Whilst the upright row works well for some people, for others, it can be a painful exercise to perform. Apart from injury and/or pain restricting people from performing this exercise, it also offers no regressions or progressions. This makes it a somewhat limiting exercise.
In this article, I will be making recommendations on the best alternatives for the upright row. And even if you’re a lover of this exercise, it’s always good to have some alternatives to be able to rejig your training program and keep your body challenged!
What Makes a Good Alternative to The Upright Row?
Let’s look at what the upright row is and what it does to understand what makes the exercises provided in this article good alternatives to it. The upright row is a compound pull exercise that concentrates on the upper body.
The upright row predominantly targets your side deltoids and upper trapezius muscles. But it also works your rear and front deltoids, your rhomboids as well as your forearms and biceps.
It is a great movement to increase strength and size through the upper body needed for performance, but also aesthetics. The upright row is also known to improve your clean and snatch – assuming you can get around it without compromising your shoulders.
8 Exercises You Can Do Instead of The Upright Row
So, now it’s time to check out what you can throw into your workout regime in place of the upright row to get the same or very similar effect!
1. Cable Face Pull
The cable face pull works your upper back and shoulders, without requiring any internal rotation through the shoulder joint or excessive wrist flexion like the upright row does.
- Attach the rope handle to the cable tower at lower chest height.
- Grab the rope ends with a close neutral grip.
- Walk the cable out slightly and assume a split stance. Your weight should be concentrated in your front foot and you should have a slight bend in that knee.
- Engage your core to discourage movement through the torso as you pull.
- Pull the rope towards your face, sending your elbows out wide (they should end at ear height).
- Hold and squeeze for a second and then return slowly to starting position.
Suggested reps: 12 to 15
✪ Pro tip: Think about pulling the middle of the rope attachment to your nose. You MUST pull high to target the muscles that an upright row would.
2. Single Arm Kettle Bell High Pull
This is such an awesome, powerful functional exercise! Plus, it’s unilateral which means you get to equally build that strength, power and size through your right and left sides.
- Perform a single arm kettlebell swing, by hinging at the hips with a slight bend in the knee and powerfully extending through the hips, thrusting the kettlebell upwards.
- Once your arm reaches parallel to the ground, pull the kettlebell towards your shoulder in a horizontal line, with your elbow going out wide and your shoulder blade retracting. Then push it back out along the same plane of movement.
- Allow the kettlebell to then drop back into a swing and repeat.
- Make sure you keep your breathing steady and controlled throughout the movement.
- Do all reps on one side before repeating on the other side.
Suggested reps: Anywhere from 8 to 15 per side. Personally, I prefer to do these on the higher end of the rep scale.
✪ Pro tip: I encourage you to not start out too light with this exercise, even if you’re just learning. You do require a certain amount of weight to be able to get the form right. Too light won’t cut it.
3. Barbell Hang Clean
Yes, the hang clean does give your lower body a workout too. However, it allows you to hit your trapezius muscles like the upright row does but allowing your shoulders a little assistance from the lower body momentum.
So, if the internal rotation and concentrated load on the shoulders is what is stopping you from being able to perform the upright row, pain free – then this exercise is for you!
- Hold a barbell with an overhand grip with your hands shoulder width apart. Your arms should be fully extended.
- With a neutral spine, and a soft bend in the knees, lean forward slightly at the hips so that the barbell is at mid-thigh height.
- Powerfully extend through the hips and knees whilst shrugging your shoulders up towards your ears.
- As your body makes its way to full extension, powerfully pull the barbell upwards.
- Simultaneously, as your body reaches full/peak extension, flick your wrists and elbows under the barbell.
- You should end in a front rack, standing position.
- Return to starting position by allowing the barbell to drop back down onto extended arms.
Suggested reps: 8 to 10
4. Lateral Raises
A classic – and one of the greatest exercises to strengthen and shape both your side deltoids and your traps! This exercise requires zero rotation through the shoulder joint or flexion through the wrists and is a safe exercise for all fitness and strength levels.
- Stand with your feet hip width apart with a dumbbell in each hand.
- Your torso should be straight and upright, and your arms straight and by your sides.
- Hold the dumbbells so that your palms are facing you.
- Without swinging or moving your torso, lift your arms up until they are parallel to the ground.
- They should be straight throughout the movement.
- Hold here for a second before returning slowly to the starting position.
Suggested reps: 10 to 15
✪ Pro tip: Your breathing can help you out with this exercise a lot. Exhale as you raise your arms, inhale as you lower them.
5. Barbell Farmers Carry
The farmers carry is perfect for developing strength and shape through your upper traps, shoulders and forearms, with the added benefit of working your core too! Using barbells makes this exercise extra challenging as you balance the length of the barbells, as opposed to short dumbbells.
- Stand in between two barbells racked with an appropriate weight.
- Grab each barbell in the middle with an overhand grip and lift to standing position (with a neutral spine).
- Once standing up straight, each barbell should be on an extended arm, directly next to each of your sides.
- Retract your shoulder blades, keep your core on and walk in a steady motion without swinging the barbells back and forwards or from side to side.
- At the end of your distance/time, place the barbells back down on the ground with bent knees and a neutral spine to avoid injury.
Suggested distance/time: 40m or 45 seconds
6. Scapular Pull Ups
The scapular pull up is a great shoulder and upper back exercise. This exercise helps create injury free shoulders and develops proper pulling motion movement patterns. The upright row is said to increase your performance in rows and lifts like the deadlift. The scapular pull up will do the same thing, making it a great alternative exercise.
- Begin in a standard pull up position with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you) just over shoulder width apart.
- Hanging on extended arms, draw your scapular down and together. This will raise your body without you having to bend your arms.
- Think about doing a reverse shrug as you do this – instead of moving your shoulders up towards your ears, you are drawing your shoulders back and down, thus raising your chest.
- When you reach the top of the movement, hold for a second before returning to a full hang.
- Note, when you are just starting out with this movement you will probably only move an inch or two. However, once you’re well versed at it, you can expect to have a range of motion of about a foot.
Suggested reps: 8 to 12
7. Barbell High Pull
The barbell high pull offers everything the upright row offers and more. This exercise will work your shoulders, biceps, upper, middle and lower traps, as well as your whole posterior chain! This exercise is a wonderful exercise for postural health too! What’s not to like?
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
- Grip a barbell with an overhand grip – your hands should be placed just outside of each of your legs, so a reasonably wide grip.
- With a neutral spine, hinge forward at the hips until the barbell is just above your knees.
- In one swift movement, explode upwards, shrugging the weight up as high as possible.
- Once the barbell reaches its highest point, drive your elbows backwards and shoulder blades together.
- The return to starting position is as quick as the way up – this is not an exercise where you linger in the eccentric phase. It’s powerful and quick from start to finish.
Suggested reps: 10 to 12
✪ Pro tip: Don’t lean too far forward in any phase of the movement. Focus on keeping your chest open and up.
8. TRX Cable YTW’s
The TRX cables are an awesome training tool and the TRX YTW is an exercise you can do instead of the upright row, whilst still hitting the same muscles, from different angles!
- Hold a pair of TRX cables, one side in each hand. You should be facing the anchor.
- Lean back (the more vertical you stand, the easier it will be)
- Firstly, with your palms pronated (facing the floor) and without bending your elbows, raise your arms above your head to make a “Y” shape.
- Hold for a second and return to starting position.
- Secondly, with your palms pronated again and bending your elbows at 90*, rotate your hands upwards from the elbow and towards your ears, forming a “W” shape.
- Hold for a second and return to starting position.
- Lastly, have your hands in a neutral position (facing each other) and pull your arms out wide to your sides, without bending at the elbows, forming a “T” shape.
- Hold for a second and return to starting position.
Suggested reps: 15 (5 of each “Y”, “W” and “T”)
✪ Pro tip: Keep your core engaged to avoid movement through the torso and concentrate all the work in your upper back and arms.
I hope you have found these alternative exercises to the upright row valuable. The upright row is commonly performed amongst gym goers, but it doesn’t mean it is the be all and end all of training your traps, shoulders and upper back.
In fact, Dr. John Rusin, a well-known strength coach and physical therapist says that outside of body-building, the exercise doesn’t have much of a purpose. And let’s face it, there are other exercises (as you can see in this article) that are just as good for building size through the muscles that the upright row targets.
I hope this inspires you to try out some of these other exercises! Especially if the upright row is causing you pain or frustration… or even plain old boredom.
Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments section below!