UPRIGHT ROWS: GOOD OR BAD? SAFE OR DANGEROUS?
A staple shoulder building exercise dating back to the days of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu, the upright row is typically performed by holding onto a straight bar with a narrow overhand grip and pulling the weight up to neck height.
The safety of the upright row is often called into question though, as it has quickly gained a reputation over the years as being a dangerous exercise that should be avoided due to the high amount of stress it can place on the shoulder joints.
The shoulder is a ball-and-socket comprised of many individual tendons, ligaments, and muscles all encapsulating the joint, and it’s an area that is very prone to injury if you aren’t careful with your exercise selection and training technique.
But what’s the real truth here? Are upright rows safe to perform as part of your shoulder workouts, or are they just another outdated movement that belongs firmly in the exercise graveyard?
Are Upright Rows Safe To Perform?
The short and simple answer is that the safety of the upright row primarily depends on the specific way in which it is performed.
As with many questions surrounding the topic of proper exercise selection, the answer here is not black and white and will vary based on what type of upright row you’re doing as well as the overall health of your shoulders to begin with.
Go the traditional route of using a straight bar and yanking your elbows all the way up to your ears like you see above, and yes, you’ll most definitely be placing yourself at a high risk for injury.
This variation places the shoulders into a highly internally rotated and horizontally abducted position, and it can very easily lead to rotator cuff impingement over the long term especially if you’re performing the movement using heavy weights and sloppy technique.
This is not something you want to mess around with, as shoulder injuries can have serious negative consequences for your training program depending on the severity, and sometimes the damage can be irreversible.
Not only that, but the use of a straight bar will also lock your hands into a fixed position that can place undo stress on your wrist joints over time. So, even if your shoulders manage to escape unharmed, you could still very easily end up hurting your wrists regardless.
Injury prevention should always be treated as a primary concern in your lifting plan, since your ability to train hard and build new muscle size and strength hinges on the fact that your joints are healthy enough to do so in the first place.
If you’re in this for the long haul, you should always be critically examining the risk/reward of any potential exercise you’re doing in order to determine if it really makes sense to include it in your plan.
It may not seem like a big deal now, but when you’re laid out on the sidelines with a shoulder injury and are unable to properly perform your upper body workouts as a result, trust me when I say that you’ll really wish you’d paid more attention to this.
Now, all that said, this doesn’t mean that upright rows are completely out of the question and that they must be avoided completely.
As I already mentioned, it really all depends on the specific way in which you perform them, and upright rows usually can be done safely by those with otherwise healthy shoulders as long as the proper modifications are made.
Proper Upright Row Form: 3 Key Modifications
Before going any further, let me first say that if you do experience any shoulder discomfort even after applying these 3 tips, you’ll be best off to just ditch the upright row altogether.
The general rule with any exercise you perform should always be “if it hurts, don’t do it”, and this is no exception.
The upright row is certainly not a necessity when it comes to building impressive shoulders, and I’d simply consider it to be an optional movement that can be experimented with by those who already have the basics covered and are looking for something new to potentially enhance their delt training.
Always keep that risk/reward factor in mind that I mentioned, and if you have pre-existing shoulder issues or the exercise feels painful or awkward in any way, there’s no good reason to go any further with it.
With that out of the way, here is the much safer upright row variation that I’d recommend going with…
Upright Row Form Modification #1
Pull the elbows up to shoulder height, but no higher.
Not only does pulling the elbows higher than shoulder height greatly increase the risk of rotator cuff impingement, but it doesn’t actually provide significant additional stimulation to the lateral delt muscles anyway.
So, pulling the weight up as high as possible like most lifters do isn’t going to give you any major benefits, but it does pose a real potential downside when it comes to your shoulder health.
The solution here is to simply pull the weight up until your elbows are in line with your shoulders, and then stop there before lowering the weight back down.
Upright Row Form Modification #2
Perform the lift using dumbbells, a rope, or two single-hand cable attachments.
These particular training tools will allow your wrists to fall into a more natural position during the upright row rather than being awkwardly locked into place like they are on a straight bar.
Not only does this reduce the chances of developing wrist pain, but it also prevents your shoulders from rolling inward excessively as you pull the weight upward.
Any of these choices are fine and you can experiment to see which ones feel the most comfortable on your shoulders and maximize the tension on the lateral delts.
Upright Row Form Modification #3
Reduce the weight and stick to stricter, higher-rep sets.
Rather than loading up the weight and heaving the bar up and down using sloppy form and excessive momentum like you’ll see so often in the gym, make sure to always perform your upright rows using smooth technique and a controlled, deliberate rep cadence.
This is definitely not the type of exercise that I’d suggest maxing out on, and if you want to fully minimize the injury risk I’d recommend a rep range of anywhere from 8-12 per set.
Keep in mind that your muscles respond to tension (you may have heard the term “time under tension“) rather than any one specific amount of weight on the bar, and performing your upright rows using lighter weight and stricter technique can actually help you increase lateral delt stimulation while putting less stress on your shoulder joints.
You should also avoid making any sudden jumps in weight and instead work on increasing the resistance at a slow, gradual pace, never sacrificing proper form for additional plates on the bar.
The Bottom Line On Upright Rows
So, are upright rows safe? Are they okay to include as part of your workout routine?
Assuming you have otherwise healthy shoulders and are performing the upright row using the form modifications listed above without any pain or discomfort, I don’t see any real issue with including the exercise in your plan.
While I wouldn’t consider it to be a “must have” when it comes to effective shoulder training (just as a bench press isn’t “necessary” to build a good chest), it can be optionally utilized by those who are looking to specifically hone in on their side delts if this happens to be a lagging area or just one that you want to add more volume/variation for.
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