10 Best Upright Row Alternatives: Substitutes For Upper Body

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

Reimagining upper body routines without this long-time staple can be difficult. However, switching things up with an upright row alternative not only protects your hard-earned gains but can breathe new life into your routine.

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 

This upright row substitute option gives all the benefits of the original 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.  

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

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

Read Also - How Much Do Barbells Weigh?

Barbell High Pull

2. Dumbbell Upright Rows 

This reliable upright barbell row alternative mitigates excess strain by letting each arm move independently. As well as reducing the risk of shoulder damage, dumbbell rows ensure a more balanced and symmetrical workout.

The main muscles targeted by this exercise are the trapezius, deltoids, and triceps.

  • 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. 
  • 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. 
  • Return dumbbells to thigh height.  

For added versatility, you may consider adding a squat at the bottom of each movement. This will include a glute workout in the routine. If you’re comfortable, incorporating an overhead press will add some shoulder activation. 

Related Article - Are Dumbbells Enough To Build Muscle?

Dumbbell Upright Rows

3. Seated Muscle Snatch 

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

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

If you feel wrist strain when performing this routine, allow them to extend slightly. 

More Exercises - Best Power Clean Alternatives

Seated Muscle Snatch

4. 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. For this reason, you will likely find it more tiring.

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

As with any energy-intensive exercise, we suggest starting with your weaker arm. The additional energy and focus you can devote at the beginning of the routine will encourage more balanced muscle growth.

As you can see, this power snatch exercise can be performed with either a dumbbell or a barbell.

Related Article - Barbells Vs Dumbbells

Single-Arm Dumbbell Power Snatch

5. Single-Arm Kettlebell Upright Row 

An alternative exercise for upright row routines that focuses on one arm at a time will reduce shoulder strain by allowing more unrestrained joint movement. The lower center of gravity provided when opting for a kettlebell over a dumbbell will further increase comfort. 

Done correctly, this routine will focus on the lateral deltoids, trapezius, other small stabilizer muscles in the back, and work the core. As with other unilateral exercises, it is great for identifying and correcting strength imbalances. 

  • 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. 
  • Pull the kettlebell upward by bending your arm until it reaches chest height. Ensure your elbow does the leading.  
  • Extend your arm back downward. 

If your home gym lacks a kettlebell, simply use a dumbbell instead. 

Learn More - Dumbbells Vs Kettlebells

Single-Arm Kettlebell Upright Row

6. Dumbbell Lateral Raise 

Another free-weight exercise you can substitute for upright row routines is the lateral raise. Working in isolation, this movement primarily focuses on the side deltoids. However, correctly incorporating the slight raise above shoulder height will include your upper trapezius in the workout too. 

  • Stand upright with a dumbbell in each hand and both arms passively hanging at the sides of your body. 
  • Lift your arms up and out directly at your sides, keeping both arms straight throughout. 
  • Finish the lift when both dumbbells slightly exceed shoulder height. 
  • Return both dumbbells to their initial positions with a controlled movement. 

Be careful not to use momentum or the muscles in your legs/back to assist with this exercise, as this will significantly decrease gains in the target areas. If you find yourself relying on either of these to complete the movement, try reducing the weight of the dumbbells.

Dumbbell Lateral Raise

7. Incline Prone Shoulder Press 

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 or risked by regular upright rows. 

  • Lie face-down on an exercise bench with dumbbells in each hand. The bench should be inclined by between 30 and 45-degrees. 
  • 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. 
  • Press the dumbbells forward and upward while keeping them in a straight line with the body. 
  • Return the dumbbells to your shoulders with a controlled movement. 

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. 

Suggested Equipment - Best Adjustable Weight Benches

Incline Prone Shoulder Press

8. Band High Pull 

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 are particularly good for working the rhomboids, rear deltoids, and trapezius.  

  • 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. 
  • Rotate shoulders outward until slightly protracted and engage core. 
  • Pull the band outward until both arms are in line with your back. Your shoulders should retract during this movement. 
  • Keep both arms straight and lower them to chest height.  
Band High Pull

9. Cable Face Pull 

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.

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

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. 

Cable Face Pull

10. TRX YTW 

One of the best machine-based upright row alternatives, the YTW targets strength-building in the rear deltoids and trapezius. Regular practice will improve your posture and overall shoulder joint health and stability. 

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

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.

See Also - 5 Best TRX Alternatives

TRX YTW

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? 

Biceps

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

Core

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.

Deltoids

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. 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.

Trapezius

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.

Upper Back

If you are completing upright rows 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.


People Also Ask (FAQs)

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

The key difference between upright rows and high pulls is the muscles worked.  

Upright rows work the muscles listed above, making them most useful for targeted upper-body strength building. 

High pulls, however, offer a fuller body workout, thanks to the inclusion of a squat. In total, high pulls work the arms, elbows, shoulders, spine, hips, glutes, legs, and ankles.  

Is high pull bad for shoulders? 

High pulls are much safer for your shoulder joints than upright rows.  

This is because the exertion is much more spread out across your body, with the lower body providing momentum that helps to carry the barbell over your shoulders, rather than relying on bodily force like in upright rows. 

What is the best upright row alternative for shoulder pain? 

Pound-for-pound, lateral raises are the best alternative. They specifically target the deltoids and trapezius in the same way – especially when a slight lift above the shoulders is included. 

However, if you regularly experience shoulder pain, consider incorporating band high pulls or incline prone shoulder presses into your routine, as these work to improve posture, joint pain, and overall mobility. 


Conclusion

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 techniques out there, each with its own set of benefits, why not try updating your workout routine to be more ergonomic? Good luck! 

Paul J

Last Updated on May 27, 2022