Kettlebell Upright Row: Benefits, Muscles Worked, and More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 30, 2022

Although the upright row and its variations, such as the kettlebell upright row, are regarded as among the best workouts for growing shoulder and back muscles, the exercise has been heavily criticized in recent years due to the risk of shoulder impingement. But when it comes to strength training, any action involving lifting the arm overhead without using the correct mechanics can cause or worsen impingement symptoms.

The kettlebell upright row is a multi-joint upper-body exercise that works the shoulder complex and elbow joints. To engage the middle of the deltoid, the traditional way to do the lift is for the person to rotate their shoulder inwards as they lift the weight at the level of the clavicle and let their elbows flare outwards above shoulder height.

If one takes the necessary precautions, however, an upright row with a kettlebell can be a safe and effective exercise. A slight modification to wrist positioning, upper arm elevation, and exercise intensity may reduce the risk of injury to the shoulder joint.

What is the Kettlebell Upright Row?

The kettlebell upright row is a weight-training exercise in which a lifter uses an overhand grip at the top of the handle to pull the weight straight up, usually under the chin. It is a compound exercise that works the biceps, delts, and traps. Most of the time, the upright row is used as a supplemental exercise to help athletes get better at the high-pull part of the clean.

kettlebell upright row

The upright row is still popular among athletes and gym-goers who use it often to work their upper traps and middle delts. It is also usually recommended for strengthening the scapular stabilizers. In addition, it is an important weightlifting exercise because it helps athletes train and get stronger for the clean's high-pull phase.

In the classic approach, the weight is often held at the level of the scapula, with the elbows flared out to the side and nearly reaching the ear level, and the upper arm is positioned higher than the shoulders. The upright row can approach trap activation like a shrug, but with lighter weights.

What Causes Shoulder Impingement in Upright rows?

Because of the manner in which the upper arm and the torso are joined at the shoulder, we have the ability to move our arms in almost any direction we want. The shoulder joint is responsible for making this possible due to its composition and multiple attachments.

shoulder anatomy

In addition, because of the articulation that occurs at the glenohumeral joint, the shoulder has the widest range of motion compared to any other joint in the human body. As a result, the shoulder is both physically and functionally complicated.

It houses the shoulder girdle, which, by way of the sternoclavicular joint, joins the upper limb to the axial skeleton. Consequently giving the shoulders a wide range of motion, but this comes at the cost of diminished stability in the joint, making it more prone to dislocation and damage.

In order to complete an upright row in the traditional manner, the arms must be raised away from the body and brought up to a height that is higher than the shoulders while they are in an internally rotated posture.

Even though the upright row has inherent advantages, it has been argued that people who perform the exercise in the manner that is typically prescribed put themselves at risk for subacromial impingement. 

kettlebell upright row muscles

The upright row results in abnormal biomechanics when performed in the way described above. This is because the upper arm elevation at shoulder level or higher necessitates an external rotation of the arms to avoid subacromial impingement.

For example, when the arm is raised above the head, typical biomechanical principles require the shoulder to rotate outward to prevent subacromial impingement. This action is performed to avoid compressing the shoulder in any way. 

Modifications that take into account both anatomical and biomechanical aspects are required for the standard upright row exercise to be performed in a manner that is both effective and safe. Any modifications to this exercise should conform to normal biomechanics while still retaining the exercise's original function.

Mistakes to Avoid When Doing Kettlebell Upright Rows

Too Much Resistance

The kettlebell upright row and its other variations are meant to be supplemental exercises to help develop an individual's vertical pull. Tempting as it might be to put on more weight, the upright row is not just that kind of exercise where it is safe to do a one-repetition maximum. Too much resistance may result in a loss of form and a safety risk. 

In a study by Andersen et al., they found that upright rows reach trapezius activation similar to shrugs but with smaller training loads and recommended upright rows as an alternative for shrugs for people with chronic neck muscle pain. Upright rows using 3–10 kg weights produced trapezius engagement similar to shrugs utilizing 20–30 kg loads.

Too Much Range of Motion

Studies by Graichen et al. and Brossman et al. indicate that impingement typically results from 70° and 120° glenohumeral elevation; thus, the researchers recommend that upright rows be done by asymptomatic individuals at less than 90°.

Other researchers, like Wilk et al., suggest that an upper arm elevation approximately parallel to the floor would be sufficient to limit the risk of injury.

Weight Too Far from the Body

When the lifter puts on too much resistance for the upright row, he may have a hard time controlling the weight. The weight should be dragged as close to the body as possible during the exercise in order to maintain appropriate stress on the middle deltoid muscle. 

To get the most activity out of the shoulder muscles, one should pull using the elbows rather than the wrists. This will allow an individual to benefit from their workout even with lighter resistance.

Hands Gripping at the Top of the Handle

A kettlebell has too narrow a grip if one grabs it with both hands at the top of the handle. Instead of holding a kettlebell at the top, use the rounded corners at the edge of the handle. This will widen one's grip several inches and provide better mechanics for the wrist when lifting the weight up.

Pulling the Weight Up with the Wrists

When one pulls the weight up using their wrists and forearms, the shoulders get less engagement than the biceps. One should pull the weight by moving the elbow outward to maximize shoulder activation.

Jerking Movements

To further avoid any injuries to the shoulders, do not lift the weight too fast to prevent jerking motions at the top of the movement.

How to Perform the Kettlebell Upright Row Safely

Use a weight that allows you to comfortably complete three sets of five to ten repetitions when performing the kettlebell upright row. A good rule of thumb is to employ resistance between 10 to 30% of your shrug's maximum load. The weight should be just right to ensure perfect form and technique throughout all sets and reps.

Stand with the feet shoulder-width apart, and the knees slightly bent. Grab the kettlebell with both hands on the rounded corners at both ends of the handle, using an overhand grip. Do not fully extend the arms. Next, stand tall, engage the core, maintain a straight back, stick the chest out, and pull the shoulders back. This will become the starting position.

Pull the weight up using your elbows rather than your wrists as if you're attempting to rip the kettlebell in half while keeping the weight close to the body. Stop when the upper arms are almost parallel to the floor, and the hands are in the middle of the chest, a few inches below the clavicle.

To reverse the movement, lower the weight back to the starting position, without fully extending the arms. Repeat the action for the desired number of repetitions.

Final Thoughts

There is still some disagreement about how high your shoulders can be while upright rowing and still being safe. When done right, the kettlebell upright row can be a good way to build strength in the upper body.

However, form is crucial for this exercise because there is always a chance of getting hurt. It is also critical to start with a light weight to maintain proper form and total movement control. 

References

1. Miniato MA, Anand P, Varacallo M. Anatomy, shoulder and upper limb, shoulder. InStatPearls [Internet] 2021 Jul 31. StatPearls Publishing.

2. Graichen H, Bonel H, Stammberger T, et al. A technique for determining the spatial relationship between the rotator cuff and the subacromial space in arm abduction using MRI and 3D image processing. Magn Reson Med. 1998;40(4):640-643. doi:10.1002/mrm.1910400418

3. Graichen H, Bonel H, Stammberger T, Englmeier KH, Reiser M, Eckstein F. Subacromial space width changes during abduction and rotation--a 3-D MR imaging study. Surg Radiol Anat. 1999;21(1):59-64. doi:10.1007/BF01635055

4. Brossmann J, Preidler KW, Pedowitz RA, White LM, Trudell D, Resnick D. Shoulder impingement syndrome: influence of shoulder position on rotator cuff impingement--an anatomic study. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 1996;167(6):1511-1515. doi:10.2214/ajr.167.6.8956588

5. Andersen LL, Kjaer M, Andersen CH, et al. Muscle activation during selected strength exercises in women with chronic neck muscle pain. Phys Ther. 2008;88(6):703-711. doi:10.2522/ptj.20070304

6. Wilk KE, Arrigo CA, Hooks TR, Andrews JR. Rehabilitation of the Overhead Throwing Athlete: There Is More to It Than Just External Rotation/Internal Rotation Strengthening. PM R. 2016;8(3 Suppl):S78-S90. doi:10.1016/j.pmrj.2015.12.005

7. InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. How does the shoulder work? 2020 Feb 13. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK554696/

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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