Barbell Upright Row

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Barbell Upright Row

Barbell upright row is a compound exercise, meaning it uses multiple joints, and must be done with proper form to prevent injury. To emphasize the trapezius (not the deltoid), raise the bar close to your body during the exercise and pull the bar vertically upward until it reaches your chin, raising the elbows as high as possible. Only if the elbows are raised above shoulder level, the trapezius takes over the work. The upright row demands good form if you are to avoid back and shoulder injury, and it should be avoided if you have a history of shoulder pain. Many athletes choose to perform the upright row with an EZ bar as it offers a more comfortable grip.

Barbell Upright Row Exercise Guide

STARTING POSITION (SETUP): Stand holding a barbell in front of you using an overhand shoulder-width (or a little less) grip and your arms extended against your thighs. Bend your knees slightly. Your feet should be slightly apart. This is your starting position.

Barbell Upright Row Exercise

Barbell Upright Row Exercise

ACTION (MOVEMENT): Keeping your body straight and stationary, pull the bar vertically upward towards your chin in a smooth motion. Lift it close to your body, keeping your elbows high and over the bar. Keep your back tight and upright. Lower the weight under control — don’t let it drop — to full elbow extension. Breathe in as you begin to raise the barbell and out as you lower it.

This trapezius exercise belongs in the multiple-joint exercise category because the shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints are mobilized. As a result, the upright row recruits many muscles in addition to the shoulders: the upper trapezius, biceps, and forearms.

Barbell Upright Row Key Points (to emphasize the trapezius)

  • Shoulder-width or narrower grip – as we widen the grip there is often less trapezius involvement and the emphasis is placed more greatly on the front and side deltoid heads.
  • Raise the bar close to your body (along your abdomen and chest)  during exercise. Raising the bar through a forward arc away from the body requires assistance from the anterior deltoid.
  • The higher the bar is raised, the harder the trapezius works. That’s why you should pull the bar up to your chin.
  • Make sure you do not sway backwards as you lift the bar.
  • Keep your elbows pointed out to the sides as the bar moves along your torso.
  • At the top of the movement your elbows should be notably higher than your hands. But make sure that your elbows are always higher than the bar throughout the entire range of motion.
  • Do not lift up your heels or swing the bar out or up; keep it under control.
  • Lower the bar slowly, resisting the weight.
  • Keep your head up and your eyes looking forward throughout the exercise. This isolates your traps instead of allowing your entire torso to lift the weight. Wear a belt to stabilize your lower back.

Barbell Upright Row Variations

The exercise can also be performed on a cable machine, using a short, straight bar attached to the low pulley. You can also use the resistance band instead of free weights.

Replacement Exercises

Muscles Involved in Barbell Upright Row

The main trap exercise besides the shoulder shrug is the upright row. The upright row primarily works the traps, but they get a lot of help from the medial (lateral or side) deltoids. Because the upright row puts pressure on the shoulder capsule, do not perform this exercise if you have shoulder problems.

  • Main muscles: trapezius, deltoid
  • Secondary muscles: levator scapulae, supraspinatus, biceps, forearm flexor muscles, rhomboids, lower back muscles
  • Antagonists: latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major, triceps

Caution

  • While one of the best side shoulder and trapezius exercises, upright rows can cause severe shoulder impingement in many people. They can also be stressful on the wrists. Switching to a rope and doing the exercise on a low pulley may solve the wrist pain but the shoulder impingement may remain. If so, eliminate the exercise. Keep in mind that just because a certain exercise is considered “the best” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s suited for you.
  • For many people, a straight bar causes an unnatural twisting of the wrist that can traumatize this joint. The higher you pull the barbell, the more you have to twist your wrists. An E-Z bar (a.k.a. curl bar) can minimize this problem.

Closing Thoughts

Barbell upright row is a good heavy exercise for the deltoid (for the lateral head in particular), as well as the trapezius to a lesser extent. It works trapezius only if you bring your hands closer in a narrow grip, if you raise the bar close to your body and up to your chin level). Using a shoulder-width grip (or wider) places more emphasis on the deltoids, less on the trapezius. So you should avoid this variation if your goal is to hit the trapezius. To sum up, although when done properly, this is a good exercise, it is not specific to the trapezius. Beginners can do it without difficulty if they are shown how.

Well-developed traps provide a clear center line to your back that highlights broad lats on either side. Your traps must be well-defined and distinctly separate from your lats.

Finally, remember, the traps work during many middle back exercises. The shoulder shrug and upright row are enough to give the traps a little extra work when combined with middle back exercises in a sound weight training program.

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