How to Do Barbell Upright Row: Muscles Worked & Proper Form

Barbell Upright Row exercise technique

Muscles Worked in Barbell Upright Row

Muscles worked in barbell upright row

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Do Barbell Upright Row

  1. Grip the bar with an overhand grip, slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Pull the bar straight up until it is at the level of your chin.
  3. With control, lower the bar back to the starting position.

Text and graphics from the StrengthLog app.

Introduction to the Barbell Upright Row

The barbell upright row is a good exercise for targeting your mid-delts. The exercise has a bad rep for causing shoulder pain from impinging your shoulders at the top of the movement. However, you can mitigate the risk of shoulder pain by starting with light weights and a low number of sets and by avoiding elevating your upper arms above shoulder height at the top of the movement.1

Which Muscles Does the Barbell Upright Row Work?

The barbell upright row is a shoulder exercise that primarily targets your lateral deltoids and secondary your front deltoids and trapezius.

Experiment with grip width to find what position suits you the best.

Muscles worked in barbell upright row

Benefits of the Barbell Upright Row

  • Building bigger and boulder shoulders. The barbell upright row is good for developing shoulder muscles, especially lateral delts. Increasing their mass will contribute to the roundness of the shoulders.

Barbell Upright Row: Proper Form & Technique

Upright row starting position
Barbell upright row starting position
Upright row top position
Barbell upright row top position


Make sure to stand about shoulder-width apart and keep an upright position. Keep a light tension in your core and chest up. The grip on the barbell should be slightly narrower than shoulder-width, with palms facing your body.


Lift the barbell straight up, and keep it close to your body. Aim to bring it up to your chin. If you do feel any discomfort in your shoulder joints, you can try to revert the movement earlier, before your upper arms are above shoulder height.

Make sure to keep the elbows directly out to the sides. Ensure to lift with your shoulders and traps, not your arms or wrists.

Common Mistakes in the Barbell Upright Row

  • Not keeping proper form. By lifting the weight with your wrists and not keeping your elbows out, you’ll move the work from the targeted muscles and the exercise will be less effective.
  • Gripping the bar too wide. Your hands should be closer than shoulder-width apart. If you grip the bar too wide it will reduce the range of motion and shift the focus away from the targeted muscles.

Barbell Upright Row Variations and Alternatives

  1. Cable Upright Row
  2. Monkey Row
  3. Dumbbell Lateral Raise

1. Cable Upright Row

By doing the upright row in a cable machine instead of using a barbell, you could get a more natural movement pattern thanks to the constant tension provided by the cable machine. So if you feel like the barbell upright row might be a bit hard on your shoulder joints, you might want to give the cable version a go.

2. Monkey Row

The monkey row is a similar exercise as the barbell upright row, but involves a wider grip and a more outward pull. This exercise might feel a bit easier on your shoulder joints than the barbell upright row.

3. Dumbbell Lateral Raise

The dumbbell lateral raise is a more isolating exercise, which focuses more directly on the lateral deltoids. The upright row involves more muscles, but if you find it hard to perform it, or finding muscle contact with your lateral delts, the lateral raise might be a good alternative.

How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do in the Barbell Upright Row?

he number of reps that you should train varies depending on your goals, this goes for all exercises.

  • For muscle growth, around 6–15 reps per set are something to aim for.
  • For strength, around 3–8 reps per set are good.

There are no clear-cut lines between these two goals, however. Training in the “muscle growth range” will still increase your strength, and training in the “strength range” will still cause your muscles to grow. It’s just a matter of what you are emphasizing.

Read More: How Many Reps to Build Muscle vs. Strength?

But specifically, the barbell upright row is not typically used as a primary strength-building exercise for the shoulders. Our recommendation is to perform bigger compound exercises, like the overhead press, for that purpose.

The upright is an isolation exercise that lends itself better to moderate rep ranges and lighter weights with a controlled movement in this case.

Regarding how many sets you should do, that depends more on your training background and your capabilities. How much shoulder work are you used to doing, and how much does it take for you to stimulate growth?

It also depends on how many workouts you do per week. You can tolerate (and grow from) a higher training volume if you distribute it over more workouts.

Read more: How Many Sets per Muscle Group per Week?

Workouts that Include the Barbell Upright Row

By tracking your workouts in our workout log app, you can easily see how many reps you did the last time you worked out, and try to improve in your next workout.

Download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below:

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  1. Strength and Conditioning Journal 33(5):p 25-28, October 2011. The Upright Row: Implications for Preventing Subacromial Impingement.