Upright Rows (Why They Aren’t Enough for Your Rear Delts)

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A pale man smiling as he performs dumbbell upright rows

About two years ago the barbell upright row was a staple for me on shoulder day. I assumed they would provide my entire deltoid with adequate stimulus. This led to my rear delts becoming underdeveloped compared to the other two heads.

Upright rows are not enough for growing the rear delts because the exercise uses vertical abduction and scapular elevation. The traps and side delts perform these motions, while the rear delts are only engaged to stabilize the shoulder joints.

Luckily, there are some adjustments you can make and one alternative you can do to bias the rear delts. I’ll cover all of these below.

Upright Rows Aren’t Enough for the Rear Delts

Upright rows are a multi-joint exercise that primarily works the side delts and upper traps through vertical shoulder abduction and elevation. These motions involve raising the arms outwards, away from the waist, and lifting the shoulders straight up. The rear delts have no role in either of these movements.

Rear Delt Anatomical FunctionsFunctions of the Upright Row
External Shoulder RotationInternal Shoulder Rotation
Horizontal AbductionVertical Abduction
Shoulder ExtensionScapular Elevation

When performing upright rows you may feel a slight stretching in your rear delts. This is because the overhand grip position internally rotates the shoulders with the rear delts acting antagonistically.

Essentially the rear delts are lengthening which allows the joints to move more freely while executing the exercise. However, they are not isometrically or actively contracting, so muscle growth is not likely to occur.

The reason they lengthen is because they’re an external rotator of the shoulder, which is antagonistic to internal rotation. So, while the internal rotator muscles contract, the external rotators relax to ensure stability.

Some trainees add their spin to the upright row, claiming that a wider grip will target more of the rear delts. A study showing this evidence tells that since a wider grip externally rotates the shoulders there is slightly more rear delt activation.

Their testing shows the rear delts concentrically contracting this way, with little changes in eccentric muscle actions. So, you could try doing your upright rows with a wider-than-shoulder-width grip, but it still won’t provide a huge difference.

I should also mention that the rear delts work the most during movements that involve bringing the arms behind the body vertically or horizontally. These motions are called horizontal abduction and shoulder extension.

They are especially active during movements where the elbows are angled at about 45 degrees with the waist. This is thanks to their muscle fibers being inserted diagonally in the posterior shoulder.

When thinking about an upright row, this is not the case. The arms begin next to the body and move upwards, not backward. This doesn’t allow the rear delts to contract deeply, if at all. I wrote an article on the rear delt raise, which is an effective isolation exercise to consider trying.

How To Do Upright Rows for Rear Delt Activation

This is a version of the upright row using a cable machine and rope attachment. The forward torso lean aims to train horizontal abduction and work in line with the rear delt muscle fibers. You could consider this a low-to-high-face pull too.

  1. Set a cable machine to the lowest setting.
  2. Grab the rope with your palms facing each other.
  3. Step back and lean your upper body to about 70 degrees.
  4. Drive through your elbows to move the rope towards your chest.
  5. Stop once your upper arms are in line with your shoulders.
  6. Perform 3 sets of 12-15 reps.

You can alternate between regular upright rows and this modified version. That way you’re able to hit the side delts and upper traps and bias the rear delts with a single exercise so to speak. For instance, if you do 4 sets do your first set normal, second set modified, and then rinse and repeat.

Another modification is with dumbbell upright rows, and instead of pulling straight up, pull the weights slightly out and then up like you’re doing a partial front raise. Curve the weights toward your face as you reach the top. This adds a bit of horizontal abduction and external rotation.

I only recommend this second variation if you’re in love with upright rows as rigging an already difficult exercise can risk injury. You’re better off doing upright rows for traps, and side delts, and then performing an accessory exercise that focuses on the rear delts anatomically.

You can also perform a regular old dumbbell or single-arm cable upright row from start to finish. Once you get to the top, rotate your forearm vertically so that your knuckles are pointing towards the ceiling.

This adds a complete external rotation component, however, you must keep the weights light when doing it. If you go too heavy or too fast you can risk injuring your rotator cuff and shoulder joint.

Again, this wouldn’t be my go-to for getting in rear delt work. Simply because it’s just not that great of a variation and there are so many better exercise options for working the rear delts.

Do This Upright Row Alternative for Big Rear Delts

This is essentially an upright row performed from a bent-over position. I guess you could call it a bentright row (cricket noises).

Just kidding, its formal name is the rear delt row, and unlike a standard bent-over row your elbow is flared between 45 and 90 degrees. This matches the insertion of those muscle fibers for optimal recruitment.

The focus is on horizontal rather than vertical abduction and retraction over elevation. These adjustments shift the emphasis from the middle delts and upper traps to the rear delts and middle traps.

  1. Plant your feet wider than shoulder width.
  2. Bend your torso to parallel with the floor.
  3. Grab a dumbbell with an overhand grip in either hand.
    • Place your other hand on your knee for support.
  4. Start with your arm extended toward the floor then drive your elbow toward the ceiling.
  5. Stop and squeeze once your rear delt is fully contracted.
    • As a general rule, your elbow should be slightly above your back at the top.
  6. Repeat for 3 sets of 12-15 reps.

Form Tip: Relax your shoulder blades toward the floor as much as possible and minimize retraction at the top to fully isolate the rear delts. Conversely, squeeze your shoulder blades at the top for a better mix of rear delt and upper back engagement.

Upright rows are a popular shoulder-building exercise. However, they aren’t that effective for complete delt development. If you’re absolutely in love with them that’s okay, just be sure to include at least one rear-focused movement on your shoulder day as well.

For example, start your workout with upright rows, do some side lateral raises next, and then end with the rear delt row. This will prevent imbalances and make your upper body more proportional.

And if you’re considering shrugs as an alternative, don’t! Read about why they don’t train the rear delts in my other article.

Eric De Cremer
Eric De Cremer

Eric is an NCCA-accredited Certified Personal Trainer and competitively trained powerlifter. Feel free to contact him anytime at edecremer@wildnswole.com!