Quick Fix: Modified upright rows for shoulders health and performance

Upright rows are a commonly performed exercise used to target your shoulders. But, for many it can cause unnecessary ware and tear on your shoulders, and even immediate pain when doing them. 

Barbell upright rows

Upright rows can be an effective exercise for building bigger shoulders, especially the front and middle portions. They can also be used to emphasize your upper traps. As a bodybuilding method they do a great job of adding a “capped” look to your upper body.

Useful bodybuilding exercise it might be, but with any exercise the risk versus reward ratio should always be considered. No one’s disputing that upright rows can work your shoulders hard, but that comes at the expense of your shoulder joint repeatedly moving in a compromised position. 

As you raise the bar your shoulders get fixed in to a path of internal rotation. The narrower the grip on the bar then the more this happens, too. Just to be clear, internal rotation isn’t inherently bad, but it does “compress” the space inside your shoulder joint more and put you at greater risk of impingement – the supraspinatus tendon can press against the acromion process causing pain and inflammation. 

When you combine this compressed shoulders position with the excessive weight often used when upright rowing then the risk is even greater. Some feel shoulder pain right away and (hopefully) stop to avoid it. Others continue to perform upright rows regularly leading to more damage in the long-run. 

You couldn’t label upright rows as the devils exercise, since everyones shoulders come in all shapes and sizes (the shape of your acromion is a massive factor). That being said if you have anything other than perfect posture and healthy shoulders then they’re best to avoid.

Dumbbell or kettlebell upright rows

Using dumbbells, kettlebells or even a cable with rope attachment is a far better option for your upright rows. This is largely because your shoulders are more free to move using these implements versus a barbell. That being said your shoulders are still placed in to an internally rotated position with risk of impingement. 

Performing regular upright rows with dumbbells every now and then isn’t a big deal. Your shoulders won’t suddenly drop off. The same goes for using kettlebells, and with a cable you can have a play with different angles and grip attachments. However, if you want to be doing them frequently (up to a few times each week) then you should try the following modification. You’ll get all the shoulder-building benefits but without the risk.

The upgrade

Programming

Use upright rows towards the back end of your workout to give your shoulders some extra attention. Focus on pulling with your elbows rather than just “lifting” the dumbbells. Emphasize form and feeling in your shoulders over the external weight. Go for 3 sets of 12-20 reps to build your shoulders without making them angry.

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