Barbell Upright Row Alternatives

The 10 Best Barbell Upright Row Alternatives (2023)

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).

Well, I’ve been a College Strength Coach for two decades and I’m about to share with you 10 of my favorite Barbell Upright Row alternatives – no matter the reason you need one.

Upright Row Alternatives

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

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.

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 traditional upright row.

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.

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.

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.


  • Begin with a barbell, holding it with a wide grip, typically where you would grip for a snatch.
  • Stand upright, keeping your feet hip-width apart, with the bar hanging at waist level.
  • Start the movement with a slight dip by bending your knees, then aggressively extend the hips, knees, and ankles.
  • As the bar travels upward, quickly shrug your shoulders and begin pulling with your arms.
  • Continue pulling the bar overhead, extending your arms fully.
  • Finish with the barbell locked out overhead in a wide grip and your arms straight.

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.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Begin by holding a barbell with a wide, overhand grip typical for snatches. Stand with feet hip-width apart.
  • The bar should start at about mid-thigh. Your knees should be slightly bent, hips back, and back straight.
  • Start the movement by extending your hips and knees, similar to a jump, while keeping the bar close to your body.
  • As your body reaches full extension (ankles, knees, hips), continue the momentum to shrug your shoulders forcefully. The barbell should be traveling upwards due to the power generated from your lower body.
  • Immediately after the shrug, bend your elbows to pull the bar up as high as possible. The elbows should go high and to the sides.
  • The bar should stay close to your body throughout the movement. It should almost graze your shirt.

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.

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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.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, holding the dumbbell in one hand, positioned between your legs.
  • Begin with a slight bend in the knees and hinge at the hips, lowering the dumbbell towards the ground.
  • Powerfully extend your hips and knees, pulling the dumbbell upwards in a straight line.
  • As the dumbbell ascends, begin to pull your elbow underneath it.
  • Fully extend your arm overhead, catching the dumbbell in a locked-out position.
  • Control the dumbbell back to the starting position, maintaining good posture.

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.


  • 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.
  • 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 Lateral Raise. 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.

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.

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 that will hit many of the same muscle groups.

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 and squeeze the shoulder blades together.
  • Control the band back to the starting position.

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.

Farmer’s Walk

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!

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.

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.
  • 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.

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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.

It could be as simple as switching equipment and doing a Dumbbell Upright Row or it might mean going “outside the box” and incorporating a Farmer’s Walk.

Whatever the case may be, I hope that at least one of the exercises I’ve listed here fits what you were looking for.

Related Posts

The Best Lateral Raise Alternatives

Face Pull Alternatives That Work the Same Muscle Groups

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