The upright row is good for building up your upper traps, rhomboids, lateral deltoids, and biceps. However, if you’re looking for a substitute, it’s probably because your shoulder blades hurt or simply want to avoid shoulder impingement or injury. Fortunately, you don’t need to give up entirely on these muscle groups!

The best upright row alternative will help you target the same muscle groups and recreate the same movement. So, here are 10 substitutes that are easier on your shoulder joints but will help you rip the same benefits.

Upright Row Alternative Exercises

1. Cable or Rope Face Pulls

If upright rows are vertical pulling exercises, cable face pulls are horizontal pulling exercises, focusing on your rhomboids, middle traps, posterior deltoids, and biceps. Although it doesn’t target the same muscle group as upright rows, it’s still a good substitute since it will less likely injure your shoulders. Also, it can improve your posture and prevent any back and neck injuries.

When doing a cable face pull, you’ll need a Cable Pulley System and a weight that you’re comfortable doing a minimum of 10 repetitions at the beginning. If you’re more advanced, you can use heavier weights, but it’s not necessary to lift extremely heavy pounds with this exercise. Remember to warm up first if you’re doing face pull at the start of your workout.

How to do it

  • Fasten a two-sided rope at chest level to a Cable Pulley.
  • Stand straight in an upright posture with your feet hip-width apart.
  • In the same stance, grab the side of the handle, or you can place one foot in front for better balance.
  • Keep your hands at head level and slightly lower your elbows.
  • With your arms out straight with an overhand grip, pull the rope as far as you can towards your face and contract your rear deltoids while pulling each side apart.
  • Straighten your arms going back to the cable pulley.
  • Repeat as needed.

2. Single-Arm Kettlebell Upright Row

When doing barbell upright rows, you’re working out both of your arms at the same time, which is why you are experiencing shoulder pain. With a single-arm kettlebell upright row, you’re only working out one arm at a time. It allows your shoulder girdle to move comfortably, most likely relieving stress off your shoulder joint. 

Although you can do this upper body exercise using a dumbbell, the kettlebell’s lower center of gravity will make it feel more manageable for you. Aside from that, with this unilateral (one-sided) workout, you’re not only exercising your arms, but you can also feel it in your core.

How to do it

  • Grab a single kettlebell, holding it in front of your thighs with your palms facing towards your leg. Stand upright with your feet apart, and your keens slightly bent. Tighten your abs and pull your shoulders going down and back.
  • Bend your arm and pull the weight in front of your body. With your elbows leading, raise the kettlebell around chest height. Make sure that while doing all this, you don’t lean sideways.
  • Extend your arm and do it again. 
  • Ensure that you do the same number of repetitions on both sides.

3. Four-Way Shoulder Complex

This next upright row alternative is a complex with four dumbbell exercises combined into one. It pinpoints your traps and delts from various angles. While you don’t need extra heavy weights for this exercise, it would still give your shoulder muscles a good workout. 

The four-way shoulder complex also called super shoulders complex, is the perfect ender for your workout. Also, it’s best for training your delts and traps when you have less time to spend in the gym!

How to do it

  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand right in front of your thighs with your palms facing your legs.
  • Lift both your arms forward towards shoulder level. Lower both your arms and do ten repetitions.
  • After doing the ten reps, raise your arm to go out to the sides. Now that your arms are parallel to the floor lower them back towards your legs. Do ten reps again. 
  • Lift the dumbbells to your shoulder level with your palms facing forward. Press the weights over your head and lower them back towards your shoulders. Again, do ten reps.
  • Lastly, execute ten dumbbell upright rows with the weights down in front of your thighs.

4. Barbell High Pull

Unlike the first few upright row alternatives, the barbell bar high pull may be the closest replicating an upright row and utilize precisely the same muscles. If you’re very particular with mimicking the upright row in your substitute, then this exercise will do the trick!

One significant difference between the two is the assistance of the lower body. There’s zero to minimal help from the legs when you’re doing an upright row to pull the barbell upwards. You deliberately include the hip drive from your legs with the barbell high pull. Having this initial push, you’ll be able to propel the barbell upward, enabling the upper arms to finish the movement. 

How to do it

  • Hold a Barbell and grab the bar with your usual upright row grip.
  • When you’re all set, push your hips backward and let the bar slide down your thighs.
  • Before the bar extends to the top of your knees, push yourself to stand back up by moving your hips forward.
  • As the bar goes up to your hips, pull in your elbows up and back.
  • Go back to the starting position with total control.
  • Repeat as you see fit.

5. Seated Muscle Snatch

Another great upright row substitute is the seated muscle snatch. It has the same movement pattern and targets similar muscle groups. With this movement, you’ll be able to get the same benefits as a high pull while working out your external rotation and shoulder pressing. 

With the snatch grip (wide grip on the barbell), you’ll be able to increase the activity in your traps and delts while decreasing the movement of your biceps. The only downside with this alternative is it closely resembles an upright row. There’s a possibility that you’ll experience shoulder pain and discomfort.

How to do it

  • Get a barbell and hold it in a snatch grip position.
  • Sit in a box that allows your legs to be at a 90-degree angle.
  • With the bar sitting on your quads, drive your elbows upwards to pull the bar up.
  • When the bar goes past your chin, swing your elbows downwards.
  • Finish the lift by extending your arms up over your head.
  • Go back to the starting position, with the bar on your lap. 
  • Repeat as needed.

6. Dumbbell Lateral Raise

The dumbbell lateral raise targets your side delts, and like the upright row, it’s a free-weight exercise. While its main focus is your side delts, many lifters would bring the dumbbells slightly past shoulder height. The additional motion of the dumbbell causes a small amount of scapular elevation, burning the upper traps as well. 

How to do it

  • Stand tall and straight while holding two dumbells passively at your sides.
  • While keeping your arms straight, proceed to lift the dumbells out directly to your sides. 
  • When the dumbbells slightly pass your shoulder height, stop.
  • Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
  • Repeat as necessary.

7. Band Lateral Raise

Why is the band lateral raise a good upright row alternative? It’s because it isolates your lateral delts by lifting against the band’s tension while it’s anchored to the floor. The nature of this exercise leaves out most of the movement from the upper traps since the shoulder blades elevate barely at the top.

How to do it

  • Get a thin (light) Resistance Band.
  • Hold one end of the band with your left fist and step on the other with your right foot.
  • Slightly move your left foot back until you have a wider stance.
  • While keeping your arm straight, start by placing your fist near your left thigh. 
  • When you’re all set, lift your fist out directly to the side.
  • Stop when you’re already at shoulder height and lower with control.
  • Repeat the same number of reps on the other side.

8. Single Arm Dumbell Power Snatch

The single-arm dumbbell power snatch is an explosive unilateral exercise that resembles the movement pattern of an upright row, making it an excellent alternative. It works out your lateral delts as you pull your arm up and back, and it burns your traps when the scapulae drift up to finish the pull. 

When doing the single-arm dumbbell power snatch, you’ll be incorporating more muscle groups than the upright row. For instance, you’ll need your legs to create the momentum required to snatch the dumbbell from the floor to an overhead position. Because of that, this exercise can be more fatiguing than the upright row.

How to do it

  • Set a single dumbbell horizontally on the floor.
  • Plant your feet on either side of the dumbbell, shoulder-width apart.
  • Squat down and grip the dumbbell with one hand.
  • When you’re all good, forcefully push away from the floor to start standing up.
  • Once the dumbbell reaches your hip’s height, raise your elbow up and back.
  • Move your arm under the dumbbell as it goes up to your shoulder.
  • Finish the movement by imitating the motion of punching the ceiling.
  • Repeat the same number of reps to the other side. 

9. Incline Prone Shoulder Press

Not only is this exercise an excellent upright row alternative as it workout similar muscle groups, but it’s also perfect for your shoulder joint health and posture. The incline-prone shoulder press is ideal for light dumbbells only and not heavyweights. If it’s too heavy, you won’t be able to do the workout properly and reap the benefits.

How to do it

  • Set your Exercise Bench at a 30 – 45 degree angle. With the dumbbells in each hand, lie face down on the bench. 
  • Lift the weights to the front of your shoulders with your elbows pushing forward. Then pull your shoulder down and back. 
  • Press the weights forward and up while keeping them in line with your body. You’ll know that the weights are heavy if you cannot push them out at the same angle. 
  • Return to the beginning position and repeat as needed.

10. Dumbbell YTW

This exercise is a solid upright row alternative since it targets your traps (particularly the mid and lower) and rear deltoids. It involves a lot of arm abduction and shoulder blade retraction. The only downside of the dumbbell YTW is it tends to leave out the lateral deltoids. If you prioritize your shoulder’s side, this upright row alternative might not be the best.

How to do it

  • Set your Adjustable Exercise Bench at a 45-degree angle and grab a pair of light dumbbells.
  • Lie face down on the bench with your feet planted on the ground and your chin above the top. Let your arms passively rest towards the ground.
  • Raise your arms, making a “Y” shape. 
  • Return to the starting position.
  • Raise your arms to the side, making a “T” shape.
  • Go back to the starting position.
  • Place your arms at a 90-degree angle with your torso, and rotate your upper arm to create a “W” shape. 
  • The entire “YTW” sequence counts as one rep. Repeat as needed.

Conclusion

Alternatives can help you create a fitness regimen suitable for yourself. With these upright row alternatives, you can work out the same muscle groups without causing your joints pain! The upright row is not for everyone, and even for pros, it can be hard. So, don’t hesitate to substitute it for a workout that can give you the arms and traps that you want!

Frequently Asked Questions

The upright row is a compound strength-building exercise working on different muscle groups, including the lateral deltoids, upper traps and biceps. It’s a classic and popular exercise with old-school weightlifters since upright row builds a fantastic upper body built.

Although upright row boosts your upper traps and increases your upper body strength, it’s notorious for causing shoulder injuries. With a traditional upright row, you can also experience anteriorly-directed joint stress on top of the shoulder girdle.

Among the ten alternatives we listed, the best upright row substitute is the dumbbell lateral raise. While it offers all the benefits of the upright row, you won’t be risking yourself from experiencing a shoulder injury. 

When you do a dumbbell lateral raise, your muscles on the sides and front replicate the same motion as the upright row. Also, it can help increase the size and strength of your shoulder and back and train your upper traps and side deltoids. On top of that, when you do the dumbbell lateral raise, you also burn your forearms, biceps, front and rear deltoids, and rhomboids.

But you shouldn’t limit it. Other alternatives are equally enjoyable and are kind to the shoulders whilst helping you target the same results.

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