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How To Do A Barbell Upright Row With Proper Form: Benefits & 5 Alternatives


The barbell upright row is an effective shoulder exercise, a one of its kind. However, it is also an exercise that most people get wrong.

While you may hear numerous gym-enthusiasts advise you against doing a barbell upright row, it’s mainly from their own horrible experience.

Like any other exercise, if you get the form wrong, your chances of injury increase. With a barbell upright row, the chances are higher.

However, this doesn’t mean you should cross this exercise from your list of shoulder exercises.

Just maintain optimal form, keep the weight minimum, and go slow – this is how to maximize gains without fretting about injuries.

This guide looks at all the details you need to build massive shoulders and traps with a barbell upright row.

We’ve also shortlisted 5 other alternatives that target the same muscles if you want to further intensify your shoulder workouts.

How To Do A Barbell Upright Row


Muscles Worked

Barbell upright rows mainly target your deltoids and your traps.

However, this movement employs many other muscles to get the job done.

The grip of the barbell really changes the activation of the muscles.

According to age-old gym tradition, if you’re aiming to hit your posterior deltoids, then go for a wider grip. Whereas, a narrower grip activates your anterior deltoids and traps more.

But the most optimal grip, according to science, is the wide grip.

A study showed that a wide grip upright barbell row increased deltoid and trapezius activation as compared to the narrow grip.

So, wide grip it is.

Primary Muscles: Upper Trapezius, Posterior, Medial, and Anterior Deltoids

Secondary Muscles: Biceps, and Rhomboids

Step-by-step Instructions

The movement of the upright barbell row is quite straightforward. There are just a few things to keep an eye on.

Start with a weight that is easy to lift, excessive weight can mess up your form and lead to injury

  • As mentioned above, the best grip is a wide grip
  • Grip the barbell with your palms facing inwards
  • Keep your feet hip-width apart
  • Stand straight and hold the barbell at resting position at hip level
  • Now, pull the barbell up
  • Bring it all the way up till it’s just below your shoulders
  • Push it a bit backward so your elbows go behind your torso level
  • Hold for a moment before returning to the rest position


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How To Avoid Injuries With Barbell Upright Row


Elbows Go Too high

First of all, going all out with upright rows will wreck your form and lead to injury. The key is to bring your elbows up just below shoulder level.

This helps keep the focus on your deltoids without excessively straining your shoulders.

If you do go higher than your shoulders with a barbell upright row, you shift the tension from your shoulders to your traps.

To make sure that you can safely pull up just marginally below shoulder level, start with light weight and experiment until you hit the sweet spot.

Not only will this help you perfect your form, but also to avoid any nasty injuries.

Using Excess Weight

As mentioned above, using excessive weight is not the key to this exercise. Rather use an optimal weight that you can safely lift while maintaining the right form.

You honestly don’t need to lift heavy for this exercise. Another reason to not overload weight is to minimize momentum.

Your goal should be to carry out the movement with a full range of movement while keeping your elbows in control and lifting up just below your shoulders.

Also, to really get the gains from this movement. Go slow and pause at the top. To do all of this successfully, you need to work with manageable weight.

Again, it’s all a process of trial and error until you find the right weight that works for you.

Minus The Momentum

Pull up and then pull back, this is the essence of an optimal barbell upright row. Consider this movement as a two-phase exercise.

It starts by raising the barbell high up just below shoulder level. Then, pull back slightly so your elbows move behind your torso.

This two-prong action will really activate all of your deltoids and stabilizing muscles to give you a thorough shoulder workout.

Go slow, keep the optimal form in mind, lift light, and never jerk. This is how you can minimize injuries while doing an upright barbell row.

Benefits Of Barbell Upright Row


Increase shoulder size and strength

The barbell upright row is an effective exercise to really hit your deltoids. Plus, it’s a compound shoulder exercise that gets all the muscles to work in synergy.

Barbell upright rows mainly target the medial deltoids and traps while taking support from the rotator cuffs, biceps, and forearms.

As a result, you end up with powerful, muscular, and aesthetic shoulders.

Helps Shoulder Stability

Shoulders are responsible for rotation, abduction, and adduction. Basically, shoulders have a wide range of movements, hence, their extreme importance in all daily functions.

At the same time, hurting your shoulder, popping a joint, or tearing your rotator cuffs is a common injury in sports and bodybuilding.

This is why you need strong shoulders to reduce your chances of injuries.

Barbell upright rows work all parts of the deltoids and use the internal rotation of shoulders; these two factors not only help build strong shoulders but also help with stability and mobility of the shoulder joint.

Improves Posture

Need the cure for slouched shoulders? An Upright barbell row is the medicine you need.

When you work the anterior, middle, and posterior deltoids, along with your back muscles and traps; you get a balanced upper body frame.

This exercise helps draw your shoulders back aiding an upright posture.

Builds Traps

Traps are tricky to build. There are only a handful of exercises that mainly target your traps. A barbell upright row utilizes your traps just as much as it works your shoulders.

Alternatives Of Barbell Upright Row

Face Pull

A face pull is a movement that best mimics the muscle activation of a barbell upright row.

The only difference would be the field of movement, face pull works horizontally, whereas, barbell upright rows work vertically.

Though the movement is different, both exercises target your deltoids and traps with a slight variation in the supporting muscles being used.

Step-by-step Instructions:

  • Use a double rope attachment and attach it to the high point
  • Use an overhand grip and grab the handles in each hand
  • Fully extend your arms in the starting position
  • Now, pull the handles back toward your face
  • Make sure your arms stay parallel to the floor
  • Pause for a moment before returning to starting position


Cable Lateral Raise

This is another effective exercise to build well-rounded and muscular shoulders. The cable lateral raise works the medial and anterior deltoids along with the traps.

A cable lateral raise is effective in increasing shoulder mobility as it gives the rotator cuff a good workout as well.

Step-by-step Instructions:

  • Start by attaching a handle attachment to the low end of a pulley
  • Use a weight that you can lift with your shoulder
  • Stand shoulder-width apart next to the machine
  • Grab the handle with one arm and use the other arm to grab the pulley for support
  • Your arm should be parallel to your side, this is your starting position
  • Now, raise your arm out to side all the way up to shoulder level
  • Your elbow should only have a slight bend in it to maintain form
  • Keep your arms stationary as your shoulders do all the heavy lifting


Barbell Front Raise

The barbell front raise gives your deltoids a complete workout.

In fact, a study showed that this movement done regularly with cable lateral raises, caused bodybuilders to pack on some serious shoulder gains.

Step-by-step Instructions:

  • Start by holding a barbell in front of you
  • Your arms should be kept straight
  • Use an overhead grip with your palms facing inwards
  • Next, lift the barbell forward and up until shoulder level
  • Pause for a moment before returning to the rest position


Dumbbell Lateral Raise

The dumbbell lateral raise activates the deltoids while using the traps.

It is almost as efficient as the barbell upright row when it comes to working out both these groups at the same time.

With a dumbbell lateral raise, the emphasis is mostly on the lateral deltoids.

Step-by-step Instructions:

  • Hold a pair of dumbbells in each hand
  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart
  • Your hands should be hanging down by your sides with your palms facing inwards
  • Next, raise your arms out and up towards the side until shoulder level
  • Pause for a moment, before returning to starting position


Machine Reverse Flyes

This is not the forward leaning version with dumbbells which works out your chest. The machine reverse fly works your anterior, lateral, and posterior deltoids.

While these are the main muscles being used, traps and rhomboids also play a supporting role.

Step-by-step Instructions:

  • Sit facing the machine with your feet firmly on the ground
  • Your chest should be against the back pad of the machine
  • Keep your back straight and grab the handles of the machine with your palms facing down
  • Next, squeeze your shoulder as you bring your arms backwards
  • Push back until your arms are in line with your shoulders


Key Takeaway

An upright barbell row is an effective shoulder and trap exercise that helps pack on mass and strength.

Even though there are numerous disclaimers out there about this exercise, with the right form you can minimize injuries from happening.

The risk usually arises due to using too much weight, lifting the barbell way up your shoulders, or using momentum to finish a rep.

Basically, bad form and ego lifting tends to get the best of avid bodybuilders with this exercise.

Try out the upright barbell row and its alternatives for a thorough shoulder workout.

Let us know in the comments below how this exercise has worked out for you and safe lifting.

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