An oft-talked about exercise popularized by golden age bodybuilders as an excellent method of training the upper back and trio of deltoid heads that make up the shoulders, the upright row is frequently performed both in bodybuilding and strength training programs as a secondary compound exercise.
However, the risks and drawbacks associated with the upright row and its subsequent performance can lead many exercisers to seek out potential alternatives to the upright row in the hopes of mitigating these drawbacks.
Fortunately, despite the highly effective training stimulus provided by the upright row, it is not unique among shoulder and back exercises; as such, a variety of alternative exercises exist with distinct differences that may make them more suitable to perform in certain situations.
The first and most common reason exercise professionals say is a drawback of the upright row has to do with its risk of connective tissue injuries - especially in the general shoulder joint area, wherein the significant level of shear force and rotational stress placed on the ball and socket joint of this area can result in injury.
This is all the more exacerbated as the exerciser reaches higher levels of resistance during the course of their training, usually ending in rotator cuff injuries and other strain injuries due to improper form or overloaded connective tissue.
The upright row also applies a similar level of risk to the various smaller bones of the wrist, of which bear a large portion of the exercise’s weight during both portions of the repetition and thereby presenting an increased chance of sprains and impingements of the wrist and forearms.
Other reasons why the upright row may require substitution with a potential alternative exercise is the need for more specific rear deltoid head activation, increased activation of the serratus anterior muscle group, or any other number of intensified muscle group activations than what the upright row would accrue through its normal variation.
In the case of athletic training, a more explosive and power-building alternative to the upright row may also be required, as the rather strict and slow form involved in such an exercise does not always directly translate to athletic ability in an individual.
Generally, the most obvious characteristic to look out for in a potential alternative to the upright row is that of a similar muscular group activation pattern - that being the usage of the deltoids, trapezius, rhomboids, biceps brachii and brachialis as primary mover muscles.
While the exact percentage or order in which these muscle groups are activated will differ between each alternative exercise, it is generally best to only utilize exercises that activate said muscle groups within a single repetition, unless otherwise substituting the upright row with a number of isolation exercises instead.
Apart from this factor, a sign that an exercise is a good alternative to the upright row is a significantly reduced risk of shoulder and wrist injuries, of which is considered one of the primary reasons why the upright row requires substitution in the first place.
Depending on what particular alternate exercise has been chosen to substitute the upright row, certain alterations may need to be made to the exerciser’s workout program so as to compensate for any changes in the results and function of said workout program.
If choosing an exercise that is of a more intense training stimulus, for example, the exerciser may need to reduce the total volume of repetitions performed in other exercises of the same muscular activation pattern.
This is done in order to reduce the incidence of overuse injuries, as well as to allow the muscle fibers to recover properly and thereby prevent overtraining as well.
On the other side of things, if one were alternating out the upright row with an exercise of lower intensity, they may even add additional exercises so as to ensure that the muscles are stimulated sufficiently enough to achieve proper muscular hypertrophy.
It is also possible for the exerciser to combine the alternative exercise with a number of isolation exercises that can make up for a deficit in activation intensity, such as additional latissimus dorsi exercises if alternating the upright row with a cable face pull exercise.
In the case of the standard free weight upright row either being insufficient for the training goals of the exerciser or of an incorrect type of training stimulus, it is possible to simply utilize a variation of the upright row instead of an entirely different exercise.
This, in most instances, will have the benefit of requiring little to no alterations in the exerciser’s training routine be made, as much the same muscle group activation pattern in a similar intensity will be replicated as well.
Making use of all the benefits that come with utilizing a cable machine, the upright cable row is an excellent alternative to the free weight upright row for individuals that find themselves uncomfortable with the use of dumbbells or barbells - or those seeking to employ a more specific angle of resistance in their training.
As an added bonus, the majority of cable machines possess an adjustable pulley arm and interchangeable handle attachment, making the upright cable row a highly versatile alternative that can accommodate for practically any individual’s unique body proportions and biomechanics.
Not to be confused with the zottman curl which is quite similar to this combination exercise but in reverse, the upright row and curl is primarily done with the individual performing a standard upright row before switching to the eccentric portion of a bicep curl at the top of the upright row repetition.
This will have the benefit of further activating the biceps brachii than what one could normally achieve with a standard upright row - though this increased activation and subsequent improved training benefit to the biceps does come at a pair of drawbacks.
The first of these drawbacks is the fact that, for safety reasons in concerns to the biceps, the upright row and curl must be significantly lighter than just the standard upright row, as too heavy a load at such an angle could result in bicep tears and similar injuries.
These risks are further compounded by the second of the drawbacks associated with the upright row and curl, with the rotational force placed on the wrists during the apex of the repetition also resulting in an increased risk of connective tissue injuries - making the upright row and curl a poor substitute to the traditional upright row in terms of safety.
Functionally similar to the olympic weightlifting classic known as the snatch, the upright row to military press exercise is simply a traditional upright row that translates into an overhead press as the weight reaches the clavicles of the exerciser.
Much like the upright row and curl, the upright row to military press provides the added benefit of further trapezius and deltoid muscle group contractions - thereby resulting in further muscular hypertrophy and strength conditioning.
Though the upright row utilizes the trapezius and deltoid muscles as primary mover muscles and thus places most of the training stimulus on said muscle groups, the upright row to military press further exemplifies this particular effect, resulting in more efficient and better gains.
This, of course, also comes with its own set of drawbacks, with the most significant being the shear force placed on the shoulder joint during the middle of the repetition wherein the exerciser transitions from the upright row to the military press.
To avoid this, the exerciser should utilize a lower amount of weight than they would normally use for the traditional upright row instead.
A classic of Olympic weightlifters and other high level explosive athletes, the jerk is a compound exercise functionally similar to the upright row but with a distinct power component to its training stimulus that makes it significantly more intense than the upright row itself.
Generally, when choosing to alternate the upright row with the jerk as an alternative exercise, it is best to utilize a far lower volume of repetitions due to the high level of intensity involved in the jerk - as well as to mitigate the risk of overtraining and injuries.
Considering the fact that the jerk is usually performed by moderate to advanced level athletes with the intention of training their explosive strength and speed output, it is best to utilize another alternative exercise to the upright row unless the primary reasoning behind its substitution is a lack of intensity.
Much like the upright row, however, the jerk is just as capable of causing shoulder, wrist and elbow joint injuries if performed with an excessive level of resistance or with the improper form, and as such is also not a suitable alternative for individuals seeking a safer exercise than the upright row itself.
The face pull exercise is usually performed with a rope handle attachment affixed to a cable pulley machine so as to allow unilateral posterior deltoid head activation for the exerciser.
Also referred to as the cable face pull, the face pull exercise possesses several benefits over the free weight based upright row, with a few tradeoffs that make choosing it as a potential alternative exercise highly dependent on the particular training requirements of the exerciser.
Best utilized as a substitute to the upright row for the purposes of more specific deltoid training, the cable face pull provides the added bonus of a constant time under tension that contracts the trapezius, rhomboids and deltoid heads in an isometric capacity in addition to their dynamic contraction.
However, due to the angle of resistance (even if adjustable), face pulls are generally found to be somewhat less intense in terms of RPE or rate of perceived exertion, and as such are best combined with another supplementary upper body pull-type exercise in order to maximize muscular hypertrophy accrued.
Visually similar to the upright row and with a similar muscle activation grouping, the high pull is the more explosive counterpart of the upright row, wherein the exerciser begins the repetition in a bent over position instead of standing upright, adding momentum to the movement.
Generally, the high pull and the upright row may be used interchangeably, save for the occasional circumstance wherein the exerciser possesses a history of lower back injuries, or does not wish to utilize the majority of the muscles in their body for the exercise.
As such, the high pull is considered somewhat more intense than the upright row, both in terms of training experience requirement and perceived exertion - requiring that the exerciser alter their workout routine to accommodate for the larger swathe of muscle groups used as well as the larger volume of time and energy spent.
Though mostly considered a deltoid muscle isolation exercise, the lateral raise can also provide some level of muscular activation to the trapezius and rhomboid muscle groups - be that as it may in a far less intense capacity than the upright row.
The lateral raise is best used as an alternative to the upright row if the exerciser finds the latter movement too intense or dangerous, with the lateral raise providing not only a safer angle of resistance but also a more natural movement through which the exerciser may avoid the risk of injury.
Much as in the case of substituting the upright row with a more intense exercise, however, the workout routine of the exerciser must still be altered if choosing to utilize the lateral raise instead of the upright row; namely, by the addition of an extra biceps brachii isolation exercise, so as to retain the same muscle group activation.
1. Graham, John F. MS, CSCS, *D Barbell Upright Row, Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2004 - Volume 26 - Issue 5 - p 60-61
2. Schoenfeld, Brad MSc, CSCS1; Kolber, Morey J PT, PhD, CSCS2; Haimes, Jonathan E BS, CSCS2 The Upright Row: Implications for Preventing Subacromial Impingement, Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2011 - Volume 33 - Issue 5 - p 25-28 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e31822ec3e3
3. 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.