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My weekly shoulder workouts used to rely on upright rows. This helped my side delts become very striated. However, unrecognized form errors started causing wrist pain so I stopped doing them and my shoulder gains regressed.
Upright rows are enough for building the side delts as they are responsible for lifting the upper arms out and up. This is the main action that occurs throughout the exercise, so these muscles are heavily stimulated.
Below I’ll discuss why upright rows are good for the side delts, along with how you can modify them to prevent joint pain and maximize muscle engagement.
Table of Contents
Why Upright Rows Are Beneficial for Your Side Delts
The side delts control a movement of the shoulder joints known as shoulder abduction. This is the motion that occurs during the upward phase of upright rows as the arms move away from the sides of the waist.
Because the side delts lift the weight against gravity, they are heavily stimulated. Research has compared different exercises to see which types engage the side delts effectively. The exercise that came out on top was the lateral raise, which mainly involves abduction.
Although upright rows weren’t tested in the study, they do follow a similar movement pattern.
However, some people struggle with their biceps and traps controlling the upright row. This is because it is a multi-joint movement, with two sets of joints working to perform each rep. The two contributors are the shoulders and elbows.
Here’s a look at the functions being performed by each main muscle during the upright row:
|Muscles Involved in Upright Rows||Muscle Function During the Upright Row|
|Side Delts||Shoulder Abduction|
|Upper Trapezius||Scapular Elevation|
|Biceps Brachii||Elbow Flexion|
The flexion, or bending of the elbows as you pull engages the biceps. The upward arm movement often leads to shrugging the shoulder blades, which can over-activate the traps.
Lifting the elbows out and then up while keeping the arms close to the body can help shift emphasis onto the delts. However, if you have broad shoulders and long upper arms you may find upright rows hard to perform without hurting the rotator cuffs.
On the other hand, people with narrow shoulders and shorter arms may find this exercise easier to perform through a full-range motion while avoiding shoulder impingement.
Try using a wider grip and stopping the movement once your upper arms are parallel with the floor if you feel discomfort. The downside of cutting the range of motion like this is that the side delt fibers won’t fully contract.
In general, upright rows aren’t necessary for developing the side delts but are effective when performed right. Opting for isolation exercises like lateral raises may be more optimal depending on how well you’re able to engage the delts without the biceps or traps completely taking over.
Looking to maximize your side delt growth? Check out my article explaining how many exercises you should focus on per workout.
Of course, if you have joint pain or clicking while performing them, stop and adjust accordingly. You’ll see how to modify the form for safer execution and greater side delt involvement below.
How To Target the Side Delts With Upright Rows
If you’re feeling upright rows in your traps, but not your side delts there are a few adjustments to try. These will save your shoulder and wrist joints, while also maximizing tension on the side delts instead of the upper back.
To target your side delts with upright rows, position your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width and hold the resistance tight to your body. Also, focus on pulling your elbows out and up to move the weight.
Performing upright rows this way accentuates shoulder abduction, in turn, putting consistent tension on the side delts. Let’s take a deeper look at each adjustment.
1. Grip the Handles Wider Than Shoulder Width
Using a wider grip provides space for the bones in the shoulder joint to move more freely. This is useful if you have broad shoulders and long arms as you may be more susceptible to shoulder impingement when using a close grip.
- Assume an overhand grip on the handles with your hands 1.5x wider than shoulder width.
- Try spreading your hand’s shoulder width apart if 1.5x feels uncomfortable.
2. Keep the Resistance Tight to Your Body
The dumbbells or barbell should move straight up and down and parallel with your upper body. This puts the side delts directly in the line of pull for less front delt recruitment and less pulling tension on the traps.
- Stand with your chest tall, squeeze your glutes and core, and slightly pull your shoulder blades back and down.
3. Pull Your Elbows Out and Up
Using the elbows to control the movement helps mitigate bicep involvement and prevent wrist pain.
- Bringing your hands equal to or slightly above your elbows at the top helps prevent shoulder joint compression.
- Pull as high as you can comfortably, the higher you pull the better stimulus you’ll get. However, I tend to feel wrist and shoulder impingement if I pull the bar above shoulder height.
Upright Row Mistakes That Limit Side Delt Involvement
These are common mistakes with fixes when performing upright rows intended for side delt isolation.
- Shrugging the shoulder blades towards your ears causes the traps to take over.
- Reduce the weight and do higher reps of 12-15, focusing on leading with your elbows.
- Going too heavy often leads to the biceps becoming overly involved.
- An empty barbell for high reps is enough to challenge the side delts in most trainees.
- Try actively flexing your triceps by straightening your elbows at the bottom and then initiate each pull by leading with the elbows.
- This may prevent the biceps from flexing as you initiate the pull.
- Lowering the weight too fast.
- Maintain tension on the side delts by lowering under control while counting “thousand one, thousand two, thousand three” in your head.
- Gripping with the hands too close together.
- EMG research shows the side delts are most active with wider grips.
- This reduces bicep involvement and shoulder impingement risk.
- 1.5x shoulder width is a good starting point.
When To Train Your Side Delts With Upright Rows
Upright rows are often performed in back workouts since they train the traps as well. Nonetheless, to put maximal work on the side delts you’re going to want to do them on shoulder day.
This is because the upper back won’t be as pre-activated, reducing the likelihood of “feeling” the traps work more than the delts.
In the example below, I placed the upright row after lateral raises. This will help pre-activate your side delts, making them easier to engage during the upright rows.
- Barbell Standing Overhead Press: 4 sets x 6 reps
- Dumbbell Lateral Raises: 3 x 20
- Barbell Upright Rows: 3 x 12
- Dumbbell Reverse Flys: 3 x 15
Struggling to grow your rear delts with upright rows? I wrote an article on why they aren’t enough for this part of the deltoid that I recommend you read.