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

In an earlier article we discussed the benefits of the upright row and why it can be great movement for developing muscle mass, sport specific movement patterning, and enhance upper body pulling strength in all levels of athletes. In this article, we will lay out the ultimate training guide to upright rows, detailing:

  • Muscles Worked
  • Benefits of the Upright Row
  • Upright Row Variations
  • Exercise Demos
  • Programming Notes

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.

In addition to general muscle hypertrophy of the posterior shoulder and traps, some athletes who perform movements like cleans and snatches (Olympic weightlifters and competitive fitness athletes) may find this to be a good accessory exercise to include in their training (see reasoning below).

3 Benefits of Upright Rows

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

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.

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

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.

Upright Row Variations

Below are six 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Other Upright Row Variations

The upright row is a vertical rowing movement that can be done with a wide variety of equipment and at various angles. As the angle becomes more horizontal, many of these movements may turn into rows and/or face pulls. The above exercises are the most common variations of upright rows.

Programming Notes

For the application to Olympic weightlifting movements (snatch and clean grip), moderate loading (40-70% of one’s snatch or clean) with moderate rep ranges (2-5 repetitions) works best to increase muscle mass and movement patterning, Both movement variations are also referred to as snatch and clean grip high pulls.

For general movement training and hypertrophy (bodybuilding), rep ranges of 8-12, and even upwards of 15-20 can be used to increase muscular fatigue necessary for muscular hypertrophy.

Heavier loading with this movement (and it’s variations) done with the purpose of strength (1-3 repetitions are 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).

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: @npclightheavyz on Instagram

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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.