3 Reasons Why Upright Rows Are Bad

In an earlier article we discussed the upright row and how it can be a favorable training exercise for strength, power, and fitness athletes looking to increase movement specific strength (Olympic weightlifting), muscle hypertrophy (traps and deltoids), or even increase performance in fitness WODs (such as higher rep sumo high pull workouts).

Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is intended to be informative in nature, but it is not a substitute for medical advice. If you’re experiencing pain in any movement, please consult the appropriate fitness and medical professionals.

While the benefits of this have been discussed in this upright row ultimate guide, some athletes/coaches feel strongly that the upright row provides greater risks to shoulder health than benefits.

Therefore, in this article we will discuss the potential drawbacks of performing upright rows, who is at risk, and some upright row alternatives to train around issues that may come up from upright rows.

3 Reasons Why Upright Rows Are Bad

Below are three reasons why upright rows may be the source of your shoulder pain.

Excessive Internal Rotation

Performing any type of movement with excessive loading and poor technique often spells disasters for joint and connective tissue health. In the upright row, this may be amplified due to the high amounts of internal rotation a lifter places their shoulder in when taking grip on the bar (especially the more narrow the grip is).

Often, if a lifter has pain in this internally rotated position (which, to be clear, is not an entirely bad position, since most Olympic weightlifters go into internal rotation without pain on a daily basis) it may be an indication of shoulder impingement syndrome (SIS). As a general rule of thumb, if you have pain in any joint via an exercise or movement, it is strongly advised to not continue to perform that moment. Then, be sure to get it checked out by a trained professional.

Some individuals will claim that upright rows are the devil, and other coaches and athletes will swear by them. The key point here is to understand that it does place the shoulder joint in internal rotation (which again, is not inherently bad). If you have pain or are experiencing issues when performing upright rows, you may be having some impingement issues and/or are simply using too much weight with too little emphasis on proper technique. One test to determine if you have shoulder impingement issues is the Neer Test, which is shown below. It’s best done with the guidance of a trained professional.

High Amounts of Loading

This one is more user error related, but nonetheless a potential reason why upright rows may be the source of pain for some of you. When performing the upright row, we can actually “move” a large amount of weight relative the the strength of our posterior shoulder and deltoids (two main groups responsible for the movement). When lifters perform upright rows, we often see issues arise when heavy loads are moved via hip extension, shrugging, and heavy arm pulling (rather than a focused smooth contraction from the shoulder muscles).

While this does not mean that the upright row is bad, it does suggest that lifters may have a problem with this lift, especially those who lack the ability to move freely in the shoulder joint and understand how to slate a muscle/movement.

Potential Shoulder Impingement Flare Ups

As discussed above, the upright row may place some of us at risk for a shoulder impingement, or even SIS (see above video). Due to the high amounts of internal rotation during the upright row (narrow grip) some lifters may find that their shoulder become inflamed and uncomfortable. If this is the case, it is best to get this checked out and be sure to stop performing upright rows until you have a professional address the situation.

Shoulders Hurt? Try These Upright Row Alternatives

If you find that traditional upright rows create pain in the shoulder, neck, or trap (other than some good ole-fashioned muscle soreness), you need to first determine if you are in fact doing these movements correctly. Often, lifters will use excessive loads and let their shoulder joints crumble under excessive internal rotation. If this is not the case, it very well may be that you need to try one of the upright row alternatives below (which are discussed in deeper in this upright row alternatives guide) and/or simply drop the loads and focus on form.

Wide Grip Upright Row/High Pull

While the normal upright row has a lifter taking a narrower grip, some lifters may find that by simply increasing the grip-width (such as in a snatch grip high pull) they can alleviate any pressure and pain in the shoulder. This wider grip will target more of the posterior shoulder, however it can be a good alternative for those who may have issues with a narrower grip.

Dumbbell Side//Lateral Raises

The upright row targets the upper traps and deltoids, however can be bothersome to some lifters. Simply swapping shoulder raises (which can be done at a variety of angles) can help to isolate the deltoids using lighter loads AND allow for some manipulation ona case by case basis if a certain angle or grip is painful.

Cable Face Pulls

The cable face pull is extremely similar to the upright row, however by changing the angle and the grip attachment (rope instead of straight bar/dumbbell) you allow for some customization of grip and shoulder angles. Additionally, by performing a more horizontal row (rather than a vertical row) you can take some pressure off the internal rotation and forward collapse of the shoulder and isolate the posterior shoulder (similar to that of a wider grip high pull).

Build Stronger, Healthier Shoulders

Take a look at these shoulder training articles to build strong, healthy, and muscle shoulders.

Featured Image: @batm4n85 on Instagram

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master's in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Mike has been with BarBend since 2016, where he covers Olympic weightlifting, sports performance training, and functional fitness. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University, in which he works primarily with baseball, softball, track and field, cross country. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs for sports performance, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

In his first two years writing with BarBend, Mike has published over 500+ articles related to strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, and fitness. Mike’s passion for fitness, strength training, and athletics was inspired by his athletic career in both football and baseball, in which he developed a deep respect for the barbell, speed training, and the acquisition on muscle.

Mike has extensive education and real-world experience in the realms of strength development, advanced sports conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, and human movement. He has a deep passion for Olympic weightlifting as well as functional fitness, old-school bodybuilding, and strength sports.

Outside of the gym, Mike is an avid outdoorsman and traveller, who takes annual hunting and fishing trips to Canada and other parts of the Midwest, and has made it a personal goal of his to travel to one new country, every year (he has made it to 10 in the past 3 years). Lastly, Mike runs Rugged Self, which is dedicated to enjoying the finer things in life; like a nice glass of whiskey (and a medium to full-bodied cigar) after a hard day of squatting with great conversations with his close friends and family.

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