DID YOU KNOW ?
The Barbell Upright Row, a quite popular and effective old school exercise, used to be a staple in most bodybuilders’ shoulder work-outs for ages. Tens of thousands of bodybuilders performed the Barbell Upright Row throughout past decades without experiencing any serious issues and often still continue to include this highly effective exercise in their shoulder routines today. Yet, in more recent years, it has become a subject of debate and is now considered a most controversial and evencontraindicated movement. Let’s find out, if there is something to this idea.
The classic performance of the Barbell Upright Row involves to grasp a barbell with a fairly narrow overhand-grip and to pull it up alongside the torso to about chin-height or even higher, with the elbows staying above the bar throughout the entire movement. Performed in this manner, the exercise mainly targets the front and mid-deltoids, as well as the upper trapezius muscles, but it causes poor alignment of the wrists, elbows and shoulders, which gives rise to various anatomical and biomechanical concerns. In order to raise a barbell up alongside the torso with a narrow grip, the arms must perform excessive internal rotation combined with abduction. This causes a narrowing of the space between the head of the humerus and the shoulder blade’s acromion, the “shoulder’s roof”, when approaching top position. As a consequence, the supraspinatus tendon – the supraspinatus is the topmost of the four rotator cuff muscles – , along with the shoulder joint’s sub-acromial bursa, may get squeezed or pinched between the humerus head and the sub-acromial arch, which may cause shoulder impingement syndrome, a common cause of shoulder pain.
Another concern is related to the wrists, as the Barbell Upright Row puts them in excessive flexion and “ulnar deviation” when pulling the bar up, which some lifters tend to experience as stressful or painful. –
Finally, the Barbell Upright Row is often executed with poor exercise technique, which further exacerbates the risk to incur injury; using momentum to jerk a too heavily loaded barbell upward with poor control, not keeping the barbell close to the body, and raising the elbows up too high, are just some of the major mistakes often made with this exercise.
Opponents argue that there is actually no need to take the risks associated with the Barbell Upright Row; after all, the front deltoids hardly need to be targeted with specific exercises, as they generally tend to be overdeveloped in comparison to the rear deltoids; the medial deltoids can be trained with safer exercises such as dumbbell lateral raises. And, as far as the upper trapezius is concerned, it can be trained with safer exercises such as barbell or dumbbell shrugs, entirely eliminating the need for arm-abduction concurrent with internal rotation.
While all this is correct, it may be overlooking certain unique benefits and characteristics of the Barbell Upright Row. The Upright Row is the only “pull” compound movement which takes place in the exact same plane as any major strength- and size-building Overhead-Press, the so called Frontal Plane. While any Overhead-Press heavily relies on the triceps for assistance, the Upright Row is the only compound movement, which instead relies on the biceps as assistant movers. As most bodybuilders know, any set of overhead press will eventually end due to the triceps reaching failure, before the deltoids get fully exhausted. This is where the Upright Row can help: supersetting an Overhead-Press with an Upright Row, which relies on fresh biceps muscles for assistance, permits to continue working your deltoids to failure, after your triceps have packed in, thus taking your shoulder training to the next level. Also, since the Upright Row is the only compound movement for the deltoids which does not depend on your triceps, but on your biceps for assistance, it lends itself to be scheduled between two triceps-assisted shoulder exercises in your deltoid routine. And last, but not least, when correctly performed, the Upright Row is the only compound movement which effectively targets not only the front and medium deltoid heads, but even the rear deltoids to some extent.
All this is not meant to dispute that there is a certain amount of risk involved when performing the Barbell Upright Row, but almost any exercise includes a certain amount of risk and exerts some stress on particular structures of our physique. When it comes to exercises, one should perhaps not exclusively look at them as good or bad in absolute terms; they should rather be judged on a risk versus reward basis. Truly, some exercises may be safer than others, but whether an exercise is safe for an athlete to perform or not, in many cases depends less on the particular exercise than on the individual lifter, his/her natural anatomy,
physical circumstances, lifestyle-related factors, and, most importantly, the exercise technique used.
People with poor posture and forward hunched shoulders often have a narrowed sub-acromial space, and the same applies to athletes with bone spurs in this area, those with an age-related enlargement of their acromia, or those with instability in their shoulder joints. These people naturally have a higher risk to incur shoulder impingement, same as people, who regularly overuse their shoulders and arms by pursuing sports like tennis, baseball, etc., or people with jobs that require a lot of overhead lifting, or athletes who have preexisting shoulder injuries of other origin. It may also be worth to mention that people have different shaped acromia: some people have curved acromia (43 %), some even possess hooked acromia (40%). Lifters with such types of scapular anatomy are naturally more prone to incur shoulder impingement.
On the other hand, a certain percentage of people has flat acromia (ca. 17 %), which results in more sub-acromial space and a much reduced chance to ever sustain shoulder impingement from the Barbell Upright Row or any other causes. And athletes, who have good posture and decent shoulder mobility, can maintain proper thoracic extension and keep their shoulder-blades pinned back during the lifting phase, performing the movement with perfect control and an adequate weight load, likewise hardly tend to experience any problems with the Upright Row.
Obviously, the Barbell Upright Row may not be suitable for everyone, but it is certainly not as hazardous for many lifters as some self-appointed weight-training authorities proclaim it to be. If you can perform the Upright Row correctly, and if its execution doesn’t hurt, doesn’t even cause any grinding-type discomfort, or doesn’t exacerbate any pre- existing shoulder injuries, it is probably not dangerous for YOU, and YOU should be able to continue including it in your shoulder routine without major concerns.
The Upright Row is NOT an inherently dangerous exercise; in fact, it can be a quite amazing shoulder builder. The key to making this exercise as safe as possible is how to perform it.
Here are a number of tips, which may help to make it safer and possibly even more effective:
The first and most important tip is to grasp the barbell with a wider than shoulder-width grip, up to twice shoulder-width, which significantly reduces the extent of internal rotation.
At the same time, a wider grip also automatically limits how high you can pull the bar; dragging the barbell up in a controlled manner alongside your torso, pulling from the deltoids and leading with your elbows, you should reach the top of the motion, when the barbell arrives at lower chest level and the elbows are out at your sides in line with your shoulders. This reduced range of motion further decreases the danger of shoulder impingement, and the wider grip even makes the exercise more beneficial, as it shifts more of the load onto the medial and rear deltoids, instead of mainly working the front deltoids and trapezius as the classic narrow grip-version does.
Sticking your chest out and keeping your shoulder-blades pinned back when “dragging” the bar up leading with your elbows will help to keep the acromia of your shoulder-blades out of the way, also further decreasing the chance of shoulder impingement.
Wrist stress from ulnar deviation can be alleviated by using a cambered EZ-Bar; grasping the bar with a wide grip close to its sleeves may help to reduce potential wrist stress due to ulnar deviation.
Executing the Upright Row with two dumbbells instead of a barbell, makes it even more wrist- and shoulder-friendly, as this version allows far more freedom of movement. To perform the Dumbbell Upright Row, hold a pair of dumbbells in front of your thighs, best using a thumbless grip, with your palms facing your legs and your elbows slightly bent. Then simultaneously “drag” the dumbbells upward and apart, bringing your elbows out to the sides and slightly backward, when approaching the top. While doing so, keep your wrists straight and the dumbbells close to your body. Stop the motion, when your elbows reach shoulder level and your upper arms are approximately parallel to the ground.
Another shoulder- and wrist-friendly version of the Upright Row can be performed with a rope attachment connected to a low pulley. Stand facing the pulley, engage your core, and grasp the ends of the rope with an overhand grip. Then pull the rope’s ends up and apart in a controlled manner, until your upper arms are parallel to the ground and your hands arrive slightly below shoulder level, before returning again to start position.
Whichever version you may prefer, please always remember that the Upright Row is a bodybuilding exercise and not a major strength- building movement. It should be performed after your deltoids have been thoroughly warmed up, and may best be scheduled midway or towards the end of your deltoid routine for sets of medium repetitions with moderate weight.