10 Best Upright Row Alternatives That Can Help Build A Stronger Upper Body

The upright row is one of the most popular strength-building exercises. But for many, it is a painful and injury-prone exercise. Try these alternative exercises for similar results

barbell upright row alternative exercises

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The upright row is one of the most popular strength-building exercises, and many swear by its capabilities. But for others, it is a painful and injury-prone exercise. Thus, many strength builders constantly look for upright row alternative exercises that can help them build back and shoulder strength without the risk of injury.

We will, in this article, discuss some of the best alternative exercises to the upright row. You will find many of them very beneficial, irrespective of whether you are a lover of the upright row exercise or one of those who prefer to stay away from it.

Combine these upright row alternatives with other upper body exercises to give you variety and spice out your workout and training sessions.

woman doing barbell upright row alternative exercise

Why upright row alternative exercises?

The upright row is a compound exercise that can help you to target muscles in your upper trapezius or traps, deltoids, or delts, biceps, and forearms. You will usually perform the exercise with a straight barbell or EZ curl bar

It is a pull exercise. You pull the weight towards your chin. Your upper arms stop at an angle that is more than 90 degrees with your body in order to hit your traps more effectively.

It is the go-to exercise for building upper back and shoulder strength for old-school strength builders.

It is also a good exercise for anyone who spends most of the day sitting.

But the upright row has the potential to cause injury. The exercise involves locking your hands into position. That forces your hands to rotate inside your shoulders during the movement, risking damaging a tendon.

While you can minimize the risk by mastering the technique and form, the potential is always there.

But there are quite a few upright row alternative exercises that can help you to target the same upper body and shoulder muscles much more safely. That is the theme of this article

Best upright row alternative exercises for building upper body strength

It is difficult to replace the upright row with like-for-like exercises due to its uniqueness. But the upright row alternatives we will discuss can help you to target your upper back and shoulder muscles with little or no stress on your shoulder joints.

Dumbbell Lateral Raise

dumbbell lateral raise - best upright row alternative exercise

The lateral raise, just like the barbel upright row, uses shoulder abduction. You raise your upper arm up and outward to your sides to target the muscles at the front and sides of your shoulders, the same muscles that you target with the upright row.

But there is no internal rotation with the lateral raise. That reduces any shoulder injury, making it a safe alternative to upright row to include in your training.

But bear in mind that there are movements at the elbows and shoulders when doing the upright row because it is a multi-joint exercise. But the lateral raise is only a single-joint exercise with movements at only the shoulder joints.

Thus, you should combine the lateral raise upright row alternative exercise with others on the list to enable you to achieve your goals.

Equipment Required: Dumbbells

Steps to follow

  • Stand with feet about a hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Your arms must face you while holding the dumbbells.
  • let the dumbbells stay in front of your thighs
  • Keep your torso upright and bend your elbows slightly
  • Raise your arms upward and sideways until your elbows are at shoulder height.
  • Hold for a second, lower, and return to your starting position

Cable Upright Row

cable shoulder exercises - upright cable row with straight bar

Don’t have a barbell, or are not a fan of the barbell upright row? Replace the barbell with a cable. You may also find that the cable upright row is a bit more shoulder- and wrist-friendly, especially if you use an EZ bar or, better still, a rope.

Steps to follow

Check out how to do the cable upright row here

Cable Face Pull

The cable face pull is another good upright row alternative exercise for targeting your middle traps, posterior delts, biceps, and rhomboids.

Unlike the upright row, which is a vertical pulling exercise, you usually pull the cable horizontally when doing the face pull, making it a horizontal pulling exercise.

But, you can change the angle to turn it into a vertical pulling exercise by changing the anchor point and fixing the cable or rope at the lower section of the cable machine.

You can alter the grips by using a neutral, underhand, or overhand grip. You can also change the training angle, and the height of the pulleys to enable you to target the muscles at different intensity levels.

Thus, the face pull is a versatile exercise. While it is not a like-for-like substitute, it is a good upright row alternative exercise to build shoulder strength with minimal risk.

Check out how to do the face pull exercise here

Dumbbell High Pull

dumbbell high pull - barbell upright right alternative

The dumbbell high pull is another good upright row alternative to include in your workout for your posterior and upper body muscles.

It is a highly explosive compound exercise that targets your muscles with intensive moves to help you build power and generate more strength from your body.

With the high pull exercises, you can build muscle in your back, shoulders, and arms. It can also help you build core and hip strength.

Other muscles you can target with the high pull include:

  • latissimus dorsi
  • rhomboids
  • trapezius
  • deltoids
  • triceps
  • biceps
  • glutes
  • abdominals
  • lower back
  • hamstrings
  • hip flexors
  • quadriceps

Combine the high pull with some of the upright row alternative exercises discussed here for a good workout

While it is an explosive move exercise, you can build upper body power and strength much better if you lower the dumbbells slowly.

Equipment Required: Dumbbells

Steps to follow

  • Using an overhand grip, grab a dumbbell in each hand
  • Stand upright with feet a hip apart. Look straight ahead, and not down, throughout the movement
  • Slightly bend forward and let the weight hand just below your knees
  • Engage your abs and forcefully raise the dumbbells as high as you can.
  • Lower the dumbbells slowly back to your starting position
  • Repeat 2-6 reps for a set, and 2-5 sets per session

Farmer’s Walk

The farmer’s walk, aka, the farmer’s carry, involves walking in a straight line for a specified distance while carrying some heavy equipment in each hand. It is a high core strength training exercise undertaken by athletes and strength builders.

It is also a full body strength and conditioning exercise that can benefit everybody in performing many everyday chores

The farmer’s walk is another good upright row alternative exercise for building power and strength in your upper back, shoulders, lats, biceps, and forearms. And you get your core, quads, abs, and glutes strengthened as well in the process.

You can either use dumbbells or kettlebells for the exercise, especially if you are a beginner.

For those looking for a challenge, using barbells can help you develop your body balancing capabilities.

Steps to follow

  • Place dumbbells of appropriate weight on the floor on either side of your body
  • Bend at the knees and hips and reach down to pick up the weights in each hand
  • Lift them and get into an upright position, keeping your spine neutral
  • Holding the weights firmly at your sides, stand tall. Ensure you keep your core tight and shoulders back
  • With eyes looking straight ahead, start walking forward without altering your pace.
  • Walk for the intended distance, stop, and put the weights down. Ensure your spine remain neutral and your core, tight while you do this
  • Take up to 3 minutes rest and repeat for the desired number of sets

Scapula Pull-Ups

The scapula pull-up is an upper body workout that targets the muscles in your back and shoulders to help you build upper body strength

It targets your lats, traps, serratus anterior, and the rhomboids. It is another upright row alternative exercise worth considering for your training regimen

You will need a pull-up bar for the exercise

Required equipment: Pull-up bar

Steps to follow

  • Reach out and grab the bar using a pronated grip or overhand grip. In other words, hold onto the bar with your palms facing you. Keep your grips at about a shoulder-width or more apart
  • Engage your core, and squeeze your quads and glutes. Ensure you keep your ribs down and your pelvis slightly tucked in.
  • From that hanging position, and without moving your arms, pull yourself up a few inches by pushing your shoulder blades down towards your waist, as if doing a reverse shrug. Ensure you don’t move your arms
  • Pause at the top of the movement and then slowly get back to your starting position
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps.

Dumbbell Scaption Raise

Dumbbell scaption raises primarily target your delts. It also engages your shoulder muscles

Compared to upright rows, you move your shoulders in a controlled motion and at a slower pace, using lighter weights when doing the scaption raises.

It is a safer upright row alternative that encourages the building of strength and stability in your shoulder joints

Required equipment: Dumbbells

Steps to follow

  • With palms facing in, grab a pair of dumbbells and stand upright. Hold the dumbbells by your sides. The ends of the dumbbells must point toward your front and back
  • Engage your core and lift the dumbbells in front of your body
  • Continue lifting till they are slightly above your shoulders
  • Slowly lower the weights back to your starting position in a controlled manner

Barbell Hang Clean

The hang clean activates several primary muscles, including the gluteus maximus, deltoids, quadriceps, hamstrings, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, soleus, and gastrocnemius.

You can build strength and power without much risk to your shoulders and back with the exercise.

Including the hang clean in your total body and strength training workouts can improve your posture and your performance in many day-to-day activities. It is another good upright row alternative exercise to include in your training

Elevated Plank Row

The elevated plank row is an upright row alternative exercise that can help you target your back and core muscles.

You will need a bench and dumbbells for the exercise.

If you are yet to acquire a set of dumbbells or a weight bench for your home gym, then, we recommend checking the Adjustable dumbbells and adjustable weight bench from Bowflex. They are some of the best on the market and should serve you well for many years.

Equipment Required: Dumbbellweight bench

Steps to follow

  • Position the dumbbell on one side of the weight bench where you can easily reach it.
  • Get into the plank pose by supporting your weight on one forearm on the bench
  • Grab the dumbbell with your free arm.
  • Squeeze your back, glutes, and core muscles to row the weight up until it reaches your ribcage.
  • Pause for about 30 seconds and return the dumbbell to its starting position
  • Ensure you keep squeezing your back, glutes, and core muscles. Doing so will help to keep you in the pose without losing your balance
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps
  • Switch your arms and go through the movement on the other side of your body.


The TRX YTW is a great bodyweight upright row alternative exercise as it targets similar muscle groups as the barbell row.

The YTW is a 3-in-1 exercise that strengthens your back and traps, without putting stress on your shoulders.

Aside from strengthening your shoulders and improving their mobility and health, it can help correct poor posture. as well.

You will need TRX Suspension Trainers, or similar, for the exercises

Equipment Required: TRX Suspension Trainer

Check here for details of how to do the TRX YTW exercises

Final words from LiveLIfe

The barbell upright row is one of the best exercises for building upper body power and strength. But it is not for everybody. There are also some high risk and injury factors associated with the exercise

But don’t despair. The upright row alternative exercises we have identified here are more than capable of helping you achieve your upper body building goals.

You may have to combine some of them to help you get the best results. But you can do them with the knowledge that your risk of injury and strain on your shoulders are eliminated or much reduced.

We hope some of the best upright row alternative exercises we’ve identified can put you on the path to success


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