The upright row used to be the most vilified exercise in the fitness industry. It was touted as the exact movement that physiotherapists used to test shoulder impingement. So the exercise was thought to put your joint in this compromising position.
Since then, the pendulum has swung back and the upright row has made a comeback as an epic upper trap and lateral deltoid mass builder. But not everyone can perform the traditional upright row without pain or discomfort. In fact, the upright row doesn’t sit well with my shoulders.
So, if you’re seeking upright row alternatives, here’s nine of the best that directly work the same muscle groups.
Upright Row Alternative
When selecting suitable upright row alternatives, the exercise needs to target the same primary muscle groups. Which are:
- Upper traps
- Lateral deltoids (shoulders)
I’ve personally found these to be the upright row alternatives that don’t cause any discomfort in my shoulders as the traditional upright row does.
Dumbbell Upright Row
The dumbbell upright row is how you can perform the same upright row movement without shoulder discomfort. The trick is to not pull the dumbbells straight up your body but to pull “out and up” simultaneously.
This extra width feels excellent and takes the stress off the front of the shoulders. Further, this wider arc when upright rowing increases muscle activation of the shoulders and traps . Here is how you perform the dumbbell upright row:
- Hold two dumbbells in front of your legs with your palms facing you.
- Keep the dumbbells as close to your body as possible as you begin to raise them to chest height.
- Your elbows should flare to the side, and you will feel your upper traps start to shrug.
- As you pull the dumbbells vertically, slightly pull them laterally, so they are away from your body.
- Once you get to approximately chest height or feel you can’t pull any higher, lower the dumbbells slowly to the starting position.
It’s essential to keep an upright posture with the shoulders slightly back and keeping a big chest. Being rounded over can cause the typical shoulder discomfort when upright rowing and not maximally recruit the upper traps and lateral shoulders.
One common mistake is pulling the elbows back. The elbows must point straight up and to the side. As soon as they rotate backward, the stress is taken off the main muscles.
Snatch Grip High Pull From Blocks
You’ll be surprised that even if you suffer during traditional upright rows, the snatch grip high pull with heavy loads causes no problems whatsoever. I rate this exercise as the ultimate upper traps builder and believe it should be your number one upright row alternative if you have the equipment and technical skill.
Because you involve your lower body, much of the momentum is created from the legs and hips. This allows greater loads to be used at faster speeds. Further, the snatch grip allows for greater upper trap and lateral deltoid activation . Here’s how to do the exercise:
- Set up the blocks, so the bar sits just above the knees.
- Grip the bar with your snatch grip. Pull yourself down into position by taking the slack out of the bar, creating a big chest with tension in your lats. Your elbows should point out to the side.
- Initiate the pull by pushing with your legs. As you extend vertically, the bar will make contact with your hips.
- Like the upright row, pull the bar vertically as close to the body as possible. The elbows will point up, and you will extend onto your toes.
- Depending on your flexibility, the bar should reach the bottom of your sternum or slightly higher.
A common mistake is letting the barbell swing around the body. The bar should stay as close to the body as possible. By swinging, you will limit the loads you can lift and take some stress off the targeted muscles.
Hang Muscle Snatch
There’s a reason Olympic Weightlifters have huge traps. Almost every exercise they perform heavily involves the upper traps. The hang muscle snatch will leave them sore for days. The muscle variation reduces the involvement from the lower body forcing the upper body muscles to do more work.
This is excellent news for the traps and shoulders. Especially when starting from the hang position, which challenges the upper body to a greater extent. You can see a full in-depth breakdown of how to do the hang muscle snatch here. Here is a brief rundown:
- Pick the bar up with your snatch grip, so you are standing tall. With your bodyweight positioned in the middle of your feet, lower the bar pausing just above the knees.
- Your shoulders will be over the bar with a big chest and tension in your lats.
- Push with your legs as you extend vertically and bring the bar to your hips. Extend onto your toes and pull the bar vertically with your arms as it makes contact.
- The bar should travel as close to the body as possible.
- As it travels vertically, you will perform a shoulder external rotation movement to complete the movement with the barbell finishing overhead.
Avoid swinging the bar away from the body, which is a common mistake many lifters make. This will limit the loads you can lift and reduce the input from the upper traps and lateral deltoids.
Hang Muscle Clean
The hang muscle clean is performed the same as the hang muscle snatch, except the bar is racked onto the shoulders instead of overhead. The grip is also narrower, which resembles the clean grip.
But you still get incredible upper trap and shoulder development using the hang muscle clean as an upright row alternative. Since the distance traveled is shorter, you can use heavier loads to overload these muscles. Here’s how:
- Pick the bar up with your clean grip, so you are standing tall. With your bodyweight positioned in the middle of your feet, lower the bar pausing just above the knees.
- Your shoulders will be over the bar with a big chest and tension in your lats.
- Push with your legs as you extend vertically and brush the bar up your upper thighs. Extend onto your toes and pull the bar vertically with your arms as it makes contact.
- The bar should travel as close to the body as possible. It should resemble an upright row doing this.
- Rotate the elbows under the bar as fast as possible as you rack the bar on your shoulders.
A common mistake is to perform a reverse curl motion. This takes the stress off your shoulders and traps and places them on your biceps and forearms. It will severely limit the loads you can use and not make the exercise an excellent alternative to the upright row. Read and watch the hang muscle clean here if you want a full in-depth breakdown.
If you’ve ever seen Olympic Weightlifter Lu Xiaojun’s shoulders and traps, you’ll want to do any exercise he does. I’ve named this the Lu raise as I first saw him perform this exercise. Since then, it’s also been called the full ROM lateral raise.
The Lu raise sounds cooler, so I’m sticking with it. You don’t need to use plates as Lu does. Dumbbells work fine. The reason for using a full range of motion is as the arm goes past the horizontal position, the upper traps become more involved.
It becomes an exercise targeting the lateral delts and the upper traps! Here’s how to Lu raise:
- Hold your dumbbells with the palms facing each other in front of your body with your arms straight.
- Initiate the lateral raise with straight arms.
- As you pass the horizontal, have your palms slowly rotate, facing forward.
- At the top, the thumb end of the dumbbells will be close to touching.
- Reverse the motion slowly back to the bottom.
Use the same motion if you are using plates. A little bit of body English is okay to use. However, you want to keep these as strict as possible.
1-Arm Dumbbell Snatch
For those that haven’t learned the Olympic lifts or don’t want to spend the time to do so, the 1-arm dumbbell snatch is your next best option. It doesn’t have a steep learning curve, and you can still get upright row benefits without shoulder discomfort.
Essentially, you’re performing a 1-arm upright row with the help of your lower body, making it an explosive exercise. Here’s how:
- Start with the dumbbell on the floor between your legs. To make it easier, have the dumbbell placed horizontally, so your palm is facing toward you when gripping.
- Squat down to grip the dumbbell and initiate the movement by pushing with the legs. Your bodyweight should be through your whole foot.
- The arm should remain straight until you have entirely extended onto your toes with a vertical torso.
- Once in this position, pull the dumbbell into the overhead position by keeping it as close as possible to the body and replicating the upright row movement.
- Re-bend the knees to “catch” the dumbbell overhead.
You may find one site is stronger and more stable than the other. This is normal. If the discrepancy is significant, perform an extra set or two on your weaker side.
Seated 1-Arm Dumbbell Snatch
The seated variation is the ultimate upper body isolator to light your upper traps and shoulders up. You negate any contribution from your legs by sitting, forcing the upper body muscles to work harder. You can perform these for very high reps. Here’s how:
- Sit on the end of a bench holding the dumbbell between your legs.
- Perform a slightly forward lean, then use body English and a shrug to pull the dumbbell to the overhead position.
- The dumbbell should travel like an upright row as close to the body as possible.
You will need to start with a light dumbbell. It is more challenging than it looks.
Seated Dumbbell Clean
Another great upper trap and shoulder builder that makes a terrific upright row alternative is the seated dumbbell clean. You won’t see this done in your local gym. I’m not even sure if anyone at the local gym would know of this exercise.
But it is highly effective. Being seated completely isolates the upper body, so your traps and shoulders will take the brunt of the work. Here’s how to do it:
- Sit on the edge of a bench holding a dumbbell in each hand to your side.
- Explosively shrug and pull the dumbbells into the rack position like you’re about to press them overhead.
- Try to keep the movement as vertical as possible.
It should not look like a power bicep curl. While you will feel your biceps working, you want to use the traps and shoulders as much as possible.
Cable Face Pull
The cable face pull is the furthest from the upright row on this list regarding the plane of movement, and to some extent, muscles worked. However, it still makes an excellent upright row alternative targeting the upper traps and posterior deltoids.
- Set the cable to head height. Use the rope attachment.
- Grab the rope like you’re going to do a triceps extension. Step back with your arms straight in front, so the stack of weights is lifted.
- Pull your hands toward you and out, so you end in a double bicep pose. The cable should end approximately nose height, but you can also pull to your chin or forehead.
A common mistake is to do these too heavily. These need to be light to target the posterior deltoid and traps. The heavier you go, the more the arms get involved.
Try these upright row alternatives next time your shoulders are bugging you. Or ditch the upright row altogether and replace it with the exercises on this list. You won’t be disappointed or miss out on any upper trap and lateral deltoid growth.
1. McAllister, M. J., Schilling, B. K., Hammond, K. G., Weiss, L. W., & Farney, T. M. (2013). Effect of grip width on electromyographic activity during the upright row. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(1), 181-187.