The upright row is a free-weight exercise that targets the lateral deltoids, upper traps, rhomboids, and biceps. Usually, it is performed using a standard barbell or EZ curl bar.
However, you might be looking to substitute the upright row for a few reasons: perhaps this exercise is painful to perform because you’re injured, you can’t seem to feel the correct muscle groups working, or you just want to shake up your shoulder workouts with more variation.
So how can you reap all the benefits of the upright row without using this exact exercise?
The 8 best upright row alternatives are:
- Barbell High Pull
- Seated Muscle Snatch
- Single Arm Dumbbell Power Snatch
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise
- Band Lateral Raise
- Cable Face Pull
- Dumbbell YTW
- TRX YTW
In the article below, we’ll cover the most important details you need to know when selecting an alternative for the upright row. Let’s dive in!
This article is an extension of my 9 Best Overhead Press Alternatives (With Pictures) article. You’ll find some stellar upper body variations in this article, too. Click on the link to read it next!
What Makes a Good Upright Row Alternative
An effective substitute for the upright row will: (1) target the same muscle groups as those worked in the upright row and (2) closely replicate the motor pattern of the upright row.
Muscles Used In The Upright Row
The muscles used in the upright row are the:
• Lateral delts
• Upper traps
The upright row requires a significant amount of humeral abduction (bringing the upper arm directly out to the side) and scapular elevation (lifting the shoulder blades upwards). As a result, the lateral delts and upper traps are the main movers on this exercise — respectively.
That said, the rhomboids also assist in retracting the scapulae (shoulder blades) at the top of the exercise as you drive your elbows up and back.
Finally, there’s a small amount of elbow flexion (bending) that occurs in order to bring the barbell upwards. This action involves the biceps to a small extent, too.
Takeaway: An effective upright row alternative must primarily target the lateral delts and the upper traps.
Upright Row: Motor Pattern
While performing the upright row, the lifter’s arms travel away from their body and their shoulder blades lift upward near the top of the movement. The elbows also bend slightly throughout the exercise.
Takeaway: An ideal exercise to replace the upright row will mimic a similar movement pattern by involving humeral abduction and scapular elevation.
Upright Row Alternatives
1. Barbell High Pull
The barbell high pull is a fantastic substitute for the upright row, as it very closely resembles the upright row and uses all the same muscle groups.
If specificity to the upright row is important to you, then look no further than the barbell high pull.
The major difference between the two is the amount of assistance from the lower body. In the upright row, there is minimal help from the legs to drive the barbell upwards — preferably, none at all.
On the other hand, the barbell high pull is performed by deliberately incorporating hip drive from the legs. This initially helps propel the barbell upwards, allowing the upright row muscles to finish the movement.
This added leg drive also allows higher loads to be lifted, placing greater demand on the lateral delts and upper traps.
How To Do It
- Grab a barbell and hold the bar with your regular upright row grip
- When ready, push your hips back and allow the bar to slide down your thighs
- Before the bar reaches the top of your knees, forcefully stand back up by driving your hips forward
- As the bar travels up to your hips, pull your elbows up and back
- Return the bar back to the starting position under control
In the barbell high pull, a common mistake is when lifters allow the barbell to drift too far in front of them. Allowing this to happen might throw you off balance and cause you to stumble. At the very least, it puts less work on the upper traps.
To avoid this from happening, think about “skimming your shirt” as you drive the barbell upwards. This cue should help you keep the bar closer to your body throughout the exercise.
If you’re training for powerlifting, check out my article on the best shoulder workouts for powerlifters.
2. Seated Muscle Snatch
The seated muscle snatch is a great substitute for the upright row, as it incorporates a similar motor pattern while targeting the same muscle groups.
The first part of the seated muscle snatch is very similar to the upright row.
In fact, the snatch grip (a wide grip on the barbell) has been shown to increase the activity of the delts and traps, while decreasing the activity of the biceps. If you’re looking to maximize the involvement of your delts and traps, then this exercise would be a solid choice as an alternative to the upright row.
Unfortunately, its specificity is also a potential downfall. Since the first component of the seated muscle snatch so closely resembles the upright row, you might also experience discomfort on this exercise if the upright row causes you pain.
How To Do It
- Grab a barbell and hold the bar with a snatch grip position
- Sit down on a box that places your legs at about 90 degrees
- With the bar sitting on the top of your quads, forcefully pull the bar up by driving your elbows up
- As the bar travels past your chin, start swinging your elbows downwards
- Complete the lift by extending your arms up overhead
- Return the bar back to your lap under control
When performing overhead exercises with the snatch grip, some lifters find that it can be hard on their wrists. To help alleviate this discomfort, I’d recommend allowing your wrist to extend slightly. This usually places the bar almost directly over where the bones of your forearm insert into your wrist and makes for a more efficient grip.
You can also wear wrist wraps, which help your wrist joint stay neutral. Check out my article on the 8 Best Wrist Wraps For Lifting.
3. Single Arm Dumbbell Power Snatch
The single arm dumbbell power snatch is an explosive unilateral exercise that resembles the movement pattern of the upright row, making it a solid alternative.
Although the single arm dumbbell power snatch is performed with one arm at a time, it still involves a similar motor pattern as the upright row. The arm must pull up and back (working the lateral delt), while the scapulae drift upwards to complete the pull (targeting the traps).
That said, the single arm dumbbell power snatch does incorporate significantly more muscle groups than the upright row. For instance, the legs are involved much more in order to create the momentum necessary to snatch the dumbbell from the ground to an overhead position.
For this reason, the single arm dumbbell power snatch will likely be more fatiguing than the upright row.
How To Do It
- Grab a single dumbbell and set it on the floor (the handle should point horizontally)
- Set your feet on either side of the dumbbell about shoulder width apart
- Squat down so you can grip the dumbbell with one hand
- When ready, forcefully push the floor away to begin standing up
- As the dumbbell gets to hip height, pull your elbow up and back
- Transition your arm underneath the dumbbell as it travels up to your shoulder
- Think about punching the ceiling to finish the movement
- Repeat for the same number of reps on your other side
Due to the unilateral nature of this exercise, I’d personally start each set with your non-dominant arm first.
Since you’re more rested at the start of a set versus at the end, you’ll be able to devote more energy and focus to your weaker side. Once you’ve completed the required reps on your non-dominant side, simply match the same number of reps with your dominant side.
Check out my article on whether overhead press can help bench press.
4. Dumbbell Lateral Raise
The dumbbell lateral raise is an excellent alternative to the upright row, as it primarily targets on the side delts.
Like the upright row, the dumbbell lateral raise is also a free-weight exercise.
While the lateral raise mostly works the side delt, many lifters tend to bring the dumbbells slightly higher than shoulder height. This additional travel of the dumbbells causes a small amount of scapular elevation, emphasizing the upper traps as well.
How To Do It
- Stand tall with two dumbbells hanging passively at your sides
- Keeping your arms straight, lift the dumbbells up and directly out to your sides
- Stop when the dumbbells are slightly higher than shoulder-height
- Lower the dumbbells with control
A common mistake with the dumbbell lateral raise is when lifters use too much momentum to propel the dumbbells up. Allowing this to take place almost entirely removes the “isolation” purpose of this exercise.
When you feel yourself starting to use your legs and/or back to throw the dumbbells upwards instead of relying on your delts, I’d suggest reducing the weight or ending the set before your technique breakdown occurs.
I wrote an article comparing the upright row and lateral raise. Here’s the complete guide: Upright Row vs Lateral Raise: Differences, Pros, Cons.
5. Band Lateral Raise
The band lateral raise isolates the lateral delts, making it a great replacement for the upright row.
With this movement, you will work your lateral delts by lifting against the tension of a band as it’s anchored to the floor.
That said, the isolating nature of this exercise leaves out most of the work from the upper traps since the shoulder blades end up elevating very little at the top.
How To Do It
- Grab a thin (light) resistance band
- Holding the band in your left fist, step on the band with your right foot
- Stagger your left foot backwards with a wide stance
- Start with your fist near your left thigh, and a straight arm
- When ready, raise your fist directly out to the side
- Stop when you reach shoulder height, then lower with control
- Repeat for the same reps on the other side
This exercise works best with continuously looped bands — click to check today’s price. Since these don’t have built-in handles, there are less potential weak points where the band could snap. For this reason, they’ll last much longer before wearing down.
6. Cable Face Pull
The cable face pull is a great substitute for the upright row, as it targets similar muscle groups.
As a machine-based exercise, you’ll lose some specificity to the upright row by selecting this exercise as a substitute since you’re not using a barbell.
However, it’s still a great exercise to target the deltoids, rhomboids, and biceps.
How To Do It
- Find a cable machine and clip a rope attachment to the carabiner
- Grab the rope with a neutral grip (palms facing each other)
- Keep your chest up and shoulders down
- When ready, pull the ropes to your ears
- At the top, squeeze your shoulder blades together hard
- Return the cable back to the starting position under control
In the cable face pull, it’s common for lifters to perform this exercise with an overhand grip.
While the overhand grip is unlikely to cause injury or pain, it doesn’t allow for as much retraction (pulling together) of the shoulder blades at the top of the exercise. Therefore, it actually works your rhomboids less.
Instead of an overhand grip, use a neutral grip on the rope attachment — your rhomboids will get a better workout.
7. Dumbbell YTW
The dumbbell YTW is a solid substitute for the upright row, as it targets similar muscle groups that are integral in performing the upright row.
The dumbbell YTW does a great job of working the rear deltoids and traps (specifically the mid and lower traps), due mostly to the amount of arm abduction and retraction of the shoulder blades.
However, the dumbbell YTW does tend to neglect the lateral deltoids. If targeting the side of your shoulders is important to you, this might not be the best exercise to pick as an alternative to the upright row.
How To Do It
- Set a bench to a 45 degree incline
- Grab a pair of light dumbbells
- Place your chest against the bench, with your chin above the top of the bench
- Your feet should remain in contact with the ground
- Allow your arms to rest passively towards the floor
- Lift your arms up and outwards — making a “Y” shape
- Bring your arms back to the starting position
- Lift your arms directly out to your sides — making a “T” shape
- Bring your arms back to the starting position
- Put your upper arms at a 90 degree angle to your torso
- Then, rotate your arms upwards — making a “W” shape
- This entire sequence (all 3 letters) is counted as 1 rep
This exercise is usually performed with dumbbells, but it can also be done with small plates for lifters who require lighter loads. Unfortunately, it’s normal to have a hard time finding 2.5 pound plates in a commercial gym.
Due to the light weight and small size of these plates, you could also invest in your own pair and keep them in your gym bag (click to check today’s price on Amazon). They’ll also come in handy anytime you need to micro-load your powerlifting exercises.
8. TRX YTW
The TRX YTW is a great replacement for the upright row, as it works comparable muscle groups that are active in the upright row.
The TRX YTW is a bodyweight alternative to the upright row.
To make this exercise easier, a lifter should remain more vertical. In order to make the TRX YTW harder, a lifter can bring their feet farther forward — causing a more horizontal body position.
How To Do It
- Find a TRX
- Grab the handles and straighten your arms with your hands in a neutral grip
- Maintain tension on the straps, while placing your feet slightly in front of you
- Keeping your arms straight, raise them up and out — forming a “Y” shape
- Then, bring them directly out to your sides — forming a “T” shape
- Finally, raise your elbows so your arms are at a 90 degree angle and rotate your hands upwards — forming a “W” shape
- Completing this entire sequence is considered 1 rep
Despite being a bodyweight exercise, this movement is surprisingly challenging. If performing it for the first time, I’d recommend that you start with a more vertical body position than you think you need. Remember, you can always make it more difficult by walking your feet forward as your set progresses.
The greatest alternatives for the upright row involves a similar movement pattern as the upright row, while targeting the lateral deltoids, upper traps, rhomboids, and biceps.
The best exercise for you depends primarily on the equipment you have available and how specific you need your upright row substitute to be.