Which muscles does the exercise target?
The barbell upright row works both on the back muscles and shoulder muscles. The main muscles targeted are the trapezius and the deltoids.
How is the exercise performed?
For this exercise, you stand holding a barbell parallel to the floor (or a weight such as a kettlebell or dumbbell). You hold the barbell in the centre with the hands closer together. Your shoulders should be relaxed with the elbows soft so the bar is in line with the top of the thighs.
To execute the exercise you bring your hands vertically up under your chin, aiming the elbows to the ceiling. You then return the bar to the start position for the second repetition.
Why is the barbell upright row controversial?
The barbell upright row exercise is known to be quite controversial and raise a lot of questions in weight training and body building. The movements involved can cause pains in some sportsmen, so many trainers advise their clients/athletes to avoid this exercise in order to prevent themselves from injuries, which could lead to the end of their career/participation in sport/exercise. However, the effectiveness of this exercise keeps many people continuing with the exercise.
What is happening at the shoulder girdle and joint during this exercise?
As you pull the weight toward your chin, your shoulder joints perform abduction (when your upper arms move up and out to the side, away from the midline of your body). The scapulae also move when completing upright rows. Your scapula performs elevation and upward rotation.
What is the possible damage?
As the elbows are taught to be brought high, this puts the rotator cuff in a high risk position, particularly for less well training individuals but even those with excellent shoulder control. It is also thought that there is not much involvement of the deltoids when pulling the bar this high, therefore increasing the risk without really impacting on the movement's benefit as a shoulder movement.
Not only does the movement put the rotator cuff in a vulnerable position but it can also compress the nerves in the shoulder area, impinging the nerves in the shoulder. Over time this can lead to longer term damage and chronic disorders such as shoulder impingement syndrome.
What modifications and alternatives can we prescribe?
To modify, simply widening the hand grip when executing the upright row exercise can relieve the stress placed on the shoulder. However some prefer the results from such a hand positioning. In this instance instead of asking clients to stand to perform an upright row, you can suggest they try bent-over rows, bending forward 90 degrees at the hip, holding weight down beneath your shoulders with hands slightly more than shoulder width apart, then lift weight straight up towards your chest until elbows and shoulders form a straight line.
Alternatives for the upright row include front or lateral shoulder raises, using a modest weight, so the client does not need to lean back or use momentum for assistance.