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March 17, 2021

Head to Head: Barbell vs Dumbbell Upright Row

The upright row is a popular, though controversial, exercise that is meant to work your trapezius, shoulder and upper back muscles. It will develop strength in your posterior chain and increase your overall pulling power. The two most common forms of doing the upright row exercise are with a barbell and with dumbbells. In this article we put these two versions head to head so you can make the smartest choice for your workout and highlight common mistakes made.

About the Upright Row

The Upright Row is performed to build the trapezius muscles. It is done by holding a weight at arm’s length against your body with your palms facing in toward your body. Your feet should be shoulder width apart. You can use a range of grips from very close to very wide, with each one affecting your trapezius muscles slightly differently.

 

The exercise simply involves pulling the weight up to the level of your chin. Pull with your hands, keeping the elbows down, so that the upper arm does not come up.

 

Some people prefer to bring the weight up higher. Mass monster of the early 1980s, Bertil Fox, was known to bring the bar all the way up to his forehead when he did upright rows- and he had some pretty huge traps!

The Barbell Upright Row

When you perform the upright row with a barbell you have a high degree of control over the resistance. You are able to pull the bar up evenly. You are also able to use a wide range of hand placement positions from very close with your thumbs touching to way out at shoulder width level.

 

The most common problems with the barbell upright row are bringing your elbows up too high. This will compromise your shoulder joint and may lead to shoulder impingement. Another problem is using too much weight on the bar. When you use more weight than you can handle, you will end up using momentum by swinging your body. This defeats your entire purpose for doing the exercise and may lead to serious lower back problems.

 

Another common problem with the barbell upright row is that of bending forward at the waist. This is a no no. You need to keep your torso complete upright as you do the exercise.

 

The Dumbbell Upright Row

The dumbbell upright row allows you to move each arm more freely. This makes the exercise feel more natural. This is also good news for your shoulder joint as you are no longer locked into a predetermined movement as you would be if you were using a barbell.

 

When you use dumbbells you are also able to work both sides of the trapezius unilaterally. All of us have one side of the body that is stronger than the other. Whenever we do an exercise with a barbell, the stronger side will take over and bear the majority of the weight. This leads to lop sided movement and development.

 

However, when you are able to work each side of the body unilaterally, as you are with dumbbells, you are able to overcome the problem of unbalanced strength. Because each side is doing its own job without assistance from the other side, your strength and development will balance themselves out.

Does the Upright Row Cause Shoulder Impingement?

So, what about the common complaint that the upright row causes shoulder impingement? Is there any validity that is causes this shoulder injury?

 

The answer is an unequivocal yes. Every time you perform a rep on this exercise, you are forced to internally rotate your humerus (upper arm bone). This happens every time your palm faces in toward your body. Then, when you bring your hands up your torso, you place your shoulder joint into an impingement zone. Over time the tendons in the shoulder joint will become worn down. The result can be irreversible damage to your shoulders.

 

The upright row exercise places secondary stress upon the biceps and the wrist.

 

As a result of the stress that it places upon the shoulder joint, we do not recommend doing the upright row with a barbell. As we have explained above, using dumbbells helps to alleviate some of the major problems associated with this exercise. However, even the dumbbell version of this exercise is not ideal in terms of shoulder health.

A Better Option?

The upright row is meant to preferentially target the trapezius muscles. The trapezius is a large triangle shaped muscle which covers the upper and mid part of your back. The trapezius has two functions; to bring the shoulder blades in together and to shrug the shoulders up and down. To be effective, an exercise must follow either of those two movements. The upright row does not. Bringing the arms up the body is not a function of the trapezius. Nor is it a function of the shoulders.

 

Contrary to what many people think, the upright row is not an effective shoulder exercise. To get wider shoulders you should do the lateral raise, preferably on a cable machine. This will also make your shoulders stronger.

 

If you want to effectively work your trapezius you need to do two exercises; one that brings the shoulder blades in together and another that shrugs the shoulders. The two best exercises t do that are:

 

  • Scapular Retraction
  • Shrugs

 

Scapular retraction involves sitting in the middle of a double cable pulley machine on a seat that is set back about 4 feet. Grab hold of the cables (they should be set at about hip height) and begin to retract the traps by bringing the shoulder blades in together. Your arms will bend slightly throughout the movement.

 

The best way to do shrugs to target the upper traps is with a cable machine with the cable set on the bottom level. This positioning allows for early phase loading and means that you can use a heavy weight without having to worry about the barbell or dumbbells rubbing against your body on every rep!

 

If you are working out at home, you can do these exercises with resistance bands.

Verdict

When it comes to the debate between the barbell and dumbbell version of the upright row exercise, the dumbbell is by far the better way to go. It does not lock you into a movement that is bad for your shoulders and allows you to work each side of the body unilaterally. However, for an even better option that specifically targets the trapezius muscles without harming your shoulder or wrists do the Scapular Retraction and Cable Shrug. Why not give them a try?

 

We have many exercise guides written by personal trainers to train your upper body and lower body so please check out further articles on our site. These can be easily done at your home gym, with or without home gym equipment.  We advise you of the best compound exercises, how you can strengthen your shoulders without doing the shoulder press, most effective exercise for calorie burn, effective isolation exercises, qualified nutrition tips and much more !

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Steve (Qualfied Personal Trainer and Nutritionist)


Steve Theunissen has qualified from the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) and is a certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist. He has over 30 years experience in fitness and nutrition and currently working with famous fitness professionals. He is currently living in New Zealand with is wife and daughter.

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