Upright Rows Exercise Guide – Muscles Worked, Benefits, Variations, and Exercise Demos

The upright row can be used by strength, power, and fitness athletes to build shoulder strength, muscle hypertrophy, and reinforce proper positions and technique in more advanced weightlifting movements.

In this upright row exercise guide, we’ll cover multiple topics including:

  • Upright Row Form and Technique
  • Benefits of the Upright Row
  • Muscles Worked by the Upright Row
  • Who Should Do the Upright Row?
  • Upright Row Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
  • Upright Row Variations and Alternatives
  • and more…

How to Perform the Upright Row: Step-By-Step Guide

The below step-by-step guide discusses how to perform the upright row, specifically the barbell upright row. You can also use dumbbells, kettlebells, etc, and perform in a similar manner.

Step 1. Choose Your Grip Width

Start by determining the grip width you will take, as a wider grip will target more of the posterior shoulders while a narrower grip will emphasize the trapezius more (both grips will target both muscle groups.

The lifter can also choose the gri that best suits their needs (snatch/clean emphasis), overall shoulder development, etc.

Coach’s Tip: Start by taking a grip that is about 3 inches outside shoulder width (clean grip, or slightly wider). This will allow you to get the best of both worlds (posterior shoulder and trapezius).

Upright Row Exercise Guide - Grip Width
Upright Row Exercise Guide – Grip Width

Step 2. Stand Tall

Stand the barbell up to the hip, and pull the chest up tall (assume an erect position).

The shoulders should be pulled back, with the shoulderblades set down the back.  

Coach’s Tip: Once upright, squeeze the barbell so that the knuckles are pointed down towards the floor and the elbows are slightly flared out towards the sides (without allowing the shoulders to round forwards). This will improve your ability to elevate the elbows upwards (step 3).

Upright Row Exercise Guide - Stand Tall
Upright Row Exercise Guide – Stand Tall

Step 3. Elbows Up

Pull the elbows upwards and slightly out, keeping the barbell close to the body.

Be sure not to let the barbell go out away from the body. If this is the case, your elbows are not staying above the wrists and/or not going upwards, but rather they are most likely going back.

Coach’s Tip: It doesn’t take a lot of weight to get the muscles going, so keep things light and control the entire range of motion. Once the bar reaches as high as you can go, pause slightly and then control the eccentric (lowering) aspect, and repeat.

Upright Row Exercise Guide - Elbows Up
Upright Row Exercise Guide – Elbows Up

3 Benefits of Upright Rows

In the below section we will discuss three benefits of performing the upright row.

1. Shoulder Size and Muscle

The upright row is a great movement to increase the muscular size and strength of the shoulders, specifically the anterior and lateral heads of the deltoid. This is key for lifters looking to gain size and strength in the deltoids for pressing movements or for general development. When performing this exercise, be sure to use semi-strict to strict form to make sure you are moving the load by elevating the shoulders at the top of the motion rather than using the biceps or forearms to support the movement.

2. Bigger Traps

Building bigger traps is not only needed for stronger deadlifts, squats, and pressing, but it also is a physical feature that many strength, power, and fitness athletes strive for. When performing the upright row, be sure to use a narrow grip if the traps are something you are concerned about, as the wider your hands are the less elevation you can get with the barbell and the more posterior shoulder and shoulder are targeted

3. Better Cleans and Snatches

When looking to increase your ability to clean and snatch, many factors can come into play. For some lifters, issues arise after the first pull (assuming the first pull and set up is ok). After the first pull and the explosion phase in the clean/snatch, the lifter must elevate the traps and elbows to keep the barbell close during the turnover phase (third pull) of the lift. Often, lifters may lack this technical understanding or muscle activation and in turn pull on the barbell with the arms which can cut the terminal height of the barbell down drastically, often resulting in weaker pulls and/or crashing weights.

Muscles Worked

The upright row is a movement that targets many of the large muscle in the upper back and shoulders, which is key for many movements (see below) in strength, power, and fitness sports. The below muscles are targeted when doing upright rows. Note, that some exercises, such as in Olympic weightlifting, use movements very similar, called high pulls, to target many of the same muscles groups. If this is something you are aware of, the main differentiation of an upright row with a high pull is that the upright row negates momentum from the legs and hips to make the vertical pulling movement target the upper body more.

  • Upper Trapezius (narrower grip)
  • Posterior Shoulder/Deltoids (wider grip)
  • Anterior Shoulder/Deltoids (narrower grip)
  • Biceps
  • Rhomboids

Who Should Do Upright Rows?

Upright rows are an exercise that nearly everyone can do using a wide variety of grip widths. The key, for any athlete, is to first be able to perform the elevation of the hands in close proximity to the body without any pain of asymmetries prior to loading this movement. While the upright row can help to develop the shoulders and traps (see below), it can irritate the anterior shoulder and/or neck if the lifter is performing the movement incorrectly.

Strength and Power Athletes

Strength and power athletes can benefit from the upright row position due to its ability to increase shoulder strength, muscle mass, and application to weightlifting movements like snatches and cleans.

  • Powerlifters: The upright row can be used to increase upper body mass and strengthen the posterior shoulders/traps; both of which can aid in a strong back for movements like deadlifts and low bar squats.
  • Strongman Athletes: Strong shoulders, traps, and back muscles aid in nearly every movement in strongman. The upright row is a great accessory exercise to help strengthen smaller muscles in the posterior shoulder and add overall size and strength to the upper back/posterior shoulder.
  • Olympic Weightlifters: In addition to increasing strength and hypertrophy of the traps and posterior shoulder, this exercise specially strengthens the muscles and movement patterning needed for successful snatches and cleans.

General and Functional Fitness

The upright row can be used to increase shoulder strength and hypertrophy, for all of the similar reasons discussed above. Note, that some lifters may have issues with the upright row due to the shoulder mobility necessary for the movement (as well a the internal rotation of the shoulder). Due to most beginner lifters often having weak external rotation/poor shoulder mobility, it maybe be best to start with movements like face pulls and reverse flyes if the proper positioning is limited.

Upright Row Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations

Below are two (2) primary training goals and programming recommendations when programming upright rows into training programs.

Strength – Reps and Sets

Below are recommendations on how to program the upright row for strength and application to other movements (such as high pulls).

  • 4-6 sets of 3-8 repetitions
  • Less than 1-3 repetitions with heavy loads is generally not advised as it can often lead to breakdowns in form and potential injury (the only exception is with heavy snatch high pulls, done specifically for weightlifting purposes).

Hypertrophy – Reps and Sets

Below are recommendations on how to program the upright row for muscle hypertrophy.

  • 3-5 sets of 8-15 repetitions can be used to increase muscular fatigue necessary for muscular hypertrophy.
  • Once again, there is a wide array of loading, sets, and rep schemes available to coaches to train the size and strength. The key here is to focus on the muscle contractions and “pump”, rather than just mindlessly moving weights. Additionally, the loads themselves do not need to be heavy to have an effect.
Upright Row Exercise Guide
Upright Row Exercise Guide

Upright Row Variations

Below are five (5) upright row variations that every strength coach, athlete, and student of the game should be aware off to maximize upper back strength, hypertrophy, and performance.

1. Narrow Upright Row

The narrow grip upright row is a vertical rowing variation often done with a barbell. The purpose of having a narrower grip on the barbell is to increase the involvement of the upper traps and back, and minimize the need or increases posterior shoulder strength and performance.

2. Clean Grip Upright Row

The clean grip upright row is a shoulder width grip (or slightly wider) placement on the barbell that can be used to increase back, traps, posterior shoulder strength, and muscle mass. Like the narrow grip (and the snatch grip upright row), this movement has high transferability to the sport of Olympic weightlifting, especially in the clean and jerk.

3. Snatch Grip Upright Row

The snatch grip upright row is a wide grip variation of the previous two pulling movements, offering increased posterior shoulder and back involvement. For functional fitness athletes, Olympic weightlifting, and coaches concerned with snatch technique, the snatch grip high pull is a foundational movement pattern needed to increase one’s second pull and enhance the odds of making a successful lift in the snatch and minimize passive catching of weights overhead.

4. Cable/Band Upright Row

Bands and other cable machines keeps tension on the muscles throughout the entire range of motion, ultimately increasing muscle activation and hypertrophy. This can be done with any attachment, however some of the most common attachment are the rope and lat pulldown straight bar.

5. Dumbbell Upright Row

The dumbbell upright row is done with a dumbbell held in each hand. The benefit of performing such an exercise is that it can increase unilateral strength, muscle mass, and movement coordination (benefits of unilateral training). Some lifters may have issues moving both loads in unison with precision, often suggesting movement asymmetries and/or muscular imbalances.

Upright Row Alternatives

Below are three (3) upright row variations that every strength coach and athletes should be aware off to maximize upper back strength, hypertrophy, and performance.

1. Snatch/Clean High Pull

The high pull is a movement that employs greater lower body involvement to increase strength and momentum to lift a load from the ground (or low hang) to the shoulders, similar to the upright row. This exercise however, has more direct timing and technique application to movements like snatch and cleans, and therefore is often used to increase total body strength, pulling power, and improve positioning in the extension phases of the snatch and clean.

2. Muscle Snatch/Clean

The muscle snatch/clean is similar to the upright row and the high pull, however it entails a lifter to take the load from the end of the high pull and continue to press it overhead. This exercise is a great moment for including both the pulling and pushing muscles into one powerful and muscle building exercise.

3. Face Pull (Cable or Band)

The face pull is similar to the upright row in that the muscles often trained are the same. The difference between the two movements is that the upright row pulls upwards in a vertical manner, where as the face pull has the load being pulled horizontally or at a slight angle, which can offer slight variations in muscles targeted by the exercise.

More Ultimate Training Guides

Check out the below ultimate workout guides for more tip and exercise instructions to take your fitness and training to the next level!

Featured Image: Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

Leave a Comment