It’s been tarnished as a shoulder wrecker and called out as the one move that can bring your training to a grinding halt. Not true. Those who bad-mouth the upright row should simply explore how to nail perfect technique.

With so much criticism around upright rows, it’s little surprise many believe should be scratched from your workout regime. After all, there are other ways to strengthen your traps and deltoids, right? Think again. Rather than ditch them, upright rows are one move you really want to master. This is because the upright row movement is a key element of the clean and press – so you can’t get all the functional strength benefits from a safe and effective clean and press without mastering the upright row.

The main issue with upright rows is the risk of shoulder impingement. Generally, shoulder impingement occurs when you internally rotate the shoulder (roll it forward slightly) and then lift it out to the side. When you do this movement, a crest of bone at the top of the humerus (the upper arm bone) hits a bone projecting outward from the scapula (also known as the shoulder blade). When these two bony prominences come together, impingement occurs, and this can create shoulder pain.

Shoulder impingement is a direct result of the technique used.

The first issue is having your hands too close together. If your hands are too narrowly placed your shoulders will be internally rotated as you raise the bar up. Not only will it look ridiculous, it will increase the chance of impingement – the internal rotation as you lift will bring those two bony prominences together.

The second issue is having a scapula that’s protracted (shoulders rounded forward). This will bring the top of the scapula down, so that as you raise the bar and the humerus lifts, once again, there’s a high likelihood that those two bony prominences will impact.

The third issue is the height of the pull. If you pull the bar right up under your chin it’s no good. Lifting your elbows above your shoulders is another road to increase the likelihood of shoulder impingement.

The right way to upright row

  • Have your hands wide – at about hip width. If your hands are wide there’s less chance of internal rotation.
  • Draw the shoulder blades back and stabilize them as you lift the bar. This will help you keep the top end of the shoulder blade out of the way.
  • Limit how high you lift the bar. Only ever lift the bar to the lower ribs, with your elbows in line with shoulder level.

Do all these things together and it will eliminate a lot of the impingement risk and help ensure your upright rows are safe and effective – so you can easily transition into a clean and press.


Bryce Hastings is a leading New Zealand physiotherapist and fitness expert. As Les Mills Head of Research he leads research into the most effective approaches to exercise and plays a pivotal role in structuring all LES MILLS™ workouts. Bryce’s passion for effective exercise is born from spending 30 years in physiotherapy, where he saw “people getting their lives wrong” every day and felt like he was acting as an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. By working in fitness he gets to be the fence at the top.

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