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The upright row is one of those old standby exercises that everybody seems to do without questioning. It is performed as a shoulder and trapezius exercise. However, this exercise has a number of problems, not the least being that it strains the infraspinatus and lower back. In this article, I’ll give you a half dozen upright row alternatives that are a lot safer and more effective.
1. Cable Front Press
The cable front press is an awesome exercise that isolates your front deltoids without compromising either your lower back or infraspinatus. Here’s how to do it:
- Set the pulleys on a double cable pulley machine at hip level when you are seated. If the machine is able to be adjusted horizontally, bring it up to shoulder width. Now place a seat with back support on it about four feet in front of the machine, facing away from it.
- Grab the cables with an underhand grip and sit on the machine.
- From a start position with your elbows at your sides and arms bent at a 90-degree angle, bring your arms forward and up in a scooping motion to meet at chest level.
- Lower and repeat.
2. Dumbbell Front Raise
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a pair of dumbbells held in front of your body at arm’s length.
- Without bending your elbows, hinge from the shoulder joint to lift your arms directly up to the level of your shoulders.
- Lower and repeat.
3. Cable Shrug
The shrug is a very good move to isolate the front trapezius. It can be done with a dumbbell, barbell, or cables. Doing the exercise with cables is the best option as it allows for early phase loading and keeps constant tension on the traps throughout the full range of motion.
Many supposed ‘experts’ recommend performing a circular motion with the shoulders when you do this exercise. That is wrong. The trapezius muscle’s range of motion is directly up and down, not back and forth. So, the ideal motion is simply to pull your shoulders up and down.
- Set the pulley on a double cable pulley machine at its lowest setting.
- Stand facing the machine about two feet back from it and grab the pulley handles, holding them at arm’s length by your sides.
- Shrug your arms directly up toward your ears, coming up as high as you can.
- Lower and repeat.
4. Scapular Retraction
Most people think of their trapezius as solely consisting of the space between their neck and their shoulders. In reality, the traps take up the bulk of your upper back, forming a kite-like shape over your shoulder blades. The best exercise to target the middle trapezius is the scapular retraction with a double pulley cable machine.
- Set the pulleys on a double cable pulley machine at shoulder level when you are seated. If the machine allows for horizontal adjustment, set the distance of the cables about a foot wider than the weight stacks. Place a bench with back support about six feet in front of the machine, facing away from it.
- Sit on the bench, facing it so that your chest is against the back support.
- Grab the cable handles and adjust your position so that your arms are fully extended at a 45-degree angle.
- Pinch your shoulder blades together to draw your elbows in towards your torso. Squeeze your mid traps together.
- Reverse and repeat.
5. Cable Side Lateral Raise
The cable side lateral raise is the best exercise you can do to isolate the medial, or side, deltoids. Doing your side laterals on a cable machine is much better than with dumbbells because it allows for early phase loading while also keeping constant tension on the delts throughout the movement.
- Set the pulley on a single cable pulley machine at the level of your hips.
- Stand side onto the machine, about four feet in front of it, and grab the cable with your outside hand.
- From a start position with the cable alongside your thigh, bring your straightened arm directly out and up to shoulder level.
- Lower under control and repeat.
Do not bring your arm above the level of your shoulder. Be sure to perform this exercise under control, not allowing momentum to pull your arm back across your body. Keep the weight manageable with reps ranging from a high of 50 with a lightweight to 10 with relatively heavy but manageable resistance.
6. Renegade Row
The renegade row is a combination of a plank/push-up and row that does a terrific job of hitting both your upper back and your front deltoids. Go relatively heavy on this one with reps pyramiding from 15 down to 10.
- Get down on the floor in the top position of a high plank but with a dumbbell held in your hands. Your legs should be together and your body rigid and core tight.
- Row your right arms up to your rib cage.
- Lower and repeat on the left side.
Putting It All Together
Now that you’re familiar with a half dozen awesome options for the upright exercise, what should you do with them? You don’t need to do all 6 exercises in a single workout – doing so would be overkill. Here are a couple of options for a complete delt/trap workout, each one featuring 3 exercises:
Workout One: Cables
- Cable Front Press – 4 x 15 / 10 / 8 / 6
- Cable Shrug – 4 x 15/10/8/6
- Cable Side Lateral raise – 4 x 30/20/15/10
Workout Two: Cables +Dumbbells
- Renegade Row – 4 x 15/ 10/ 8/ 6
- Scapular Retraction – 4 x 30/ 20 / 15 / 10
- Dumbbell Front Raise – 4 x 20/15/10/10
This article was last updated on October 12, 2021 .