There are rowing machines, and then there are rowing exercises that mimic the signature upper body pulling movement that you do while rowing on a machine. Within the latter category are upright rows, a compound exercise and staple strength training move that uses weights or resistance to work a number of muscles within your upper body.
To break down everything you need to know before doing one rep of the exercise, fitness trainers explain the benefits of doing upright rows, the common form mistakes you should avoid, and how to do the move in perfect form. Keep scrolling for everything you need to know about the fundamental fitness move know as upright rows.
What is an upright row?
An upright row involves lifting a weight (or weights) to your chest with an overhead grip straight to the collarbone. Rio Hall, an instructor at Barry’s, likens the movement to the motion you do when taking your shirt off: You’re in a standing position, your palms are facing your body, and you’re lifting your elbows just past your shoulders.
The exercise is known for strengthening the back and arm muscles, primarily, and can be done with everything from a barbell to dumbbells or a resistance band.
Benefits of upright row
According to Hall, one of the biggest benefits of doing upright rows involves your deltoids (or shoulders). “This exercise is an effective method for loading and strengthening shoulders and rotators, and it’s also a compound lift that trains multiple muscles to work in synergy,” he says. “It primarily activates the mid-delt and traps, and the second activation is the biceps, forearms, and rotators of the shoulders.”
One surprising perk of the movement? “Upright rows also work the hand muscles, specifically the fingers,” says Paul Bamba, Trifecta owner and head trainer. That means you’re working on and improving your grip strength, a skill that is essential to weightlifting.
Besides targeting your upper back and arms, Bamba adds that the exercise can help your form for powerlifting. “They improve your strength for more complex exercises as they work the upper body,” he says.
How to do upright rows correctly
Now that you’re well-aware of the exercise benefits, it’s time to learn about how to execute a perfect upright row.
1. Stand tall with good posture and a braced core with your feet shoulder-width apart.
2. Have your hands gripping a barbell (shoulder-width apart) or two dumbbells, and keep the weight off of your legs.
3. Lift the weight(s) vertically, without rocking, and lead with your elbows. Be sure to keep your shoulders relaxed.
4. Lift your hands straight up to the chest. “When the elbows break past the shoulder, squeeze backwards about an inch or until you feel the muscles of the upper back activate,” says Hall.
5. Keep your elbows parallel to the ground, never rising above the shoulders.
The most common mistakes in form with upright rows
As you’re working your way through the move, it’s important to avoid the most common form mistakes that people make with upright rows. “One common mistake that I see is an improper position of the elbows,” says Bamba. The key is to keep your elbows at parallel so that you’re activating the correct muscles. Tension is never good in any exercise, and Bamba notes that having tense shoulders can wreck your form in this one.
To get the most out of the move, make sure to lift up and down with control. “Rocking and whipping the body or using momentum to move the weight is one of the most common mistakes I see,” says Hall, which would mean that you’re not using the targeted muscles. But it’s important to keep the weight lifting within the proper area. “People tend to stop the elbows too low, finishing with the weight higher than the elbows.” Also, to properly activate your upper back and postural muscles, it’s key to squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the lift, he says.
When you’re starting out with the exercise, don’t go all out with the heaviest weights you can get your hands on. “Often, people use too much weight when lifting,” says Bamba. This can make it more difficult to nail the row with proper form, and can even make you more prone to injury. So start slow.
Upright row variations
1. Single dumbbell row
Bamba is a big fan of the single dumbbell row, which is similar to the upright row, but allows you to focus on one arm at a time. From standing, with your feet shoulder-width apart, grip a dumbbell as you keep it off of your legs. With relaxed shoulders, lift the weighted hand straight up to your chest with your elbow parallel to the ground, not rising above your shoulders. Lower the dumbbell to the starting position, and repeat with the other hand. These can also be done on a bench.
2. Cable row
He also likes the cable row, which is the same technique as upright rows, except it uses cables as a substitution (a good option if you’re in a gym or have access to a weights machine).
3. Wide upright row
You can widen the traditional upright row. “This entails the same form as the traditional exercise, but at the point of squeeze at the top, you spread the weights,” says Hall. That means you’re targeting more of your rear deltoids and upper traps.
4. Power upright row
The one instance where using momentum in the exercise is with this variation, according to Hall. “This involves a purposeful addition of a hip hinge, and uses momentum that overloads the muscle groups by allowing movement of more weight than previously possible,” he says, stressing that your form should be very on-point in this to avoid injury. “When doing this technique, it’s key to not only control the power hip drive, but also the downward movement of the weight.”
What to watch out for when doing an upright row
Despite the multiple strengthening benefits of the exercise, there are some risks to watch out for. According to Jaclyn Fulop, a physical therapist and founder of Exchange Physical Therapy Group, the upright row can put your shoulders at risk, specifically. “The upright row involves internal rotation of the shoulder with elevation, which isn’t an ideal combination of movement and can lead to shoulder impingement,” she says. This is a common injury that involves inflammation of the bursa (cushion of the joints) or rotator cuff tendinitis.
If your rotator cuff—a group of four muscles that keep the head of your arm bone in its socket—is injured, the swelling will compress your major shoulder joint, the glenohumeral, which will decrease the amount of space between these muscles and the top of the shoulder, says Fulop. “Impingement syndrome is often common with repetitive overhead motion and can occur with this type of exercise,” she says. Her tip? If you have shoulder issues, try the scaption exercise. “This is when you’re externally rotating the shoulder while still working the deltoid in a lateral raise.”
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