If there was ever an exercise that had so much negativity behind its reputation, it’d be the upright row. The reason being is that it does involve a degree of shoulder internal rotation and elevation of the arms simultaneously which is known to be a common cause of impingement issues.
Therefore, we recommend only those with more training experience include this exercise in their workout regime.
But it is a very effective shoulder and trapezius builder and in this guide, we’ll explain how to do it with some tips, variations, and how to include it in your training program.
|Dumbbell Upright Row|
|Exercise Also Called||Dumbbell Upright Row|
|Primary Muscles||Deltoids, trapezius|
|Difficulty||Intermediate / Advanced|
What makes this exercise so effective is that it works several muscle groups and we’ve explained a little about each one involved below.
The most popular show muscle, the biceps brachii or biceps for short is a two-headed muscle located on the front of the upper arm. The biceps crosses both the elbow and shoulder joints and therefore have actions at both ends.
At the elbow end, the biceps primarily supinate and pronate the forearms and flex the elbow joint although it’s a weak elbow flexor. Then at the shoulder joint, the biceps play a minor role in shoulder flexion.
Any pulling movement, such as the upright row, involves the biceps.
The brachialis is a pure elbow flexor regardless of forearm position. It’s located deep to the biceps on the outer side and gives width to the upper arm when developed.
Neutral grip curls and any pulling movement engages the brachialis muscle.
The brachioradialis is a forearm muscle (located in the lateral forearm) that flexes the elbow at the forearm and supinates and pronates the forearm depending on its position.
When the forearm is pronated, the brachialis has a mechanical advantage over the biceps.
One of the best ways to build this muscle is through curls and pulling exercises.
The deltoid anterior or front deltoid is one of the three heads that make up the shoulder muscles.
This muscle is involved in arm flexion, stabilizing the arm while the deltoid lateral abducts the arms (raise the arm away from the midline of the body).
It also works with the pectoralis major to flex the arm when walking.
The deltoid lateral is one of the three heads that make up the shoulder muscles. When all three shoulder muscles contract simultaneously, the deltoid lateral muscle abducts the arm from 15-100 degrees.
The deltoid lateral also helps to stabilize and prevent displacement of the glenohumeral joint while the arm is pressed against the body.
When developed, this muscle gives width to the upper body.
The infraspinatus is one of the rotator cuff muscles that help to form the glenohumeral joint that aids in shoulder joint motion and stability.
The serratus anterior also commonly called the “boxer’s muscle”, is a fan-shaped muscle located along the outer ribs between the pectoralis and latissimus dorsi muscles. it’s actually divided into three parts.
It functions to protract the arms or pull them forward and it also works with the traps to upwardly rotate the shoulder blades and raise the arms overhead.
The teres minor is also a rotator cuff muscle like the infraspinatus. Therefore, it helps to stabilize the shoulder and is responsible for lateral or external rotation of the arm at the shoulder.
Trapezius Lower Fibers
The trapezius muscles consist of three fiber sections: upper, middle, and lower. The traps play an important role in posture.
The lower fibers depress the shoulder blades and assist the upper traps fibers with upward rotation of the shoulder blades.
Trapezius Middle Fibers
The middle trapezius fibers retract the scapula.
How To Do The Dumbbell Upright Row
Doing this exercise without proper knowledge of how to do so is dangerous, especially if you do not have much training experience. Many would even suggest leaving this movement out, however, that doesn’t mean you have to.
Plus, using dumbbells allows you to do the exercise more safely because they allow you to move through a more natural motion or movement. And, we’re going to explain how to do it in a much safer way.
Here are step-by-step instructions for the dumbbell upright row.
Note: Use lighter dumbbells for this exercise.
- Grab two dumbbells and hold them in front of you with your arms extended and wider than shoulder-width apart from each other. Palms should be facing you.
- Hinge forward at the hips slightly and allow the dumbbells to reach your knee or lower thigh.
- With shoulders neutral, pull the dumbbells up and back toward your shoulders and while simultaneously externally rotating your shoulders.
- Lower the weights back down and repeat.
Here’s a video example that we recommend taking the time to watch… (the exercise example is at 3:30).
Dumbbell upright row tips
- Never use maximal poundages for this exercise. You are asking for shoulder issues by trying to heave up heavy weights during an upright row variation. Instead, go with lighter dumbbells.
- Remember to externally rotate the shoulders as you pull the dumbbells up. This is key to preserving the health of your shoulders.
- Using a wider grip is recommended to ensure your shoulder safety as it prevents awkward joint position.
- By leaning forward at the hips, you allow for a safer and more effective movement from the shoulders.
4 Variations / Alternatives
The dumbbell upright row, when done correctly, can make your shoulders and traps grow like crazy. However, it’s not ideal or preferred by everyone. Plus, we also really like these variations/alternatives too.
1. Barbell upright row
While we recommend using dumbbells instead, many use a barbell for this exercise.
If you’re going to do it, use light weights, a wider than shoulder-width grip, and follow the exercise instructions above.
2. Face pull
The face pull is one of the best exercises that you can do for the upper posterior muscles. But that’s not because it’s the best mass or strength builder, although it is effective for muscle and strength development.
It’s one of the best exercises for strengthening the postural muscles which is an often neglected aspect of training.
Plus, you don’t need weights to do it. In fact, you can use your own body weight or a resistance band.
- Stand in a doorway and place the top or knuckle side of your forearms on the doorframe.
- Take a few steps forward while keeping your arms in place.
- 3. Lean backward away from your arms that are holding you up, and then press back against the door frame to bring yourself forward to the starting position.
3. Cable side shrug
The cable side shrug will work the same muscles and you can also use more weight. We really like this exercise as it may allow for a more pronounced contraction in the traps.
4. High pull
While we did explain how to do a movement closer to a high pull rather than how the dumbbell upright row is typically performed, we still wanted to include the “high pull”.
So rather than an upright row, a high pull is commonly and preferably performed by using a wider grip, leaning forward at the hips, and pulling the weights up and back.
High pulls are part of weightlifting movements and can be really beneficial for improving pulling strength and the muscles involved.
The Dumbbell Upright Row in Training Routine
While we cannot tell you how to train, we do have some recommendations for the best ways to include the dumbbell upright row in your workouts.
First off, we suggest doing your main shoulder and traps exercises and saving this one for the end. Although, you do what you feel works best for you.
But because this is an exercise that we recommend doing with lighter weights for higher reps, in our opinion, the dumbbell upright row makes for a great finisher after your shoulders are sufficiently warmed up from your other exercises.
Plus, it’s best to handle your heavy weights first and not fatigue yourself with certain isolation movements such as this one. Although, we’re certainly not saying you cannot do isolation exercises first.
For most people, we recommend anywhere from 2-4 sets and 10-20 reps. But it really depends on your experience and goals.
Although, we think you shouldn’t train too light or heavy and so this is a good rep range to stick with.
The dumbbell upright row has had a not-so-great reputation in recent years because of how it’s typically performed. But the variation explained in this article is a lot safer and now you can do this movement and still make great gains while protecting your shoulders.
Use lighter dumbbells and incorporate this exercise after your main movements and also mix in some of the variations to maximize your efforts.