Q: I heard that upright rows are hard on the shoulders and should be avoided. Is this true?
A: A book was published in 1990 called the 7 Minute Rotator Cuff Solution by Jerry Robinson and Joseph Horrigan. The authors criticized the upright row exercise as being too stressful on the shoulder. This sparked controversy about the exercise. In fact, one of Horrigan’s medical colleagues who worked with him disagreed with this premise.
You should also consider that Olympic lifting pulling movements are variations of upright rows, and it’s rare to hear of these athletes suffering injuries from doing pulling movements (as it’s more likely the overhead jerk causing shoulder issues with these athletes).
Yes, it’s possible that the close-grip upright row could produce discomfort in the shoulders for some individuals, but more likely it’s due to the way the exercise is performed or due to postural issues such as rounded shoulders. Soft tissue work and corrective exercises can help resolve these postural issues. And if the exercise causes wrist pain, a soft-tissue specialist may help by working on the flexor carpi ulnaris, the wrist retinaculum, and the collateral ligaments.
If you have an open mind and want to give upright rows a go, consider that using a grip that is too narrow shifts the emphasis to the biceps. With a straight bar, you should position your index fingers just outside the lateral portions of your quadriceps. If you use an EZ curl bar, grip the bar where you would normally put your hands for curls as this angle on the bar will permit pain-free movement. Also, do not lift the bar past clavicle height as this may create an impingement in the shoulders.
You can also try using a triceps pressdown rope with the thick rubber ends, attaching it to a low pulley. This movement pattern tends to feel more natural for many individuals, and you can perform it seated or standing, which will increase the focus on the upper body as your legs won’t be able to assist with lifting the weight. As with barbell curls, some individuals use their legs so much during this exercise that they get little training effect on the upper body.
The upright row can be an effective exercise for the upper body, and there are many variations to make it more comfortable. Give it a shot and see what works for you.