The 10 Best Barbell Upright Row Alternatives (2022)


Barbell Upright Row Alternatives

The Barbell Upright Row is an extremely popular supplemental exercise for shoulder development. It’s easy to learn, beginner-friendly and is one of the most effective exercises for focusing on the anterior deltoid.

However, sometimes you may find yourself needing an alternative for Barbell Upright Row.

Maybe you don’t have a barbell or maybe you’re just looking to add some variety to your workouts (or maybe Barbell Upright Rows bother your shoulders).

Whatever the reason, if you’re looking for an exercise to substitute for Barbell Upright Rows then you’re in the right place. I’m about to share with you 10 of my favorite Barbell Upright Row alternatives including a few different upright row variations and lifts using different equipment.


Alternatives for Barbell Upright Row


The first few alternatives I have listed are upright row variations using different pieces of equipment. If you’re really wanting to upright row, but you don’t have a barbell, check these out first.

The next few alternatives are Olympic lift variations that heavily emphasize upper trap and shoulder development. They’re a bit more advanced, but they also come with a ton of extra benefits.

Finally, the last few alternatives are simpler exercises that also do a good job of targeting the shoulders and upper back. If you’re looking for a little variety in your workout program, one of these movements may be just what you’re looking for.


Dumbbell Upright Row


Dumbbell Upright Rows

The simplest upright row alternative is to switch from a barbell to dumbbells. Dumbbell Upright Rows allow much more variance in the angle of the wrists (making it more comfortable) which is why many lifters prefer the dumbbell variation for upright rows.

Equipment Needed

  • Dumbbells

Muscles Worked

  • Trapezius, Shoulders and Biceps

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Grab two dumbbells and start with them at arm’s length in front of the thighs, palms toward the body.
  • Flex knees slightly and stand upright with good posture.
  • Pull the dumbbells upward along the abdomen and chest toward the chin.
  • At the top, the elbow should be higher than the wrist, and above the shoulders.
  • Lower the bar dumbbells and under control to the front of the thighs.
  • Do not ‘jerk’ or ‘rock’ the weight up and keep the dumbbells close to the torso thoughout.

Coaching Points

The biggest mistake I see, by far, with Dumbbell Upright Rows is swinging way too much to lift the weight.

A little swing is okay if you’re trying to grind out the last rep or two of a set, however, if you’re having to rock your torso for every rep then the weight is too heavy. Grab some lighter dumbbells and use proper form.


Cable Upright Row


Cable Upright Rows

If you have access to a cable machine it can add some great variety to your upright rows.

Equipment Needed

  • Cable Machine

Muscles Worked

  • Trapezius, Shoulders and Biceps

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Attach a straight handle* to a cable machine and lower the attachment pin to the bottom of the beam.
  • Grab the handle with an overhand grip and stand tall, handle starting right in front of the thighs.
  • Flex knees slightly and stand upright with good posture.
  • Pull the cable handle upward along the abdomen and chest toward the chin.
  • At the top, the elbow should be higher than the wrist, and above the shoulders.
  • Lower the handle under control back to the front of the thighs.
  • Do not ‘jerk’ or ‘rock’ the weight up and keep the handle close to the torso throughout.

Coaching Points

*You can use multiple different attachments other than a straight handle. The Rope Attachment is another popular attachment for Cable Upright Rows.


Band Upright Row


Resistance Band Upright Row

Short on equipment? Use a resistance band for your upright rows. Resistance bands may not be as good at building strength, but they’re easy to take with you on the road when traveling. In those situations, Band Upright Rows are a great addition to a band workout.

Equipment Needed

  • Resistance Band

Muscles Worked

  • Trapezius, Shoulders and Biceps

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Grab a resistance band, slight a foot inside and stand on it*.
  • Place your hands on the opposite side of the band about six inches apart with an overhand grip.
  • Flex knees slightly and stand upright with good posture.
  • Pull the band upward along the abdomen and chest toward the chin.
  • At the top, the elbows should be higher than the wrist, and above the shoulders.
  • Lower the band under control, hands back to the front of the thighs.
  • Repeat for the designated number of reps.

Coaching Points

*How you stand on the band is a great way to adjust the overall difficulty of the movement.

Standing on the band with one foot will make Band Upright Rows the easiest. Standing on the band with two feet will make the exercise harder and the wider you place your feet will continue to increase the tension and make them more challenging.


Hang Muscle Snatch


The Hang Muscle Snatch is an Olympic lift variation that puts a heavy emphasis on the upper back and shoulders. It is more complex than the previous movements, but it comes with a ton of additional benefits if you can learn the technique.

Equipment Needed

  • Barbell
  • Bumper Plates

Muscles Worked

  • Hang Muscle Snatch is a total body movement. The Legs, Core, Back and Shoulders all play a part.

Instructions

  • Using a snatch grip (hands outside the snatch rings), pick up the bar and stand tall.
  • Pull the shoulder blades back and engage the lats to lock the back in the place.
  • Put a slight bend in the knee and hinge forward by pushing the hips back and letting the bar slide down the thigh.
  • Stop once the bar reaches the bottom of the thigh, just above the knee. Shoulders should be above or slightly in front of the bar.
  • Now, explosively extend the hips and pull the bar high once triple extension of the hips, knees and ankles has been achieved.
  • Finish the movement by rotating the hands above the elbow.
  • The finishing position should be with the lifter fully extended. This is much different than most other variations of the snatch where the lifter catches in a full or quarter squat.

Coaching Points

Once the weight gets heavy enough, the natural adjustment of the lifter will be to want to bend the legs to dip slightly under the bar in order to get full arm extension. Resist this urge to want to dip the legs. If the lift isn’t possible without bending then lower the weight.


Hang Snatch High Pulls


Hang Snatch High Pull (1)

Hang Snatch High Pulls are another Olympic lifting variation that eliminates the overhead catch position and only focuses on the hip drive and high pull. You can think of this movement as the power version of an upright row alternative.

Equipment Needed

  • Barbell
  • Bumper Plates

Muscles Worked

  • Hang Muscle High Pulls is a total body movement. The Legs, Core, Back and Shoulders all play a part.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Start with feet hip width apart, toes straight ahead or just slightly pointed out.
  • Grip is wide, index finger on the snatch ring is a good starting point for most lifters – adjust as needed. Hook grip is strongly recommended although ultimately optional.
  • Using your legs with a good flat back, pick the bar off the floor into a standing position.
  • From here, set the back by squeezing the shoulder blades together and engaging the lats.
  • Brace the core.
  • Start with a slight knee bend and then hinge forward by pushing the hips back and allowing the shoulders to come either over the bar or even slightly in the front of the bar. The barbell should now be resting about mid-thigh.
  • You are now in the proper starting position for a hang snatch high pull.
  • Now, aggressively extend the hips and drive the feet through the floor. The focus is on getting complete triple extension of the hips, knees and ankles.
  • The shoulders will drive up and slightly behind the hips. This will cause the bar to strike the legs on the upper thigh.
  • As soon as full extension is reached, violently shrug the shoulders and begin pulling the bar, letting the elbows break out to the side. Pull the bar as high as possible and then guide the bar back towards the hips.
  • Finish the rep by catching the bar with the upper thigh or releasing the bar and letting it fall to the floor.

Coaching Points

The most common mistake I see with athletes usually begins with having too much weight on the bar. Then, instead of extending and pulling the bar high to the chest – they will ‘dive bomb’ their chest down towards the bar.


Dumbbell Single Arm Snatch


Single Arm DB Muscle Snatch

This snatch variation switches out the barbell in favor of a dumbbell. It’s a slightly more beginner-friendly version of the Snatch. However, the Dumbbell Single Arm Snatch is still extremely effective at developing power and explosiveness in addition to building the upper back and shoulders.

Equipment Needed

  • Dumbbell

Muscles Worked

  • Single Arm Snatch is a total body movement. The Legs, Core, Back and Shoulders all play a part.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Grab a dumbbell and stand with feet about shoulder-width apart.
  • Put a slight bend in the knee, brace the core and set the back – shoulder blades pulled back, lats engaged, chest out.
  • Hinge forward by pushing the hips back and let the dumbbell slide down right in between the knees, coming at a stop just below the knee.
  • You are now in the ‘power position’.
  • From here, drive the feet through the floor and aggressively extend the hips, driving the shoulders up and slightly back.
  • As you reach triple extension of the hips, knees and ankles – use a quick, powerful shrug and allow the elbow to break and begin the pull with the arm.
  • Keep the dumbbell close to the body as it travels up.
  • Once the dumbbell reaches the highest point of the pull, rotate at the elbow to catch the dumbbell overhead while simultaneously dropping the hips into a quarter squat and shift the feet slightly out.
  • Finish the rep by standing tall and lowering the dumbbell down to the shoulder first and then back to the starting position under control.
  • Repeat until all reps are completed and then switch arms.

Coaching Points

The two biggest mistakes that I see with Single Arm Snatches are not keeping the dumbbell close to the body on the way up and letting the dumbbell ‘yank’ the shoulder down as it comes back to the starting point.

The dumbbell should travel close to the body all the up until it gets about head height, then rotate the elbow, drop the hips and catch. Don’t allow it to swing forward out away from the body.

The second technique flaw is not staying braced through the return of the dumbbell to the starting position, oftentimes from being in too big of a hurry to knock out reps. Letting the dumbbell, especially the heavier you get, yank the shoulder down at the bottom of the rep is asking for trouble.


Dumbbell Lateral Raise


Dumbbell Lateral Raise

Most lifters know of the Dumbbell Lateral Raise as a shoulder exercise that focuses on the Medial Delts. Fewer realize that they also work the upper trapezius as well, especially if you raise the dumbbells a little higher than the shoulders at the top of the range of motion.

Equipment Needed

  • Dumbbells

Muscles Worked

  • Shoulders (Medial Delt) and Upper Trapezius

Instructions

  • Hold dumbbells-palm in, arms straight down at sides.
  • Raise dumbbells in semicircular motion slightly above shoulder height tilting the head of the dumbbell down.
  • Slight pause, then lower to starting position under control.
  • Keep your arms straight with just a slight bend in the elbow.
  • Use the same path to continue repeated reps.
  • Exhale up, inhale down.

Coaching Points

To keep the focus on the medial delt, make sure to keep your palms down at the top of the movement. Many lifters like to pull back, instead of lift straight out to the sides, which brings the stronger muscles of the upper back into play.

Also, always start the movement at the side of the thigh. Bringing the dumbbells in front of the body allows for more of a momentum swing and takes away from the stress placed on the delts.


Trap Bar Shrugs


Shrugs are one of the most effective exercises at developing strong traps. Any version of shrugs – barbell, dumbbell – would be a good upright row alternative, but my favorite is the Trap Bar Shrug.

Equipment Needed

  • Trap Bar (or Hex Bar as they’re also known)
  • Weight Plates (either Bumper Plates or Steel Plates will work fine)

Muscles Worked

  • Trapezius

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Place feet hip-width apart, brace the core and stand tall with the bar
  • Now shrug up, visualizing touching your traps to your ears.
  • Do NOT ‘roll’ the shoulders. Shrug straight up and down.
  • Control the weight back down to the starting position and repeat.

Coaching Points

Shrugs already have a short range of motion. Don’t shorten the range of motion even further by adding more weight than you can properly lift. (A mistake I see quite often)

Elevating a trap bar up onto lifting blocks, or on the rack if your trap bar is capable, will make the lift much easier to get set up for. Otherwise you’ll need to pick the bar up off the floor for each set which can start to be a challenge with heavier weight.

PRO TIP: Hex Bars can vary a good bit in weight, keep this in mind if you’re loading a hex bar that you don’t normally work with.


Band Face Pulls


Band Face Pull

Band Face Pulls are a simple yet effective upright row alternative utilizing a resistance band.

Equipment Needed

  • Resistance Band
  • Something sturdy to anchor the band to (Squat Rack is perfect for this)

Muscles Worked

  • Trapezius and Shoulders (especially the rear delt)

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Loop a resistance band around the vertical beam of a squat rack at shoulder height.
  • Grab the band with an overhand grip, hands roughly 3 inches apart.
  • Stand far enough away from the rack to get tension on the band.
  • Set feet shoulder-width apart, stand tall and brace the core.
  • Pull the band directly towards the chin.
  • Control the band back to the starting position and repeat.

Coaching Points

The key to Band Face Pulls is figuring out the proper distance away from the rack to stand. This will depend upon your strength and the strength of the band you are using. You want to be far enough away from the rack to create good resistance, but not so far that you can’t complete the reps with good form.

Don’t rush. This is an exercise that it’s easy to speed through it and just go through the motions. Focus on each rep and the contraction at the top of the rep.


Farmer’s Walk


The final Barbell Upright Row alternative is Farmer’s Walk. This is probably the most unique option on the list. If you want to really shake up your shoulder work, consider incorporating in some Farmer’s Walks.

Equipment Needed

Farmers Walk Bars
You definitely do not need specialty bars to do Farmer’s Walks, but if you’re ever in a Strongman Gym I highly recommend giving them a try!
  • 1 kettlebell or dumbbell if doing single arm carries
  • 2 kettlebells or dumbbells if doing both arms
  • A trap bar is also an awesome implement for farmer’s walks

FYI: There are also very-specific pieces of equipment (shown above) designed almost solely for Farmer’s Walks. If you ever find yourself in a Strongman Gym, you may run into some of these. They can be a blast to train with.

Step-By-Step Instructions

  • For the sake of these instructions, I am going to assume you are carrying 2 kettlebells or dumbbells. The single arm and trap bar options are essentially the same movement with slightly different benefits. I will talk more about these options in the coaching points
  • With the kettlebells at your side, hinge at the waist and bend at the knee until you can pick them up. Remember to always lift with a nice flat back, neutral spine, and a tight core.
  • Hold the kettlebells slightly away from your sides.
  • Keep the core tight, shoulder blades back, and posture up tall.
  • Walk with extreme control. Generally, I prescribe walking 20 yards out and 20 yards back for a set but longer distances are fine as long as the form remains intact.
  • Focus on crushing the handles with your grip. Avoid any trunk deviation side to side or front to back. Try to walk as controlled as you possibly can.

Coaching Points

Choosing an appropriate weight is critical here. The focus is to keep the core tight and perfect posture. So if you go too heavy and your form deteriorates, you won’t get the full benefit of the exercise and may hurt yourself.

You also don’t want to go so heavy that you can’t hold the dumbbells slightly away from your sides. The reason this is important, is you don’t want your legs constantly bumping into the weight as you walk.

Final Thoughts

The Barbell Upright Row is an excellent exercise for developing strong shoulders, but sometimes upright rows just aren’t an option. You may not have the proper equipment available to you or at other times you might just be looking to add some variety to your shoulder routine.

In these situations, you’ll need an upright row alternative and I hope that at least one of the exercises I’ve listed here fits what you were looking for.

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Ryan Horton

Horton Barbell was created by Ryan Horton who has served as a Sports Performance Coach for almost 20 years. My mission is to create a training resource to help as many coaches and athletes as possible maximize athletic potential.

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