Compound exercises are one of the most effective ways to train. Compound movements use the most amount of muscle at once and can lead to increases in strength and muscle. You can also lift heavier with a compound movement than with an isolation exercise, and this further leads to gains in size and muscle.
The upright row is one of those great compound exercises. It works a majority of muscle and can be considered both a shoulder and back exercise. It strengthens muscles of the back, such as the trapezius, while still targeting the deltoids and even your arms muscles.
This will be a look at the upright row, the muscle used when doing it, how to properly perform it, and some of the other benefits that come from including them in your training.
Muscles Used During an Upright Row
As mentioned, it’s easiest to think of the upright row as a back exercise, but it still benefits the shoulders. The best way to look at it is a great complimentary upper body exercise that can be added in on both back and shoulder day.
It is one of the best exercises to workout your traps, core and shoulder muscles as well as some back muscles. The main muscles that are worked during the upright row are: deltoids, lats, latissimus dorsi (the lat), traps, biceps and brachialis.
Here are the primary muscles worked during an upright row:
Both trapezius muscles—the upper traps and lower traps—are a kite-shaped muscle of the upper back. They contribute to shoulder adduction (pulling your shoulders together) as well as scapular retraction (pulling your shoulders back). Trap muscles are very important for body posture and stability. They help to support your shoulder joints, head, and neck. Think of the traps like a coat hanger that keeps everything in the shoulder area kept in place. During an upright row, these muscles work to control the positions of your arms and shoulder joints.
The lats are one of the largest muscles in the body. They connect your shoulders to your lower back. They are an important muscle to work on if you are looking to achieve that V-taper appearance. The lats are important for shoulder extension, abduction, and even aid in hip extension. When it comes to the upright row, they help in lifting your arms upward and are important for back stability throughout the movement.
The deltoids are made up of three heads: the lateral, medial, and anterior deltoid. They are important in rotating your arms and lifting them upwards, which is important in an upright row. All three heads of the deltoid will be worked during an upright row.
You may not think of the upright row as a bicep exercise, but they play a role in the movement. The biceps are important for elbow and shoulder flexion. This brings your arms down and across your body. During an upright row, the elbows need to flex in order to bring the weight upward and the biceps play a role in this.
The brachialis lies beneath the biceps. They are important for forearm flexion and movement, both of which are needed to perform the upright row. They work with the biceps to achieve elbow flexion
Since this is an upright, standing movement, the muscles of the core will be engaged. To make sure you are performing it safely, you will want to engage your core muscles, which will help with stability and safety. Since this movement involves many moving parts, it’s easy to pull a muscle in the abdomen if they aren’t properly contracted.
How to Perform an Upright Row
As mentioned, strict form is paramount when performing an upright row. By not focusing on proper technique, there are several potential injuries that can occur, including through the back, neck, shoulders, and abdomen.
Careful attention must be made to foot position, stance, and abdominal contraction. This will help keep your muscles in the best position possible. Here are the basic steps to perform the upright row:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, head up and facing forward, and abs tight
- Grasp a barbell and hold it in front of you, at arm’s length, with your hands in line with your thighs or around shoulder-width apart
- Breath outward and lift the bar upward along the abdomen toward your chin. Focus on lifting the bar by having your elbow lead it upward. Don’t swing the bar up
- Pause at the top and then lower back down under control to the starting position, inhaling as you lower
Key tips: Hand position will change the focus of the muscles worked. The more you move your hands in toward each other, the more of the traps and biceps you will target. When you move your hands farther apart, you may feel it more in the shoulders.
The Journal of Strength and Conditioning looked at this and found that those who want to maximize shoulder and trap muscles should go with a wider grip. The study looked at three different grips including 50%, 100%, and 200% of “biacromial breadth,” which is how far apart your hands are from your shoulders. The wider grip was found to engage more of the shoulder muscles.
However, you don’t want to go too wide, as this could cause discomfort throughout the shoulder region. Since everyone has different biomechanics, you may need to play around with hand placement to find which position is best, most comfortable, and where you can feel your muscles being used.
Keep the bar close to the body through the movement. Don’t let the bar move too far outward and away from the body, as this may cause injury.
Keep your head up and forward throughout the exercise as it can become easy to drop your head down as you struggle to bring the weight up. This is a sign the weight is too heavy and can lead to possible neck and back injuries.
Form will come before overly heavy weight, so make sure to start light and master the movement before progressing in weight. This is an exercise to focus on strict movement more than how much weight you can lift, and warmup sets are critical.
Benefits of the Upright Row
There are several benefits to the upright row. One of the main ones is that it increases your ability to pull. This is beneficial in exercises like deadlifts. The trap engagement from the upright row can also help improve your deadlift.
The shoulder recruitment of the upright row will help improve pushing movements such as military presses, dumbbell shoulder presses, and bench presses. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning states that upright rows may be an excellent exercise to combat shoulder pain and impingement.
Since we used the biceps and brachialis during the movement, they can help improve arm strength and size and improve other pulling exercises that use the biceps, such as pull-ups, chin-ups, and rowing movements.
Since upright rows involve many upper body muscles, they can help improve posture.
Upright rows are a great exercise because they are so versatile. Besides a barbell, you can do them with dumbbells, or with a cable pulley system and a straight bar attachment. This gives you more variation in your workouts, which can create varying muscle stimuli and lead to more gains in muscle and strength.
The upright row has been a controversial exercise, as there is the real possibility of injury. More often than not, this happens because the exercise isn’t performed safely or too much weight is used. Strict form is important in any lift, but it may be the most important for the upright row.
Start with a light weight and focus on the muscles you are working on instead of jerking the weight up and down. Make sure to begin your workout with a warmup and some dynamic stretching–especially arms swings–to engage and activate the shoulders and get the blood flowing to them.