A Much Better Way to Upright Row

Replace the barbell and you'll stimulate more growth and keep your wrists and shoulders healthier. Here's how.

Better Upright Row

Why Do Upright Row?

There's a good reason for including upright row in a shoulder-isolation workout. Training the lateral or side delts is almost exclusively done with isolation exercises. These exercises do a good job of isolating the lateral delts, but you're always limited by the overall load you can actually place through the muscle.

We don't do this with any other muscle group. A combination of compound lifts and targeted isolation work creates the best growth stimulus. But compound lifts that train the lateral delts DO exist. It's just most lifters ignore these exercises and miss out on their benefits.

For the few bodybuilders that do train their delts with a compound lift, the barbell upright row is the usual exercise of choice:

Upright Row

The upright row has a reputation as a shoulder wrecker though. While this is a little unfair, it's true that many people just end up with cranky shoulders and achy wrists if they slave away on the barbell version regularly.

When using a barbell, your hands are fixed. This places a lot of stress on the wrists and limits the range you can work through without pain. Limited range means limited gains.

Also, the strain placed on the wrists often causes people to compensate and overly stress the shoulder to try and move the weight higher. All in all, the risk to return ratio of the barbell upright row isn't favorable for most people.

The Solution: Do Upright Row with a Rope and Cable

Using a rope attachment on the cable station is a more shoulder-friendly version of the upright row. It allows the hands some freedom of movement so that your grip width can vary throughout the lift.

The real magic happens for the lateral delts at the top of the lift. This is where the most tension is placed on the muscle and it gets the greatest stimulus. Using a technique which biases this range will tax the lateral delts and trigger more growth. For that reason, I like the one and a quarter rope upright row. It's shoulder friendly and blasts your lateral delts. Here's my client, Ahmed, doing them in his last training session:

  1. Set the cable at the bottom setting and grab the rope with an overhand grip.
  2. Drive the elbows up and out. Try to lead with the elbows and keep them higher than your hands. Go as far as you can without pain.
  3. Lower the weight down one-quarter of the full range, squeeze back up to the top and pause for a split second. That's one rep.
Tom MacCormick is a former skinny kid who was told he was too small to make it as a rugby player. Since then, he has added over 40 pounds to his frame and helped hundreds of clients build muscle and burn fat. Follow on Instagram