Saturday, June 22, 2013

Analysing the Upright Row. By Vic Goyaram

Analysing the Upright Row
Researched & Composed by Vic Goyaram

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The Upright row is a very common exercise in trapezius training routines along with shrug variations. It is most commonly performed with a barbell using a narrow grip and this variant has featured in my shoulder routine for quite a long time. However, this exercise has received a lot of criticism in terms of safety and effectiveness. Allow me share my experience with you.

Analysis of Effectiveness and Safety
The narrow-grip upright row: an exercise of limited benefits
Let's go straight to the point: the narrow grip upright row is not an effective movement for the traps.  The only trap involvement of the traps in this exercise is a small incidental shrug as you pull the barbell up. Most of the movement comes from the arms and a slight bit of deltoids. I invite you to check the video of trusted exercise expert, Doug Brignole on this topic:

In terms of safety, a big concern for narrow grip upright rows is the possibility of shoulder impingement because  the movement requires pulling the weight above shoulder level with your arms in an internally rotated position. Therefore, the risk-to-benefit ratio is quite high. Some people can get away with it while, in others, it can really aggravate any existing impingement in the shoulders. I personally do not like the narrow grip upright row because it gives me more pain in my shoulders than a pump in my traps. I am also sure that the day following heavy narrow grip rows some of you also felt soreness in the biceps and brachialis.

A better option: the wide grip upright row
The conventional upright row can be modified to reduce the risk of shoulder impingement. A good variation is the wide grip upright row.  Not only is it easier on the shoulder joints but it is a great way to work the lateral head of the deltoids to a greater extent because it allows the elbows to flare out to the sides as you pull the barbell up.
The wide grip upright row variation which I prefer
The effectiveness of the wide grip upright row has been backed by a lot of trainers and bodybuilders. As an icing on the cake, scientific studies also provide support to this exercise. In a very recent study by scientists from the University of Memphis in Tennessee (McAllister et al., 2013) showed that increasing the grip width increases the involvement of the lateral deltoid and decreases the involvement of the biceps. In fact, when you look at the movement closely you will see that it mimics a side lateral raise in that the elbows move out to the sides except that the position of the hands is different. The traps also get worked with the wide grip upright row.

Execution tips
Stand upright and grab a barbell with a pronated grip. Your foot stance should be approximately shoulder width and your grip on the barbell should be wide enough for your hands to clear your thighs.  From personal observation, there are a number of variations of the barbell wide grip upright row, dependent on how wide you grip the bar. In the first variation performed by Arnold below he takes a rather medium grip such that in the top position the barbell would be at the upper chest level. Note also the position of the forearms which are nearly parallel to the floor. I have evaluated this version, having myself an impingement in my left shoulder, and found it to be still uneasy on my shoulders. The arm biceps/ forearm involvement is also there. This led me to try (and later adopt) the second variation.
Variation #1: Note the grip width and thus the position of (a) the bar, (b) the hands and (c) the  forearms at the top of the movement
In the second variation, a wider grip is used such that the bar can only be raised to the lower chest level only and the forearms are slightly perpendicular to the floor. I find this variation the easiest on my joints and the hardest on my deltoids. I must also add that it is very important to use the arms as hooks only and focus on pulling with the deltoids.
Variation #2 shown by Hidetada Yamagishi
Wide grip uprights works well in a superset with side lateral raises to fry the side deltoids. 
Jim Cordova uses dumbbells and works one arm at a time. Try to superset this with one arm side laterals to force your shoulders to grow!
Taking care of the traps
In the second variation, a wider grip is used such that the bar can only be raised to the lower chest level only and the forearms are slightly perpendicular to the floor. I find this variation the easiest on my joints and the hardest on my deltoids. Here are some articles that cover trap training on this website:
Main trap article: Beefing the Traps
Quick tips: Face pulls 
Quick tips: Shrug Technique

Take-home message
  • The conventional narrow grip upright row is potentially dangerous for the shoulders and is also not an effective exercise for the traps.
  • Widen the grip and reap the benefits on your side delts.
  •  Do shrugs for the traps. They are built for that.
Further reading on shoulder training
Having weak shoulders I have done a lot of reading and research on shoulder training. This explains that I have covered shoulder training in quite a bit of detail here on this website. Check the links below:

McAllister MJ, Schilling BK, Hammond KG, Weiss LW, Farney TM. Effect of grip width on electromyographic activity during the upright row. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Jan;27(1):181-7.
Motivation to hit the delts and traps hard. Picture by Dyaus Photography

©,2014 Veeraj Goyaram, Bodybuilding Mauritius. Any reprinting in any type of media is prohibited.
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