Many ‘classic’ exercises are outed as unnecessarily risky as  bodybuilding science progresses. Upright rows are guilty of this, causing tons of undue shoulder joint stress.

So what happens if you need an alternative?

Whether you've got a shoulder injury or simply want to freshen up your workout, in this detailed guide you'll discover 10 of the best upright row alternatives around and how to do them. 

Upright rows are notorious for causing joint paint, especially to people with pre-existing injuries. Even if you’re in pristine condition, excessive pain can demotivate and cause worries of wear and tear.

Thankfully, many upright row alternatives exist that cause much less strain. If you're struggling, try one of these. 

1. Barbell High Pull (barbell upright row alternative)

Man Doing Barbell High Pulls

This substitute for upright row gives you all of the benefits of the traditional upright row and more. The inclusion of the hip and leg muscles reduces excess shoulder strain, while the upper body and core are still worked hard. 

You may find you can lift greater loads with this technique, resulting in a more demanding exercise for your upper trapezius and lateral deltoids.  

I often find my wrist and shoulders are placed in a favorable position during this upright row replacement, and I don't feel any aggravation in my joints.


  • Less shoulder and wrist stress.
  • You can lift greater loads.

how to do it:

  1. Hold barbell in usual upright row grip.
  2. Push hips backward, sliding the barbell down toward your thighs.
  3. When the barbell comes to the top of your knees, stand back up by driving the hips forcefully forward.
  4. As the barbell comes upward, pull back with your back and elbows until the barbell reaches upper-chest height.
  5. Bring the barbell back to the start position in a controlled manner.

Tips From A Trainer!

  • For the best form, keep the barbell close to your body. This also optimizes the workout for your upper trapezius. 

Related Article - How Much Do Barbells Weigh?

2. Dumbbell Upright Rows (upright row alternative with dumbbells)

Man Doing Dumbbell Upright Rows

This upright row alternative eliminates the excess strain placed on your shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints by letting each arm move independently. By doing so the risk of shoulder damage is lowered, making it ideal for anybody wanting to protect their joints.

As you're using dumbbells, this substitute for upright row ensures both sides of your body work evenly, helping you avoid muscular imbalances (which are common in beginners). 

The main muscles targeted by the dumbbell upright row exercise are the trapezius, deltoids, and triceps. This movement is one of my favorite upright row replacement exercises.


  • Works each side separately. 
  • Lower strain on your joints.

how to do it:

  1. With each hand, hold a dumbbell in front of the thighs. Keep your palms facing inward, feet shoulder-width apart, and knees bent slightly. Shoulders should be pulled down and back. Engage your core. 
  2. Pull both dumbbells upward by bending your arms outward in front of your body. Elbows should remain up until the dumbbells reach chest height. Avoid leaning back.
  3. Return dumbbells to thigh height.

Tips From A Trainer!

  • If you don't have a set of dumbbells available or you want to perform this movement while you're on the move, try using a resistance band. 

3. Seated Muscle Snatch 

Man Doing Seated Muscle Snatch Exercise

The beginning of this wide grip upright barbell row alternative is similar to the original, so proceed cautiously if experiencing shoulder pain. 

This exercise primarily targets the shoulders while also working the core, middle back, deltoids, triceps, and trapezius. It's an excellent choice for lifters prioritizing their deltoids and trapezius over their biceps.

I recommend that beginners avoid this movement as it's rather complex. However, if you're of an intermediate or advanced level, then you should try this substitute for upright row. 


  • Minimal equipment needed.
  • Great for intermediate or advanced lifters.

how to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet rotated outward slightly and hip-width apart, hold the barbell with a wider than shoulder width grip. 
  2. Sit on a surface that allows your legs to rest at 90-degrees.
  3. Rest the barbell atop your quads, then forcefully pull it upward by driving the elbows up.
  4. Once the barbell reaches your chin, swing the elbows until pointing downward.
  5. Continue lifting the barbell overhead until both arms reach full extension.
  6. Return the barbell to the starting position with a controlled movement.

Tips From A Trainer!

  • If you're feeling any kind of strain because of the fixed position the barbell places your joints in, try using dumbbells or a resistance band. 

4. Single-Arm Dumbbell Power Snatch 

Man Performing Single-Arm Dumbbell Power Snatch

This upright barbell row alternative is a unilateral exercise, working the lateral deltoids, trapezius, back, shoulders, as well as the legs and core in one movement.

I used to program this into my strength and conditioning circuits and my clients loved it. It gets your heart pumping too and can provide a decent challenge. I also love this movement as it helps you develop explosive power.

While all ability levels can attempt this movement, it can be difficult to learn the form, so I recommend more advanced lifters try this upright row replacement.


  • Develops explosive power.
  • Works most of your body.
  • Brilliant for conditioning workouts.

How to do it:

  1. Set a single dumbbell on the floor, handle pointing horizontally. 
  2. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and one foot on either side of the dumbbell.
  3. Squat to grip dumbbell with just one hand.
  4. Push off from the floor forcefully to stand.
  5. Pull gripping arm’s elbow up and back when the dumbbell reaches hip height.
  6. Change your arm position to beneath the dumbbell as it reaches your shoulder.
  7. Punch toward the ceiling to complete the movement.
  8. Return to the starting position and repeat.

Tips From A Trainer!

  • Always start with your weakest arm first. If you can do the full set on your weakest arm, then you'll be able to do it with your strongest arm.

Related Article - Barbells Vs Dumbbells

5. Single-Arm Kettlebell Upright Row 

Man Doing Single-Arm Kettlebell Upright Rows

The single arm kettlebell upright row is an alternative exercise for upright row routines that trains one arm at a time. By doing so, it reduces shoulder strain by allowing a more natural joint movement.

When done correctly, this upright row replacement will work the lateral deltoids, trapezius, other small stabilizer muscles in the back, while working the core. As with other unilateral exercises, it's great for identifying and correcting strength imbalances you might have developed. 

This substitute for upright row is another exercise I've used in my strength and conditioning circuits, and it's always popular with my clients.


  • More natural shoulder positioning.
  • Irons out muscular imbalances.

How to do it:

  1. With your palm facing inward, grip one kettlebell in front of the thighs. Your feet should be hip-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Engage the core and keep shoulders pulled down and back. 
  2. Pull the kettlebell upward by bending your arm until it reaches chest height. Ensure your elbow does the leading.
  3. Extend your arm back to the starting position.

Tips From A Trainer!

  • If your home gym lacks a kettlebell, simply use a dumbbell or resistance band instead.  

Related Article - Dumbbells Vs Kettlebells

6. Dumbbell Lateral Raise 

Man Doing Dumbbell Lateral Raise Exercise At The Gym

Another free-weight exercise you can substitute for upright row routines is the lateral raise. Working in isolation, this movement primarily focuses on the lateral deltoids, providing you with shoulder roundness. 

The lateral raise is incredibly beginner-friendly and I've used it many times with my clients. 

I'm a fan of this upright row alternative because of its simplicity. While it may be simple, it's highly effective at developing your deltoids.

You can also try out lateral raise alternatives, if you don't have a set of dumbbells.


  • Suitable for all ability levels. 
  • Doesn't require much equipment.
  • Develops your lateral deltoids.

how to do it:

  1. Stand upright with a dumbbell in each hand and both arms passively hanging at the sides of your body. 
  2. Lift your arms up and out directly at your sides, keeping both arms straight throughout.
  3. Finish the lift when both dumbbells slightly exceed shoulder height.
  4. Return both dumbbells to the starting position using a controlled movement.

Tips From A Trainer!

  • Keep the repetitions slow and controlled. If you let momentum take over, you won't fully benefit from this exercise. 

7. Incline Prone Shoulder Press 

Man Doing Incline Prone Shoulder Press At The Gym

In addition to working the same arm, shoulder, and back muscles, this alternative for upright row routines promotes shoulder joint health and good posture. In this way, it can address the issues caused by regular upright rows. 

I've used this upright row replacement during my shoulder rehab. It strengthens your rotator cuffs and isn't overly complicated. Best of all, it doesn't require a lot of weight. 

It's an excellent upright row substitute; give it a try.


  • Great for shoulder rehab.
  • Doesn't require a lot of weight. 
  • Suitable for most ability levels.

how to do it:

  1. Lie face-down on an exercise bench with dumbbells in each hand. The bench should be inclined by between 30 and 45-degrees. 
  2. Raise the dumbbells, so they're in front of the shoulders. Push both elbows forward while pulling the shoulders down and back, similar to a dumbbell overhead press.
  3. Press the dumbbells forward and upward while keeping them in a straight line with the body.
  4. Return the dumbbells to the starting position and repeat.

Tips From A Trainer!

  • Using light weights is the secret to success here. If you cannot keep the dumbbells aligned to the bench’s angle, they are too heavy, and you will not see the benefits.  

8. Band High Pull 

Man Doing Band High Pulls

Another alternative exercise to upright row routines that actively increases shoulder health and stability is high pulls using a resistance band.

As well as increasing shoulder joint mobility and activating rotator cuff muscles, they work your back and arm muscles, increasing upper-body strength. They're particularly good for working the rhomboids, rear deltoids, and trapezius.  

One of the best aspects of this exercise is that you don't need much space or equipment. I've performed this upright row alternative in my local park and office, so if you're on the move, it's perfect.


  • You can do them anywhere.
  • Doesn't require much equipment.

how to do it:

  1. Hold the band underhanded above your head, with arms slightly further than shoulder-distance apart. Keep both arms long with a slight bend at the elbows. Feet should be hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, posture tall, and head neutral with chin tucked. 
  2. Rotate shoulders outward until slightly protracted and engage core.
  3. Pull the band outward until both arms are in line with your back. Your shoulders should retract during this movement.
  4. Keep both arms straight and lower them to chest height.

Tips From A Trainer!

  • Focus on slow and controlled reps to get the most from this substitute for upright row.  

9. Cable Face Pull 

Man Doing Cable Face Pulls At The Gym

This machine-based cable upright row alternative may sacrifice some of the specificity of the original, but it still works the deltoids, biceps, and rhomboids hard.

It's often used to improve posture and from experience I can say it works. I've used this movement with clients with rounded shoulders who wanted to strengthen their rear delts. 

However, if you don’t have a cable machine in your home gym, you should check out alternatives to face pulls.


  • Brilliant for your posture.
  • Simple to learn.

How to do it:

  1. Clip a rope attachment onto the carabiner of a cable machine. 
  2. Grip the rope neutrally, with your palms facing one another.
  3. Keep your shoulder blades back and down with your chest up. 
  4. Pull the ropes to just above your ears.
  5. At the top of each movement, squeeze both shoulder blades hard together.
  6. Bring the cable back to its starting position in a controlled movement.

Tips From A Trainer!

  • It is important to stress the importance of the neutral grip. Many lifters perform the cable face pull overhanded, which does not allow as much shoulder blade retraction. This will impact the gains on your rhomboids.  

10. TRX YTW 

Man Doing TRX YTW Exercise

This upright row alternative is a brilliant exercise for developing your rear deltoids, traps, and core while improving your posture and shoulder health. 

The TRX is a versatile piece of equipment that can be used almost anywhere. Whether you're in a hotel room, public park, your bedroom, garage, or elsewhere, you'll have no issues performing this movement.

TRX is a great suspension trainer you can bring anywhere, but it's a little bit expensive. However, we tried to find and tested the best TRX alternatives in our article, so you can check it out.


  • Great for shoulder health.
  • You can do them anywhere. 
  • Minimal equipment needed.

how to do it:

  1. Hold the handles of a TRX machine in a neutral grip with straight arms.
  2. Place both feet just in front of your body while maintaining tension in the straps.
  3. Raise your straight arms upward and outward. This should form a ‘Y’ shape.
  4. Bring your straight arms directly outward to the sides. This should form a ‘T’ shape.
  5. Raise your elbows, creating a 90-degree angle. Rotate both hands upward. This should form a ‘W’ shape.

Tips From A Trainer!

  • Performing YTWs properly can be challenging. To make them easier, keep the body more vertical. Conversely, if you would like more challenge, bring your feet further forward to make the body more horizontally positioned. 

Benefits Of Substitute Upright Row Exercises

The benefits of your barbell upright row alternative regime will depend on which replacement routine you select. As each exercise has its own advantage, you may want to combine several for the best results. 

The biggest advantage across the board is the lack of potentially harmful shoulder strain. Not only do these routines avoid pain and inflammation, but some – like barbell high pulls – allow you to lift larger weights and make greater gains safely.  

Others, like seated muscle snatches and single-arm dumbbell power snatches, incorporate leg and core muscles into your routine, giving a more full-body workout. 

If the upright rows alternative is a unilateral exercise, like the single-arm options, you also avoid unknowingly overcompensating with your stronger side, which often occurs with upright rows. Avoiding this allows for more balanced and symmetrical muscle development. 

Some dumbbell upright row alternative options take the lack of shoulder strain even further by actively improving your posture and joint health. Band high pulls and incline prone shoulder presses are great for undoing the physical impacts of upright rows or other unhealthy daily posture habits. 

Finally, band high pulls offer a fully portable upper-body workout that is much easier than lugging a barbell about. 

What Muscles Do Upright Row Exercises Work?


Your bicep muscles are in use during the arms’ bending motion to pull the bar in close to your body during the upright row [1]. While they are not worked as hard as other upper-body muscles, they are integral to the movement’s full completion.


The core is essentially the foundation of an upright row. It is used to lock in the correct starting form and stabilize the torso during the entire movement, ensuring the correct muscles are exercised by the lift.


The deltoids are one of the stars of the show during an upright row. The anterior, middle, and posterior components are responsible for the upward motion [2]. At the same time, the shoulders handle the contracting motion needed to pull the barbell in towards your chest in the movement’s second half.


Also known as the traps for short, these muscles are used during the high-power-potential shrugging motion that drives the barbell upward while lifting [3].

Upper Back

If you are completing the upright row with good posture, the muscles of the upper back are essential. They contract, pulling tight and closing to ensure the weight is pulled up correctly and kept close to the body.

Common Upright Row Questions

What is the difference between an upright row and a high pull? 

The key difference between upright rows and high pulls is the tempo and the hand positioning. Upright rows have a narrow grip and are performed slowly, while high pulls use a wider grip and use an explosive movement.

Is high pull bad for shoulders? 

No, the high pull isn't bad for your shoulders. In fact, they're much safer for your shoulder joints than upright rows. 

What is the best upright row alternative for shoulder pain? 

The best upright row alternative for shoulder pain is the lateral raise. They specifically target the deltoids and trapezius in the same way – especially when a slight lift above the shoulders is included. 


Don’t let reliance on old-favorite techniques compromise the progress you’ve made so far. What good are gains if you’re potentially damaging your shoulder joints to the point where you can’t keep them maintained? 

With so many alternative upright row movements out there, each with its own set of benefits, you've got a wide variation to choose from.

Update your workout routine today by adding a few of these upright row replacements to your workout. 





Lee Kirwin

Lee Kirwin

Lee has worked in the fitness industry for over 15 years. He's trained hundreds of clients and knows his way around the gym, including what you need for your garage gym. When he's not testing products, he loves weightlifting, Ju Jitsu, writing, and gaming.