9 Upright Row Alternatives to Build Strength & Power!

The upright row is a traditional strength training exercise that works many upper body muscles. It’s usually done with a barbell and is popular with bodybuilders and exercisers who want bigger, broader shoulders.

However, the upright row is also a somewhat controversial exercise. That’s because it puts a lot of stress on the shoulder joint. The shoulder is already an unstable and injury-prone joint, and many people find that upright rows are either uncomfortable or even cause shoulder pain.

Because of this, it’s useful to know some upright row alternatives.

The best upright row alternatives work the same muscles but use a different movement or alternative equipment to spare your joints from unwanted stress and strain. Most are every bit as effective but won’t hurt your shoulders as upright rows can.

Does this mean you have to give up upright rows? Absolutely not! Some people can do this exercise without issue.

However, even then, upright row alternatives can still be useful. If you keep doing upright rows over and over again, your muscles will become used to them, and they’ll stop being such an effective exercise. Using upright row alternatives will help keep your workouts fresh, interesting, and above all, productive.

In this article, we reveal the nine best upright row alternatives.

Upright Row Alternatives

What Muscles Do Upright Rows Work?

Upright rows are a compound exercise, which means they involve multiple joints and muscles. The main muscles worked during upright rows are:

Deltoids – these are the muscles of your shoulders. There are three deltoids: anterior, medial, and posterior, and all three are involved in upright rows. However, the medial or middle deltoid is the most active.

Trapezius – the trapezius is the large kite-shaped muscle of your upper back. Known as the traps for short, upright rows mainly work the upper traps, which are the fibers that run down from the base of your skull to the top of your shoulder blades.

Biceps brachii – usually just called the biceps for short, this is the muscle on the front of your upper arm. Its primary function is bending your elbow.

Brachioradialis – working alongside your biceps, this forearm muscle also flexes your elbow.

For any exercise to be considered an alternative to upright rows, it must involve most if not all of these muscles.

9 Alternative Exercises

Whether barbell upright rows hurt your shoulders, or you just want to add some variety to your workouts, these are the exercises for you!

  1. Dumbbell upright rows

dumbbell upright row

Using dumbbells allows you to move your arms independently, which many people find more comfortable. Also, the dumbbells are free to move in a more forgiving path, taking stress off your shoulders.

If barbell upright rows hurt your joints, or you just want a potentially safer alternative, try using dumbbells instead. Take even more stress off your shoulders by only pulling up until your upper arms are parallel to the floor.

  1. Monkey rows

Monkey rows are a lot like dumbbell upright rows. The major difference is that you pull the weights up the side of your body and into your armpits instead of up the front of your body. This reduces the stress on your joints while allowing you to train the same muscles.

  1. Cable upright rows

Cable rows are a little easier on your shoulders because you can step back and pull the weight up at an angle. This puts your joints in a more comfortable and less stressful position. You can do cable upright rows with a straight or EZ bar, but a lot of exercisers prefer to do them with a rope handle. All of these options are easier on your joints and effective for muscle growth.

  1. Cuban presses

The Cuban press is named after Cuban powerlifters who used this exercise to build bigger, healthier shoulders. It works all three deltoid heads and the upper traps equally, making it a very time-efficient exercise.

To do it, hold a barbell with an overhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Bend your arms and row the bar up the front of your body to your sternum. Next, rotate the bar out and away from your body and up to your forehead. Finally, press the bar up and overhead. Lower the bar back down and repeat.

This exercise is best done using light to moderate weights, and can you can also do it with dumbbells.

  1. Face pulls

Man doing face pulls

Face pulls work your traps, deltoids, and biceps but, instead of pulling the weight vertically up the front of your body, you pull it toward you horizontally. This means it’s your posterior deltoids and middle trapezius doing most of the work. As well as being a shoulder-friendly alternative to upright rows, face pulls are also a very useful posture exercise.

To do face pulls, set an adjustable cable machine to about head-height. Attach a rope handle. With one end in each hand, bend your arms and pull the handles into your face. Lead with your elbows and keep your arms up and parallel to the floor. Make sure you pull your shoulders back and down. Extend your arms and repeat.

  1. High pulls

High pulls are a popular CrossFit and Olympic lifting exercise. In many ways, they are a kind of cheating upright row because they allow you to use your legs. However, despite looking like an easy alternative, they’re actually very challenging because they mean you can lift heavier weights.

To do a high pull, adopt your usual upright row position. Bend your knees slightly and then hinge forward from your hips, lowering the bar down to your mid-thigh. Without rounding your lower back, stand up quickly and use this momentum to help you pull the bar up to mid-chest height.

Lower the weight and repeat. You can also do this exercise with a shoulder-width or even wider grip. Very wide grip high pulls are called snatch grip high pulls.

  1. Lateral raise

Man doing dumbbell lateral raise

Lateral raises might not look like a suitable upright row alternative but, if you analyze them, you’ll soon see that above your elbow joint, the movement is all-but identical. Lateral raises, also called side raises, can be done using dumbbells, cables, or a dedicated lateral raise machine.

Apart from not working your biceps and brachioradialis, the lateral raise compares very favorably to upright rows but is usually much more joint-friendly.

To do lateral raises, hold a dumbbell in each hand next to your thighs. Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, lift your arms up and out to the side until they are parallel to the floor. Lower your arms and repeat. Lateral raises work best when done with light to moderate weights for medium to high reps.

  1. Dumbbell shrugs

Like upright rows, dumbbell shrugs work your upper traps. To do them, hold a heavy dumbbell in each hand with your arms by your sides. Shrug your shoulders up to your ears and then lower them again.

You can also do this exercise with a barbell, but dumbbells tend to be more comfortable and effective. Because this is a relatively small movement, it’s easy on your joints. On the downside, it won’t have much of an effect on your shoulders.

  1. Farmer’s walksFarmer’s walks

The farmer’s walk is something of a full-body exercise. However, most people feel them in their forearms, core, and upper traps. To do the farmer’s walk, pick up a heavy dumbbell in each hand, then go for a walk around your training area. Walk as far as you can, stopping only when your grip starts to fail. Farmer’s walks can also be done using a trap bar or carrying heavy kettlebells.

Bottom Line

Barbell upright rows are a traditional bodybuilding exercise and, as such, are very popular. A lot of people can do this exercise with no problems and use them to increase shoulder and upper trap size. Upright rows can make your upper body look wider and more powerful.

On the downside, upright rows can also be tough on your shoulder joints. The head of your humerus is twisted and driven into your acetabulum or shoulder socket, and that can cause inflammation, injury, and pain. Because of this, some exercisers prefer to avoid upright rows.

Thankfully, there are plenty of exercises you can do that are every bit as effective as barbell upright rows. Some involve using different training equipment, such as dumbbells or a cable machine. Other alternatives are completely different exercises that work the same muscles.

Whether upright rows hurt your shoulders or don’t, it’s always useful to have plenty of alternatives in your workout toolbox. That’s because if you do an exercise too often, your muscles will soon become accustomed to it, and it will lose some of its potency.

Protect your shoulders from injury and keep your workouts interesting and productive with these nine barbell upright row alternatives!


Patrick Dale is an ex-British Royal Marine and owner and lecturer for a fitness qualifications company. In addition to training prospective personal trainers, Patrick has also authored three fitness and exercise books, dozens of e-books, thousands of articles, and several fitness videos.

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