Ask any lifter about the upright row and you’ll likely get two answers: (1) it’s an awesome shoulder exercise, or (2) it should be avoided at all costs due to the potential risk on the shoulder joint.
So, if upright rows are causing you shoulder, wrist, or elbow pain, here are 7 modifications to try.
- Minimizing Life Stress
- Decrease Training Volume For Pressing Exercises
- Lower Average Intensity
- Reduce Average RPE For Shoulder Exercises
- Alter Grip Width
- Change Peak Bar Height
- Switch Implement Type
In this article, I’ll discuss the reasons that you might be getting pain with the upright row. Additionally, I’ll offer you some short-term modifications to try and emphasize the long-term components you’ll have to address in order to kick your upper body joint pain for good.
Let’s get started!
You might also find my other article interesting to read on injuries in general: How to Avoid A Powerlifting Injury (Complete Guide)
Editor Note: The content on PowerliftingTechnique.com is informative only. It should not replace the advice or supervision from a medical expert. The opinions on this site are not intended to be used as diagnosis, prevention, or treatment of medical problems. If you experience pain, speak with your doctor if you have any concerns.
Is The Upright Row Bad For Your Shoulders, Wrists, and Elbows?
Okay, let’s address the elephant in the room: is the upright row inherently bad for your shoulders, wrists, and elbows?
No, the upright row is not bad for your shoulders, wrists, and elbows. The key is to make sure you’re performing the upright row with proper technique, modifying the exercise based on your individual needs, and considering your training program as a whole.
It’s also critical that you understand the underlying reasons that you’re experiencing pain — let’s touch on those briefly.
1. Pain Is Complex
People experience pain in different ways, so what might be painful for one person, may not be painful for others.
Often, we are taught an overly simplified explanation for what pain is and how it occurs by using the biomedical model; claiming there is a predictable and linear relationship between pain and tissue damage.
That said, pain actually has multiple components that can affect your overall experience of it. As its name implies, the biopsychosocial model of pain denotes three components: (1) biological, (2) psychological, and (3) social.
While the biological component is primarily focused on what’s happening at a tissue level, the psychological and social inputs are equally as important.
For example, what are your beliefs about pain? Do you catastrophize when you experience pain, feel helpless, or lose all sense of control?
Perhaps you have a relative who claims they “have a bad back” and can’t do certain tasks for constant fear of injury. Or, you might have visited a doctor who told you not to squat because it’s “bad for your knees”.
Having these thoughts and environmental cues might predispose you to feel helpless of your situation when you experience pain.
2. Pain Does Not Equal Damage, and Damage Does Not Equal Pain
Just because you experience pain, doesn’t mean that it’s causing you harm. Equally, sometimes when an activity is harmful, it may not cause pain.
Here’s an example:
When Girish et al. (2011) examined 51 subjects who were 40-70 years old via ultrasound, they found that 78% of them showed subacromial-subdeltoid bursal thickening, 65% had AC joint osteoarthritis, 39% had supraspinatus tendinosis — with a number of additional structural damages noted for many subjects.
Despite all of the structural abnormalities found by researchers, not a single patient actually presented with any shoulder pain.
Clearly, pain and structural damage are not as well correlated as we might have once thought.
How To Perform An Upright Row Safely: 7 Modifications
What you’ll find next are 7 modifications for how to avoid pain in your shoulders, wrists, and elbows during the upright row.
Please note, the four long-term recommendations have the greatest influence on helping you avoid pain but they are not magic solutions that will work instantly.
In fact, consider them to be holistic approaches that should be applied in unison to provide you the greatest improvements in your recovery and training!
Long-term Modifications To Reducing Pain In The Upright Row
1. Minimize Life Stress
The most powerful long-term modification in performing the upright row safely is learning how to manage your life stress, since it has a huge influence on the amount of training that you can tolerate.
When it comes to your training, consider the sink analogy.
The water pouring from the faucet into the sink is the stress that you encounter by training. The more work you perform in the gym, the more water flows into the sink.
Having a reasonable amount of water (stress) in the sink is helpful for getting stronger, building muscle mass, and developing work capacity. Too little water, and you don’t have enough workload to cause adaptations. That said, too much water makes it difficult to recover. If the sink overflows, you experience pain and increase the likelihood of injury.
Luckily, there’s a drain in the sink to allow some stress to dissipate. Adequate recovery resources (proper nutrition and sleep) allow more water to drain, letting you handle more training and get more adaptations.
By having too much life stress (poor nutrition, low sleep quantity and quality) reduces the size of the drain. As a result, training that you could previously tolerate might become painful in certain tissues (like your shoulders, wrists, and elbows during the upright row).
Want to find out how competitive powerlifters train their shoulders? Check out my Definitive Guide here.
2. Decrease Training Volume For Pressing Exercises
Another long-term modification to help you perform the upright row safely is to temporarily decrease your training volume for pressing exercises.
Basically, this brief reduction should allow built-up fatigue to dissipate.
While it’s most important to decrease the volume for pressing and shoulder-focused exercises (like the upright row itself), you’d likely experience a faster improvement in your pain levels by reducing your lower body training volume as well. This is especially the case if you do exercises such as the low bar squat, which can add to the stress of the shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
3. Lower Average Intensity
The third modification that can assist the safety of your upright row performance over the long haul is to lower your average training intensity.
Training intensity is the percentage range of your 1 rep max that you’re working at. An average intensity of >90% means that you’re doing most of your sets in the 1-4 rep range.
It’s possible that if your wrists, shoulders, and elbows are hurting during the upright row, that your upright row and pressing exercises are just too heavy (your intensity is too high) for your recovery resources.
Reducing your training intensity to under 80% will likely provide enough of a break from heavy lifting to allow your tissues the break they’ve been asking for. Remember, you can’t lift heavy each and every workout. Sometimes lifting lighter loads for higher reps can be beneficial in your recovery.
4. Reduce Average RPE For Pressing Exercises
The last long-term modification is to reduce your RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) for your pressing exercises.
In a nutshell, RPE is how hard you’re working to your fatigue limit.
Usually, this is logged via a scale from 5-10 (5 being a warm-up weight, and 10 being an all-out effort). The RPE scale is often complemented by a Reps In Reserve (RIR) estimation — how many additional reps you could have done during a given set.
If you’re routinely performing the majority of your working sets beyond the 8 RPE range (you only have 2 reps or less in reserve), it could be that your training is too difficult for your tissues to handle — resulting in pain.
The fix here is to reduce the difficulty of your sets and ensure that most of your training falls in the 6-8 RPE range (you have 2-4 reps in reserve).
Short-term Modifications To Reducing Pain In The Upright Row
5. Alter Grip Width
Altering your grip width is the first short-term modification that I’d recommend you try.
Most of the time, lifters take too narrow of a grip that causes them to have to torque their wrists excessively.
Remember that an ultra-narrow grip simply places a different type of work on the wrists that they might not be used to. This different position that they must maintain for multiple sets and many reps might be temporarily overloading their tissue capacity.
Instead of taking an ultra-narrow grip, widen your grip by at least a couple inches on either side and you might find that your wrists immediately start feeling better. You may also find that wearing wrist wraps will help (click for my guide on wrist wraps).
Related article: Upright Row vs Lateral Raise: Differences, Pros, Cons
6. Change Peak Bar Height
The second short-term adjustment that I’d suggest you try is changing the peak bar height of your reps.
Typically, lifters will pull their upright rows as high as they possibly can. This often brings the bar up to chin-height or at the very least, above the height of the shoulders.
Once again, moving the shoulders above some arbitrary point (like shoulder-height) isn’t inherently dangerous or bad. However, you might experience pain in this range if your shoulders aren’t used to moving in this range of motion and you perform more work than your shoulders are familiar with in this new movement area.
Instead, you might start by stopping your reps at shoulder-height and progressively going an inch higher every couple weeks. This type of progression in peak bar height should give your joints a chance to recover, while increasing the range of motion over time.
7. Switch Implement Type
Finally, the third modification that might help manage your pain in the short-term is to switch the implement type you’re using.
For example, if you’ve been using a barbell or EZ curl bar, you can switch to a pair of dumbbells, a continually-looped resistance band or a cable machine with a variety of different attachments (straight bar, cambered bar, regular grip handles or a rope).
Throughout this article, I’ve continually emphasized that neither the range of motion or position of the shoulders, wrists, or elbows during the upright row is inherently bad in any way. That said, switching the implement type that you’re using might provide you some short-term pain relief.
The reason that this might work is that by changing the implement type, you’ll probably be forced to temporarily reduce the weight and/or total reps (and thereby also likely decreasing your average RPE, volume and intensity).
This imposed weight or rep limit will help bring the overall workload back into a tolerable range for your tissues.
Need a completely different alternative to the upright row? Click here to find out the 8 Best Upright Row Alternatives (With Pictures)
If you’re experiencing pain in your shoulders, wrists, or elbows during upright rows, here’s a better approach to avoiding pain in the future
- Reduce one of the following: life stress, training volume, intensity, or RPE
- Monitor your pain levels for 2 weeks
- If you’re still in the same amount of pain, reduce another component and monitor your results
- If pain persists for another 2 weeks, lower the third component
- If there’s no change in your pain scores, decrease the final component
- Still no relief from pain? Lower all components even further
Remember that short-term modifications tend to produce short-lived reductions in pain, you’ll need to address the workload-fatigue mismatch that’s overloading your tissues.
Be sure to check out my other articles discussing shoulder pain:
About The Author
Kent Nilson is an online strength coach, residing in Calgary (AB). When he’s not training, coaching, or volunteering on the platform at powerlifting meets, you’ll likely find Kent drinking coffee or enjoying his next Eggs Benedict. Connect with him on Facebook or Instagram.