The upright row is something of a controversial strength training exercise. On the one hand, it’s an effective way to work your deltoids, upper traps, and biceps. But on the other hand, it involves a lot of medial (inward) shoulder joint rotation, and that can cause some people joint pain and injuries.
This exercise is something of a golden-era classic, and a lot of old-school lifters used upright rows to great effect, building outstanding upper bodies in the process. But, in this more enlightened era of exercise, the risks are more well known, and that means more exercisers are in need of an upright row alternative.
In this article, we’re going to reveal 10 of the best alternatives to the upright row that work the same muscles but are easier on your joints.
Upright Row 101
Before we reveal the best upright row alternatives, let’s take a quick look at what makes this exercise so popular, despite its reputation for being hard on the shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
Upright rows are a compound exercise – compound exercises involve multiple muscles and joints working together. This makes them very time efficient. If you’re looking for an exercise that works your shoulders AND your upper traps at the same time, along with your biceps and your forearms, upright rows are a good choice.
They can give you the “power” look – upright rows can help get you yoked, where your upper traps and delts look rugged and powerful. If you want to look strong, like a football linebacker or heavyweight wrestler, you need big traps and delts. Upright rows are a one-stop exercise for achieving this look.
They allow you to use your legs, and lower back – upright rows are often associated with big weights and explosive movements. This can help increase muscle mass and strength at the same time. That’s because they allow you to use your legs and lower back to lift the weight up. While this may increase muscle tension, it also increases your risk of injury, so this benefit is very much a double-edged sword.
There are several ways you can do upright rows – while a lot of exercisers prefer barbell upright rows, there are other variations. Upright rows can be done using dumbbells, kettlebells, cables, resistance bands, or an EZ bar. Some of these methods are easier on your joints than regular barbell upright rows and are described below.
They’re a compound pulling shoulder exercise– most compound shoulder exercises are presses, be that barbell, dumbbell, or machine. All of these exercises also work your triceps, and that can mean doing more than a couple of pressing exercises cause more triceps than deltoid fatigue. Upright rows, being a pulling exercise, provide a useful way to break up a series of presses. For example:
- Barbell shoulder press
- Upright rows
- Dumbbell shoulder press
- Side lateral raises
- Reverse flyes
Also check the Ultimate Guide to Upright Rows.
The 10 best upright row alternative exercises
Whether upright rows cause you pain, or you’re okay with them but just want to try something different, we’ve got the best upright row alternative exercises for you. Use them to add variety to your workouts or give your shoulders a break from the stress of upright rows.
1. Dumbbell upright rows
Dumbbell upright rows are a great alternative to barbell upright rows. Using dumbbells allows each arm to move independently and follow a less rigid pathway than the barbell variation. This makes them potentially more comfortable on the shoulders as well as an effective way to fix left to right strength imbalances.
How to do it:
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs. Your palms should be facing your legs. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent for balance. Pull your shoulders down and back, and brace your abs.
- Bend your arms and pull the weights up the front of your body. Keep your elbows up. Pull the dumbbells up to about chest-height. Do not lean back.
- Lower the dumbbells back to your thighs and repeat.
2. Dumbbell farmer’s walk
The farmer’s walk might not look like much of an upright row alternative, but it’s actually a very useful one. With farmer’s walks, you need to use your upper traps to hold your shoulders up and back while you walk. And, with no lifting or lowering of the weights to deal with, you’ll be able to use very heavy loads. This will put a lot of stress on your upper traps; potentially, a lot more than upright rows can generate. This exercise is also good for building a stronger grip.
Learn more about Farmer’s Walk.
3. Cable face pulls
Where upright rows are a vertical pulling exercise, cable face pulls are a horizontal pulling exercise. This move works your middle traps, rhomboids, posterior deltoids, and biceps, and while that’s not exactly the same muscles as upright rows, it’s close enough for most of us! In addition, this upright row alternative is GOOD for your shoulders and is very unlikely to cause injuries. The same thing cannot be said for barbell upright rows.
Learn more about face-pull.
4. Cable upright rows
If the idea of ditching upright rows from your workouts fills you with dread, try replacing the barbell with a cable. Some exercisers find cable upright rows a little more shoulder-friendly, especially if they use an EZ bar. For even less shoulder strain, try doing cable upright rows using a rope handle so your wrists can flex naturally.
5. Single-arm kettlebell upright row
With barbell rows, you have to work both arms at the same time, and that can be a cause of shoulder pain. Doing this exercise one arm at a time allows your shoulder girdle to move more freely, potentially taking stress off your shoulder joint. Also, because this is a unilateral (one-sided) exercise, you may also feel it in your core too.
While you can do this exercise with a dumbbell, the lower center of gravity of a kettlebell may make it feel even more comfortable.
How to do it:
- Hold a single kettlebell in front of your thighs with your palm facing your leg. Stand with your feet apart, knees slightly bent for stability. Brace your abs and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Without leaning sideways, bend your arm and pull the weight up the front of your body. Lead with your elbow. Raise the kettlebell to around chest-height.
- Extend your arm and repeat.
- Do the same number of reps on each side.
6. Barbell high pull
The barbell high pull is an explosive upright row alternative. It’s basically the first part of a power clean. While this IS an advanced exercise, it’s also a fun one, and it’s very useful for athletes from all sports. It can be done from the floor or from the knees, which is known as a barbell high pull from hang. This second variation uses less leg involvement.
How to do it:
- Place a barbell on the floor and stand with your toes beneath it, roughly hip-width apart. Squat down and hold the bar using a shoulder-width, overhand grip. Drop your hips, lift your chest, brace your core, and look straight ahead. Your arms should be straight.
- Explosively stand up and, as the bar passes your knees, pull with your arms. Leading with your elbows, pull the bar up to around your sternum. Shrug your shoulders up and back as you do so.
- When the bar reaches the top of its path, do not attempt to catch it but, instead, lower it back to your thighs, and then to the floor.
- To do this exercise from the hang position, stand with the weight in your hands, bend your knees slightly, push your hips back, and lower the bar to just above your knees. This is your starting position. Start and finish each rep from here.
This exercise can also be done from the floor, using a wide stance. This is called a sumo deadlift high pull and is very popular with CrossFit.
7. Dumbbell lateral raise
While dumbbell lateral raises don’t look a lot like upright rows, they’re actually surprisingly similar. If you look at the shoulder movement in both these exercises, you’ll soon see they’re very alike, and both involve shoulder joint abduction. The only real difference between these moves is that the arms stay rigid and don’t tend to come much above parallel in lateral raises.
Like upright rows, you can also do lateral raises using cables, which some lifters find more comfortable and effective.
Learn more about dumbbell lateral raise.
8. Incline prone shoulder press
This demanding exercise not only works many of the same muscles as upright rows, but it’s also good for posture and shoulder joint health. This is not an exercise for heavy weights. Instead, use light dumbbells and focus on maintaining perfect form. If you go too heavy, you simply won’t be able to do this exercise properly and won’t get any of its benefits.
How to do it:
- Set an exercise bench to around 30-45 degrees. With a dumbbell in each hand, lie face down on the bench with your head uppermost.
- Raise the weights to the front of your shoulders. Push your elbows forward and pull your shoulders down and back. This should resemble the starting position for dumbbell overhead presses, except you’re leaning forward.
- Keeping the weights in line with your body, press them forward and up. If you can’t push the weights out at the same angle as the bench, they’re too heavy.
- Return the weights to your shoulders and repeat.
9. Four-way shoulder complex
This barbell upright row alternative is actually four dumbbell exercises rolled into one to make a complex that hits your delts and traps from multiple angles. You don’t need heavy weights for this complex, but it should still challenge your muscles and make them burn. It’s the ideal shoulder workout finisher and perfect for those times you want to work your delts and traps, but only have a few minutes to train.
How to do it:
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs, palms facing your legs.
- Lift both arms forward and up to shoulder level. Lower them and repeat. Do ten reps.
- Next, raise your arms up and out to the sides, so your arms are parallel to the floor. Lower them back to your legs and repeat. Again, do ten reps.
- Then, raise the dumbbells up to shoulder level, palms facing forward. Press the weights up above your head and then lower them back to your shoulders. Do ten reps.
- Finally, starting with the weights down in front of your thighs, do ten dumbbell upright rows.
10. Barbell Cuban press
According to weightlifting lore, this exercise was invented by Cuban Olympic weightlifters back in the 1950s, when they were a dominating force in the sport. Whether that’s true or not, it’s a good barbell upright row alternative that provides your shoulders and traps with a very thorough workout.
How to do it:
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand just outside your legs, palms facing behind you. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent for balance.
- Bend your arms and pull your elbows up until your upper arms are parallel to the floor – a three-quarter range upright row.
- Rotate the weights forward and up to around eye-level.
- Press the weights up and overhead to arms’ length.
- Lower them back to your shoulders and then down to your sides. That’s one rep; keep going!
- This exercise can also be done with a barbell.
Upright Row Alternatives – Wrapping Up
While we’re not saying you shouldn’t do upright rows, we do know that, for some exercisers, the traditional barbell version can be uncomfortable. Working out is hard enough without performing exercises that make your joints hurt!
These barbell upright row alternative exercises all work the same muscle groups but using slightly different joint actions. This means that they’re just as effective but are less likely to cause shoulder pain. They’re also useful for adding some variety to your workouts.
So, whether you want to save your shoulders from wear and tear or shake up your shoulder workouts, you can use any of these exercises to build deltoids and traps you can be proud of!