‘Bad’ Exercises: Are Upright Rows Dangerous?

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With few exceptions, there are no such things as “bad” exercises – only improperly performed exercises.

Q: I was told by the trainer in my gym that I shouldn’t do upright rows. He said they are dangerous because they put excessive pressure on the shoulder joint. Any truth to this?

A:

None whatsoever. With few exceptions (behind-the-neck presses and pulldowns come to mind), there are no such things as “bad” exercises – only improperly performed exercises. The perceived problem with the upright row is the fact that all too often, a trainee lifts the arms past shoulder level during performance. This combination of abduction and internal rotation going past 90 degrees (i.e., arms parallel to the ground) causes the greater tubercle of the humerus (upper arm bone) to approach the acromion process (part of the shoulder blade), which tends to impinge on the supraspinatus tendon and long head of the biceps. This can result in damage to the connective tissue in the shoulder region and potentially cause a debilitating rotator cuff injury. Provided the upright row is done correctly, however, it can be a great exercise for developing the shoulder muscles, particularly the medial head of the deltoids. Given its multijoint nature, it provides a viable alternative and/or complement to the shoulder press (which is more of a front delt movement) and can really help to produce a shapely, tapered look to your physique that creates the illusion of a smaller waist.

While the upright row is often performed with barbells and/or dumbbells, I recommend using cables for the exercise. Cables allow tension to be generated throughout the complete range of movement, maximizing stimulation of the muscle complex. Here is a description of the move: Begin by grasping the ends of a rope that is attached to a low-cable pulley apparatus. Allow your arms to hang down from your shoulders and assume a comfortable stance with your knees slightly bent. Slowly pull the rope upward along the line of your body until your upper arms approach shoulder level, keeping your elbows higher than your wrists at all times. Contract your delts and then slowly lower the bar along the same path back to the start position.

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