Smith-Machine Upright Row

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Smith-Machine Upright Row

The upright row can be performed using a barbell, dumbbells, a Smith machine, or a cable pulley. The muscular effects are very similar among these versions; only the impact on the joints differs. The Smith-machine upright row increases strength and muscle growth in the shoulder and upper back region (the trapezius muscle).

Performing uprights rows on the Smith machine is almost like using a bar. But it won’t let you cheat. You will find that you won’t be able to use nearly as much weight using the Smith-machine as you can with the regular upright rows. Using a Smith-machine provides a single plane of vertical motion that may help focus your effort. You will also feel a better burn in your shoulders because you have to guide the bar down slowly. This means that there is constant pressure on your shoulders.

Pro of the Smith Machine Upright Row

  • Because the weight does not have to be balanced, this version is very beginner friendly.
  • You do not have to control the weight from moving horizontally; the machine takes the body sway out of the exercise.

Con of the Smith Machine Upright Row

  • The hands are even less free to move than with a barbell, which increases the risk of twisting the wrists during the lift.

How to perform upright rows in order to emphasize different muscle groups?

Anatomic Focus / MuscleTRAPEZIUSDELTOID (LATERAL)
Hand spacingnarrower gripwider grip (shoulder-width)
Range of motion (ROM)if the elbows are raised above shoulder level - the bar is nearly touching your chinpull the bar up until elbows and forearms are virtually parallel to the ground
Trajectoryraising the bar close to the bodylifting the bar close to the body (raising the bar through a forward arc away from the body requires assistance from the anterior deltoid)

Exercise Guide – Proper Technique

STARTING (INITIAL) POSITION: With feet shoulder width apart, position yourself in the middle of a Smith machine so that the bar is close to your thighs. Grasp the bar using a pronated (palms forward) grip that is slightly closer than shoulder width apart. Disengage bar by rotating bar back and stand upright.

Smith-Machine Upright Row

Smith-Machine Upright Row

EXERCISE EXECUTION (MOVEMENT): Lift the bar straight up while keeping it as close to your body as possible. To target the side deltoid you should pull the bar up until elbows and forearms are virtually parallel to the ground (shown on the image above). But in order to target the trapezius muscles you should pull the bar up nearly touching your chin, and keeping your elbows higher than your wrists at all times (shown on the animation below). Pause for a moment, and then slowly lower the bar back to the starting position.

This animation shows the correct technique to target the trapezius muscles:

Smith-Machine Upright Row

Important Tips for Smith-Machine Upright Rows

  • Maintain a slight bend in your knees.
  • Taking a wider grip on the bar helps target the deltoid, whereas a narrower grip emphasizes the trapezius.
  • Keep your elbows pointed out to the sides as the bar moves along your torso.
  • Keep your elbows higher than your forearms.
  • Pull the bar up close to your body (along your abdomen and chest) toward your chin.
  • The higher you raise your arms, the more the upper trapezius is recruited and the less the lateral delts are involved. However, raising the bar higher also increases the risk of shoulder-impingement pain.
  • Avoid leaning back.
  • Keep your back arched.
  • Squeeze the traps at the top of the movement.

Muscles Involved in Smith-Machine Upright Row

The muscles worked depends on the grip used. In general, any hand spacing five inches or less puts most of the stress on the traps. The wider the grip, the more the side deltoids come into play. If the elbows are raised above shoulder level, the trapezius takes over the work.

The upright row 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.

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

Exercise Variations

The exercise can also be performed on a cable machine, using a short, straight bar attached to the low pulley (or rope attachment). You can also use the resistance band instead of free weights (dumbbells and barbells).

Replacement Exercises

The exercise you should incorporate into your training regimen depends on what muscle you’re looking to target. Both shoulder shrugs and upright rows recruit, and thus strengthen and tone, your trapezius. If you’re looking to increase the size and strength of your trapezius, however, shoulder shrugs are the most effective choice. If you’re looking to put some shrugging trapezius exercises into your training sessions, you might find the list below to help you reach your goals.

Closing Thoughts

Smith-machine upright row is almost identical to the barbell upright row and most of the same comments apply;  the biggest difference being that the Smith machine does the balancing for you. It is a heavy exercise for the trapezius and deltoid (especially the lateral head) and if you separate your hands (wider grip), you will shift more of the work onto the shoulders. This is something you should avoid if your main goal is to target the trapezius muscles using this exercise. Use the narrower grip instead.

As in the other exercises described for this machine, the main advantage is that you can concentrate on lifting the weight rather than balance, and you can do a set to failure (or an incomplete last set due to muscle exhaustion) without risk.

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