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Upright Row Alternatives: How to Target the Shoulders

upright row alternatives

The upright row is an often debated resistance exercise primarily performed for the purposes of inducing hypertrophy and strength gains in the general shoulder area as well as the biceps brachii muscle group.

However, due to safety reasons in concerns to connective tissue or a host of other purposes, finding a suitable alternative to the upright row in a physical rehabilitation or strength training regimen is usually a goal of many exercisers.

The upright row has several variations or alternative exercises that can recreate the general upper body compound activation that made it so popular in the first place – all with a significantly reduced amount of physical stress being placed on the various joints located in the upper body.

Why Should the Upright Row be Alternated in a Workout Routine?

The upright row is usually alternated in a workout routine or physical rehabilitation plan due to the safety concerns involved in placing such a significant amount of torsion on the shoulder joint and wrist joint, both of which are one of the most common soft tissue injuries encountered in the gym.

As such, it is best to either use a variation of the upright row with a lower level of risk or an alternative exercise that recreates the intensity of resistance, angle of resistance and muscle activation pattern of the upright row.

What Muscles are Worked by the Upright Row and its Alternatives?

The upright row and its alternative exercises all share the same muscle group activation pattern, though some alternative exercises may do so in different capacities or levels and thus will result in a somewhat different spread of muscular hypertrophy unless accounted for.

The primary mover muscles worked by the upright row and its alternative exercises are that of the three deltoid heads that make up the shoulders, as well as the latissimus dorsi along the back, the trapezius at the rear of the neck and the biceps brachii that run along the front of the upper arm.

upright row muscles

All these primary mover muscles are considered pull-type muscle groups save for the deltoids, of which may be either push or pull muscle groups depending on which particular head of the trio is activated.

By addition, the brachialis and brachioradialis muscle groups located along the forearm and upper arm may both act as stabilizing muscle groups as well as secondary mover muscle groups, with each capacity depending on what part of the exercise is currently being performed.

How is the Upright Row Substituted in a Workout?

The upright row is generally used as a secondary compound exercise in adjunct to a heavier and more intense one, such as the military press or barbell row – both of which are capable of activating their own respective muscle group targets in a manner somewhat more effectively than the upright row.

As such, substituting the upright row in one’s exercise routine will usually involve accounting for a change in intensity with whatever substitute exercise is chosen, either adding further volume in the workout routine if substituting with a less intense exercise or reducing the total volume of the workout if choosing a more intense substitute.

It is also possible for the exerciser to instead substitute the upright row with a set of accessory isolation exercises instead, allowing them to achieve a similar effect and better focus on each individual muscle group at the expense of time and energy.

Coaches and physical therapists seeking to alternate the presence of this particular exercise in their prescribed routine should watch out for other exercises that place a similar level of strain on the rotator cuff and its nearby connective tissues, such as in rear dumbbell flyes.

Upright Row Variations

Though the majority of individuals choosing to utilize an alternative exercise to the upright row generally wish to perform an exercise other than an upright row variation, certain circumstances can allow for a simple change in equipment or form used so as to fulfill the needs of the exerciser without making any drastic workout routine changes.

Bent Over Upright Rows

The bent over upright row is a variation of the upright row wherein the exerciser angles their torso in such a way that the angle of resistance changes somewhat, inducing a larger amount of strain on the latissimus dorsi and biceps brachii muscle groups instead of the deltoids muscle group.

Apart from the fact that this reduces the chance of incurring a shoulder injury, individuals performing the upright row primarily as a biceps and back exercise may find that the bent over upright row is a more suitable variant of the upright row for suck purposes.

Cable Machine Upright Rows

A variation of the upright row that provides a constant time under tension due to the nature of a cable machine, the cable machine upright row is performed with the exerciser placing the attachment point of the cable machine at an angle that is most comfortable for their own biomechanics, reducing the chance of injury and strain.

cable machine upright row

This is in combination with the higher margin of safety involved in most cable machine based exercises in opposition towards free weight exercises, creating a far safer alternative to the upright row while still achieving a similar manner of muscular activation and intensity.

Reverse Upright Row

A variant of the upright row that also makes use of free weights, the reverse upright row differs primarily by its unique angle of resistance as well as a ‘reversed’ form wherein the barbell will be placed behind the back of the exerciser so as to increase the activation of the trapezius and latissimus muscle groups.

Thus, the reverse upright row is meant to place a larger emphasis on the back, with the shoulder muscles being reduced to the capacity of a secondary mover muscle or stabilizer muscle, depending on the level of resistance and the individual’s own biomechanics.

Free Weight Alternatives to the Upright Row

Free weight exercises are considered the king of resistance exercise variants due to the more intense and encompassing nature of free weight exercises, with potential alternatives to the upright row only truly being able to recreate its unique activation of stabilizer muscles by also being a free weight exercise.

Dumbbell Lateral Raise

Considered a direct upgrade to the upright row due to the similarity in muscular activation with a significantly reduced risk of injury, the dumbbell lateral raise is considered a shoulder isolation exercise with a secondary hypertrophic effect on the biceps brachii and trapezius muscles during the apex of the movement.

As such, the dumbbell lateral raise should be considered first among an exerciser’s list of potential alternative exercises to the upright row, only becoming unsuitable if the exerciser also wishes to include significant latissimus dorsi muscle group activation in the potential alternative exercise.

Barbell Snatch

A classic among olympic weightlifters and other professional strength athletes, the barbell snatch is a rather intense power movement that activates the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, deltoids and biceps in a manner similar if not superior to that of the upright row.

This is due to the explosive and compound nature of the snatch, of which activates practically every muscle group in the body by combining a deadlift and an overhead press into a single fluid movement that requires significant explosive strength and speed.

Such an intense alternative exercise will, of course, require that the total volume or resistance of the workout routine also be modified so as to avoid overtraining or other negative side effects from the exerciser working out too hard.

Generally, the exerciser may substitute moderate to high intensity barbell snatches with approximately half the total repetition volume as they would have performed if instead doing upright rows.

Kettlebell or Dumbbell Front Raises

The kettlebell and/or dumbbell front raise is yet another possible free weight alternative to the upright row that activates the deltoids, biceps brachii and trapezius muscle groups in a similar manner and intensity – though it may also include a similar level of injury risk as the upright row itself.

dumbbell front raise

The primary difference between kettlebell front raises and the upright row is that the exerciser’s elbows remain relaxed but unbent throughout most of the repetition, as well as the fact that the upright row shifts more of the mechanical tension to the trapezius and anterior head of the deltoids as opposed to the medial head with kettlebell front raises.

Barbell Hang Clean

Another classic strongman and olympic weightlifting exercise, the barbell hang clean utilizes a movement quite similar to that of the upright row, save for the addition of some lower leg activation as the exerciser executes the first portion of the movement.

This may make the barbell hang clean somewhat unsuitable for workout programs that specifically avoid training the leg muscles on the same day as the upright row, and as such using the barbell hang clean as a potential substitute exercise is best reserved for full body workout programs or similar training schemes.

Machine Based Alternatives to the Upright Row

If, instead, the exerciser has access to a gymnasium or other facility with certain types of resistance exercise equipment, they can make use of machine based alternative exercises to the upright row that provide a few benefits that free weight or bodyweight alternative exercises normally cannot.

The limitations of machine based exercises such as a distinct reduction in stabilizer muscle activation are, of course, also present in the following alternative exercises, and as such must be accounted for with other accessory movements in the workout.

Cable Face Pulls

The cable face pull is one of the few exercises specifically targeting the posterior head of the deltoid muscle group, a goal many individuals wishing to achieve a “3D” shoulder will search for.

One of the major benefits of replacing the upright row with a cable face pull exercise is the lack of strain being placed on the rotator cuff and similar connective tissues that are put at risk when performing the upright row.

face pulls

This, of course, is in addition to the time under tension provided by the very nature of cable machine exercises, imparting a unique method of resistance wherein the muscle groups activated are contracted not only dynamically but also isometrically during the repetition.

Cable face pulls generally utilize a lower level of resistance than one would use during an upright row due to the weaker nature of the posterior deltoid head, thus requiring less weight to achieve training stimulus.

Cable Row

A compound exercise more focused on the various muscles located throughout the back with only a secondary activation of the deltoids muscle group, cable rows can act as an alternative to the upright row with a similar level of intensity and level of muscular activation.

However, the cable row will usually activate muscle groups that are not usually found in the muscle group activation pattern of the upright row, and as such must be accounted for with a reduction in volume of other exercises performed during the same workout session.

With a similar level of intensity so long as a proportional amount of resistance is used, cable rows can be used in a direct one to one ratio of volume as upright rows.

References
  • Campos YAC, Vianna JM, Guimarães MP, Oliveira JLD, Hernández-Mosqueira C, da Silva SF, Marchetti PH. Different Shoulder Exercises Affect the Activation of Deltoid Portions in Resistance-Trained Individuals. J Hum Kinet. 2020 Oct 31;75:5-14. doi: 10.2478/hukin-2020-0033. PMID: 33312291; PMCID: PMC7706677.
  • Escalante, Guillermo DSc, MBA, ATC, CSCS, CISSN1; Fine, Daniel SPT, CSCS2; Ashworth, Kyle SPT, CSCS2; Kolber, Morey J. PT, PhD, CSCS2 Progressive Exercise Strategies to Mitigate Shoulder Injuries Among Weight-Training Participants, Strength and Conditioning Journal: February 2021 – Volume 43 – Issue 1 – p 72-85 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000547
  • Escamilla RF, Yamashiro K, Paulos L, Andrews JR. Shoulder muscle activity and function in common shoulder rehabilitation exercises. Sports Med. 2009;39(8):663-85. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200939080-00004. PMID: 19769415.