This is an area of huge controversy in the fitness and bodybuilding world.
Are upright rows bad for your shoulders?
The answer is not a simple yes or no, because like most things it depends on certain variables.
Since we are working with people of all exercise backgrounds and lifestyles, it’s hard to say that one thing is right for everyone. All of our clients are different in some way, so our training approach to each client should mirror that.
There are a few things to consider before determining if upright rows are safe for your client.
This exercise is defended as a good developer of upper traps, deltoids, and biceps. To it’s credit, it does activate a lot of different muscles groups. Pairing a squat and kettlebell upright row can be a metabolically demanding compound movement.
Well then what’s the issue?
Even if it’s a good exercise, doesn’t always make it a good exercise for your client!
Proper form and arthrokinematics (joint motion) must be considered here. More on this below.
Two things must be in place for the upright row to be a safe and effective exercise
This motion requires the humerus to glide inferiorly and the scapula to upwardly rotate. These two things MUST happen, or else the space between your humerus and acromion (part of your scapula) becomes too small.
This is how shoulder impingement develops.
It is very common for people to lack inferior gliding of the humerus. Due to rounded shoulder posture, many people lack scapular upward rotation as well.
Now add lots of bench pressing on top of that and you have a very poorly positioned shoulder joint.
To prescribe upright rows without addressing these movement restrictions first would be irresponsible. Adding weight to an already improper movement pattern makes the risk of injury even higher.
If your client has poor posture and slouches when they sit, please consider not prescribing them upright rows.
Until their posture and joint motion is improved, this exercise would only further predispose them to impingement.
Ultimately, it comes down to risk vs reward. Having good posture and good shoulder mechanics is unfortunately rare, therefore the risk to our client’s shoulders is high.
Since there are safer alternatives to the upright row, that are still very effective, I recommend starting with those.
Start with postural coaching and self myofascial release of pecs, lats, etc.
Then, focus on activation of middle and lower traps to enhance scapular upward rotation. This can be done with the I,Y,T exercise and cable scapular depressions.
Once your client’s shoulder is moving properly, prescribe cable face pulls and dumbbell scaption. This will engage traps, deltoids, and biceps but with less risk of shoulder impingement.
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