Visit any gym and you’re likely to see lifters building their shoulders with the upright row and the lateral raise.
So, what are the differences between the upright row vs lateral raise? Upright rows use a bar, and lateral raises are done with dumbbells. Upright rows target the side delts and traps, while lateral raises primarily work the side delts. Both are used to develop hypertrophy in the shoulders.
In the article below, I’ll explain these exercises in detail — including how, why, and when to incorporate each into your training program. Lastly, I’ll teach you how to perform each one correctly, their respective pros and cons, and how to avoid common mistakes.
Let’s get started!
What’s The Difference Between an Upright Row and Lateral Raise?
Although the upright row and lateral raise are comparable exercises regarding the muscle groups they work, there are some key nuances that you should understand if you want to maximize the hypertrophy (muscle growth) of your shoulders.
Personally, I don’t think these exercises are interchangeable. While both target the side delts, they do so using unique implements, they have different supporting muscle groups, and each exercise can be varied in specific ways depending on the equipment you have available.
Want to know how powerlifters train their shoulders? Check out my Definitive Guide here.
There are 3 main differences between the upright row and lateral raise.
The upright row typically uses a standard barbell. However, it’s also common to see lifters substitute the standard barbell in the upright row with an EZ curl bar.
On the other hand, the lateral raise is usually performed using dumbbells. Some lifters who have limited equipment available will use continuously-looped resistance bands (check today’s price here), or make use of a cable machine instead.
If you don’t have an EZ curl bar, you can also do an upright row with a sandbag. Be sure to check out my reviews of the Best Sandbags With Handles.
2. Weight Used
Being a dumbbell variation, the lateral raise tends to have a smaller limit for how heavy it can be loaded.
Generally, lifters should stick with light dumbbells with the lateral raise (5-20 pounds per hand). Any heavier, and it’s common to inadvertently incorporate some leg drive/heaving in order to propel the dumbbells up.
Since the upright row is loaded with a barbell and it stays near your centre of gravity throughout the exercise, you can typically lift heavier loads with this exercise.
3. Muscles Worked
The upright row and the lateral raise target the side delts as the main mover. In both exercises, the front delts also activate slightly because lifters tend to bring the dumbbells slightly in front of them on the way up (around 10-15 degrees from a bird’s eye view) — instead of directly out to the sides.
For the lateral raise, this is basically the full extent of the muscles worked — save for a small amount of activation in the traps due to the slight movement of the shoulder blades.
That said, the upright row demands much more elevation in the shoulder blades as the bar drifts towards the chin. This action places significantly more work on the upper traps, and rhomboids. Finally, the biceps provide a little assistance as well as the elbows bend on the way up.
The upright row is a barbell-based compound exercise that targets the side delts, traps, rhomboids and biceps.
How To Do an Upright Row
Here’s how to perform an upright row:
1. Grab a standard barbell with an overhand grip
2. Ensure your hands are about shoulder-width apart
3. While standing tall, hold the bar passively in front of your thighs
4. To begin, pull your elbows up and back
5. The barbell should travel vertically up your torso, skimming your shirt as it is lifted upwards
6. Once the bar reaches collarbone-height, start lowering the bar under control
7. The rep is complete when the barbell has returned to the front of your thighs
If you can’t do an upright row, check out my article on the Best Upright Row Alternatives.
Technique Tips For an Upright Row
Here are some upright row tips to help you with your technique:
- Use heavier weights for moderate reps. As a compound exercise using multiple muscle groups, you’ll benefit more from the upright row by loading it heavier than an isolation exercise. Sticking in the 8-15 rep range will likely give you the best blend of intensity and volume.
- Keep the bar close to you. Doing this keeps tension on your lateral delts and maintains a better upper arm angle to maximize recruitment of your traps.
- Pull through your elbows. To avoid allowing your traps to take over this exercise, think about rowing “out and up” instead of just pulling the bar upwards.
- Take a slightly wider grip. A study by McAllister et al. (2013) showed that a wide grip provides greater EMG activation than a shoulder-width grip or a close grip.
Common Mistakes When Doing an Upright Row
The most common faults in the upright row are:
- Not pulling the bar high enough. Pulling the bar to mid-chest height is good, but could be better. A greater range of motion will stimulate greater amounts of muscle fibers and lead to more muscle building. Having a firm end-point for each rep (collarbone-height, for example) is going to give you a better return on investment for this exercise.
- Turning the upright row into a front raise. Allowing the barbell to swing in front of you as you lift it upwards will shift the work off your lateral delts and onto your front delts.
- Heaving the bar up. Using leg drive is a legitimate way to provide an overload stimulus for your lateral delts and traps. However, this advanced technique is channeled best by performing a different exercise that deliberately incorporates leg drive, like the Barbell High Pull.
Muscles Used: Upright Row
The muscles used in the upright row are the:
- Lateral delts
- Upper traps
The upright row demands a large amount of humeral abduction (bringing your upper arm directly out to the side) and scapular elevation (lifting your shoulder blades upwards). Because of this, the lateral delts and upper traps are the main contributors throughout this exercise.
Towards the top of the movement, the rhomboids help out by rotating the shoulder blades as you drive your elbows up and back.
Lastly, your biceps contribute a little to the upright row since there’s elbow flexion (bending) occurring.
Benefits of The Upright Row
Some of the benefits of the upright row are:
- Developing capped shoulders will give you a wider upper body, making your waist appear narrower than it actually is
- Wider shoulders help make your waist appear narrower than it actually is
- Building a strong set of traps is beneficial as they are an assisting muscle group in the deadlift
Cons of The Upright Row
Some of the cons of the upright row are:
- You may feel discomfort in your shoulders. Due to the high travel of the elbows in the upright row, some lifters experience clicking or discomfort near the end range of motion.
- It’s good at working your side delts, but not great. If your goal is to build the widest shoulders you possibly can, the upright row is a good assistance exercise. However, there are other movements (like the lateral raise) that do a better job of targeting the side delts more effectively.
The lateral raise is a dumbbell-based exercise that targets the side delts, front delts, and traps.
How To Do a Lateral Raise
Here’s how to set up a lateral raise:
1. Select a pair of light dumbbells (5-20 pounds per hand)
2. Grab the dumbbells using an overhand grip
3. Stall tall with your arms hanging passively at your sides
4. Retract your shoulder blades
5. When ready, lift the dumbbells out and up to your sides
6. Think about “sweeping” the dumbbells on the way up
7. Once the dumbbell reach shoulder height, lower them with control
Technique Tips For a Lateral Raise
Here are some lateral raise tips to help you with your technique:
- Use lighter weight for higher reps. As an isolation exercise, it’s easy to want to load up this exercise in the >8 rep range. However, too great of an emphasis on weight while shifting the work onto other unwanted muscle groups. Instead, keep the weight light and in the 10-30 rep zone.
- Use a grip that encourages internal rotation. By gripping the dumbbell with your index finger close to the head of the dumbbell and your pinky finger near the middle of the handle, you’ll encourage internal rotation. In order to combat this downward turning of the dumbbell while you lift upwards, your lateral delts will have to work even harder.
- Try different implements. While the most common variation of the lateral raise is with a pair of dumbbells, you could also use kettlebells, bands, or a cable machine. The best advice is to pick the variation of lateral raise that helps you feel your lateral delts working the most, and get better at it.
Common Mistakes When Doing a Lateral Raise
The most common faults in the lateral raise are:
- Going too heavy. Even for an experienced lifter, it’s extremely hard to maintain proper technique with the lateral raise since it’s an isolation exercise. At a certain point, you’ll get help from other muscle groups whether you want it or not.
- Turning it into a front raise. Allowing the dumbbells to travel more than 15 degrees in front of you will involve the front delts significantly more. If this occurs, you’ll no longer be isolating your lateral deltoids — defeating the purpose of the lateral raise.
- Using too much momentum. If you fail on this exercise, it should be because you’re unable to bring the dumbbells to shoulder height while maintaining an upright posture — not because you couldn’t muster enough leg drive to throw the dumbbells up.
Muscles Used: Lateral Raise
The muscles used in the lateral raise are:
- Lateral deltoids (side delts)
- Front deltoids
- Upper traps
With the lateral raise, you will predominantly be performing shoulder abduction (moving your arm out at the side). This action is handled by the lateral deltoid.
However, there will most likely be some degree of shoulder flexion (forward travel of your arms) occurring during this exercise. Unless you deliberately raise the dumbbells directly out to the side — with no forward movement at all — then you will be working your front delts a little bit, too.
Finally, the upper traps are slightly active due to the upward rotation of your scapulae (shoulder blades) that mostly occurs at the top of the movement.
Benefits of The Lateral Raise
Some of the benefits of the lateral raise are:
- Building the outer part of your shoulders will give you that sought-after “X-frame” appearance
- A study by Botton et al. (2013) showed that compound exercises like the shoulder press and bench press do not activate the lateral deltoids to a high extent (<30%)
- However, the same study by Botton and colleagues (2013) found that both the free weight lateral raise and cable lateral raise illicit the greatest activation of the lateral deltoids (>50%)
Cons of The Lateral Raise
Some of the cons of the lateral raise are:
- You may experience “clicking” in your shoulders. Occasionally, some lifters feel a clicking sensation in their shoulders at the dumbbells near shoulder-height.
- It (mostly) leaves your front delts and traps out of the game. While the lateral raise is a great isolation exercise for the side delts, it inherently leaves out any possibility of truly building the front delts and traps. If your goal is to build these muscle groups, then the lateral raise isn’t a good choice.
Upright Row vs Lateral Raise: Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some frequently asked questions that lifters have asked me over the years when comparing the upright row vs the lateral raise:
Will Upright Rows or Lateral Raises Wreck My Shoulders?
When done with reasonable weights, appropriate intensities, and while managing fatigue, no exercise will inherently wreck your shoulders — or any joint for that matter. Be reasonable in your loading, and you’ll be just fine.
Should I Be Worried About Clicking/Popping in My Shoulders During These Exercises?
For many lifters, clicking and popping noises during exercise is a common occurrence. This phenomenon is referred to as crepitus; it’s rarely painful and almost always harmless. If it happens on most reps and you find it annoying, try “packing” your shoulders down before each rep or experimenting with different grip widths.
Your choice to perform upright rows or lateral raises will largely depend on your overall training goal.
Use upright rows to get a solid blend of lateral deltoid and trap development, while lifting the most weight.
Use lateral raises if you’d prefer to target your lateral delts almost exclusively, as they’re much more of an isolation exercise.
Neither the upright row or lateral raise is inherently better than the other. Rather, it depends on what exercise will support your goal the most.