more balanced lifter.

Equipment needed for single arm dumbbell snatch high pull:

  • Dumbbell

How to do single arm dumbbell snatch high pull:

  1. Place the dumbbell between your feet, slightly in front of you
  2. Take hold of the dumbbell with an overhand (palms facing towards you) grip
  3. Keep your back straight and pull directly upwards
  4. Pulling the elbow up high and wide, but squeeze the shoulder blade of the lifting arm in towards the middle
  5. Emphasize the elbow travelling upwards and keeping the dumbbell close to the body
  6. Lower the dumbbell under control
  7. Repeat as many times as required

Single arm dumbbell snatch high pull muscles worked:

  • All muscles of the upper back
  • Rear deltoids
  • Erector spinae
  • Legs
  • Glutes

4. Face Pulls

Too many people write off the face pull as a lightweight exercise that has little benefit, but the truth is they’re one of the most important exercises for shoulder health there is. I know face pulls don’t mimic the upright row in terms of a vertical pull, but the shoulder is a joint with the greatest range of motion in the body, so we have to work it in other planes in order to maximise its health.

Face pulls have the advantage of emphasising the traps and rear delts (both important for shoulder health), but they also demand scapular (shoulder blade) movement too. This rotation of the joint helps to keep your shoulder strong and healthy.

Equipment needed for face pulls:

  • Resistance band (you could also use a cable machine if you’re lucky enough to have one)
  • Somewhere to anchor the band

How to do face pulls:

  1. Set the band at face height
  2. Stand far enough away that the ban has plenty of tension in it – you’re looking for resistance, so give it chance to be hard work
  3. Keep your elbows up high and take the band with a double overhand grip
  4. Pull the band towards your face, keeping the elbows up high throughout
  5. At the end of the movement squeeze your shoulder blades together
  6. Slowly allow the hands to return to the start position
  7. Repeat as many times as required

Face pulls muscles worked:

  • All muscles of the upper back
  • Rear deltoids

Upright row alternatives – the bottom line

As I said at the start of the article, I hate clickbait titles and inflammatory claims about exercises. I don’t want to add to that by claiming upright rows are the work of the devil – they’re absolutely not, but there’s safer alternative options that I’d argue offer additional benefits beyond just training the shoulders.

Using these exercises will improve your shoulder and upper back health. Even if your shoulders are currently fine, they’ll prevent you from going down a road that could lead to future shoulder problems. You’ll be a better, more powerful athlete with these exercises in your program too.

The upright row alternatives I’ve suggested here are functional, safe, have excellent functional and athletic carryover, and they’re all absolutely possible in most home gyms. What’s not to love?!

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Hi! My name is Steve Hoyles. I’m a personal trainer, gym owner and fitness copywriter. Since graduating with my Sports Science degree in 2004 I’ve worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. My writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries.

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