Here’s a Better Way to Do Upright Rows

upright rows
Rui Santos / Alamy

A shoulder-building mainstay since the days of Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno, the upright row is typically performed by holding a bar (EZ curl or straight bar) in front of you with a narrow, overhand grip and pulling it straight up to neck height, elbows leading the way and pointed up. It hits the delts, it builds the traps, and you see results fast.

But there’s a problem with the classic move. Your shoulder joint is a ball-and-socket, made up of plenty of tendons, ligaments, and muscle encapsulating the junction, all of which can be easily strained by an awkward movement. Which is exactly what happens when you hold a fixed bar, rotating your shoulder joint inward, to pull up weight during an upright row.

The simple fix: Use dumbbells. Your form with free weights should be identical to using the bar, but because your hands aren’t locked in a fixed position, your shoulders won’t rotate inward as far.

In addition to using dumbbells for your upright row, add these three tips to build shoulder strength faster:

First, do this 30-second warm-up.
Grab a PVC pipe, broomstick, or just fold a resistance band or jump rope in half, and hold it with a wide enough grip that you can pass it over your head and behind your back, then back, as seen in this video. Do this 10 times, and you’ll warm your muscles and lubricate your joints, and lessen your risk of injury during your workout.

Target your shoulders from the front
To zero in on the front delts, grab a weight plate – 25 pounds to start, then work your way up – and slowly raise it in front of you just to shoulder height, with arms extended and elbows soft. Slowly lower it back down, and repeat, do three sets of 10.

Zero in on the back
With the upright row and front raise, you’ll define your front and middle delts and your traps. The last piece of the puzzle for strong shoulders is focusing on the rear delts and upper back. Build them easily with the bentover row (see video). You can use a bar or dumbbells. Note: because you’re engaging big muscles in your back along with the rear delts, you’ll be able to lift far heavier here, so aim for 40- to 50-percent more weight than what you use for your upright row.

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