Upright Rows Ultimate Guide – Muscles Worked, 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
  • Upright Row Variations
  • Exercise Demos
  • Programming Notes

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Muscles Worked

Below is a listing of the muscles worked when performing the upright row. Note, some of these, based on the variation selected, place greater emphasis on the posterior shoulder, back, and traps.

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

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!

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