Cable Upright Row: Technique, Benefits, and Variations

Cable Upright Row

Build monster shoulders with the cable upright row. 

Beefy shoulders and traps are a trademark of a solid V-taper. While most people want to build round and ripped shoulders, only a few lifters ever achieve the goal. 

Bodybuilding is a game of illusions, and broad and thick shoulders can make your waist look smaller and tighter. However, building boulder shoulders is easier said than done. 

Shoulders can be a tricky muscle group to train. Most deltoid exercises focus on one of the three heads of the shoulder and mainly work on improving muscle definition. However, the cable upright row is one of the few compound shoulder exercises that activate muscle groups across your shoulders and upper back and help build muscle mass and definition. 

The cable upright row is a variation of the barbell upright row that utilizes the cable pulley machine to ensure constant tension on the target muscles throughout the exercise. 

There are two main types of pulling exercises — horizontal and vertical. While both types of movements usually deal with building a thick and wide back, the cable upright row is a vertical pulling exercise that trains your shoulders. 

The cable upright row is one of the few vertical pulling exercises where you pull the weight from in front of your thighs towards your shoulders. Generally, the back-focused vertical pulling exercises involve pulling an overhead bar towards your chest.

Notably, the cable upright row can be potentially dangerous for the shoulders, especially for people dealing with injuries. You need to perform the exercise with a perfect form to avoid injury and ensure you are not leaving gains on the table. 

Muscles Worked

The cable upright row is a functional (multi-joint) movement and targets the following muscle groups:

1. Trapezius

Traps are the primary target muscle group of this exercise. They aid in pulling the barbell upwards towards your shoulders by employing a shrugging motion. Following a full range of motion while performing the lift will help achieve optimal trap recruitment and activation

2. Deltoids 

You will be engaging all three deltoid heads (anterior, medial, and posterior) while performing the cable upright row. If you do not feel tension in your delts and traps while doing the exercise, check your form or try using lighter weight. 

3. Biceps 

Your biceps are engaged in the first half of the movement. Additionally, you might be able to pause and contract your biceps at the top if you are using a relatively light weight. Biceps brachii and brachialis are the upper arm muscles recruited in the exercise. 

4. Upper Back

While performing the cable upright row, you will be maintaining a rigid upright stance throughout the exercise. The movement involves pulling the weight up and back to keep it close to the body. Hence, the upper back contracts and is engaged in the lift

5. Forearms

Grip strength is one of the most overlooked aspects of the cable upright row. If you do not have strong forearms, you’ll not be able to lift heavy. Furthermore, a weak grip will automatically force you into focusing all your attention on holding onto the bar and not letting it slip, deviating you from establishing a mind-muscle connection with the primary muscle group. 

While secondary muscle groups like biceps and forearms might kick-in in the first half of the lift, your shoulders are solely responsible for the second half (from your waistline to your shoulders).

6. Core

You’ll be engaging your core while performing the cable upright row as it will help maintain an upright torso throughout the exercise. People with weaker cores usually swing back and forth to lift the weight towards their shoulders. 

Benefits of Cable Upright Row

The cable upright row is an incredibly effective exercise to build your shoulder size and strength. Here are a few benefits of the compound lift:

1. Reduces Odds of an Injury

The cable upright row is a variation of the conventional barbell upright row. Using a cable while performing the lift removes some moving parts from the equation and puts less strain on your shoulders, elbows, and bicep tendons.

The cable upright row is a great exercise for people dealing with injuries and can be used for muscle rehab. 

2. Builds Core Strength

You’ll feel your core engage the moment you assume the starting position. Your midriff will help you maintain posture throughout the exercise. 

Pulling the weight upwards towards your shoulders while maintaining a still and upright torso requires stability in your abs, glutes, and lower back

3. Unique Movement Pattern Builds Upper Body Strength

The upright row is one of the few exercises that require you to pull weight while keeping it close to your body. The unfamiliar movement pattern helps build strength and improves your muscle coordination. 

Making the upright row a part of your exercise arsenal will make you stronger in other compound exercises like snatch, clean and press, clean and jerk, and power clean. 

Related: Isolation Vs. Compound Exercises: Strength, Weight Loss & More

4. Improves Shoulder Strength and Functionality

The upright row puts your shoulder joints through a full range of motion, strengthening them for functional activities. Performing the exercise regularly reduces the risk of shoulder injuries. [1]

Cable Upright Row Technique

Here is how to perform the cable upright row:

  1. Attach a straight bar to a cable pulley set at the lowest setting possible.
  2. Grab the handle with a shoulder-width pronated grip (palms facing inwards). Keep your shoulders tight and pinched back. 
  3. Assume the starting position by standing upright with a shoulder-width stance and holding the bar in front of your thighs. 
  4. Squeeze your core, glutes, and quads to maintain rigid legs for the duration of the set. 
  5. Maintain a neutral head and neck position throughout the exercise. 
  6. While leading with your elbows, pull the bar towards the ceiling while keeping it close to your body. 
  7. Pause and contract at the top of the movement.
  8. Slowly return to the starting position. 
  9. To maintain constant tension on your muscles, make sure the weight does not rack at the bottom. 
  10. Repeat for recommended reps

Tips

Make the most of the cable upright row with the following tips:

  1. While performing the exercise, most lifters make the mistake of raising their elbows and hands higher than their shoulder level. Doing so takes off the tension from your shoulders and puts it on your arms. Additionally, it can cause impingement, which is a condition that reduces your shoulders’ range of motion.
  2. The upright row can put unnecessary strain on your wrists if you hold the bar with an incorrect grip. Shoulder-width grip is recommended for wrist and shoulder safety. Furthermore, a wide grip also increases the activation of deltoid and trapezius muscles. 
  3. Make sure you are not using momentum by swinging back and forth while performing the lift. Doing so can strain your lower back and take the tension away from your shoulders. 
  4. Lifting heavier than you can handle can lead to injuries. The shoulder joint involves a very complex mechanism. Shoulder injuries can severely impact your exercise goals while also being slow to heal.
  5. If the straight bar version of the upright row is harsh on your wrists or shoulders, you could experiment with a rope or V-handle bar attachment.
  6. Your chin should remain tucked throughout the movement as if you were holding an egg under your chin. 

Variations 

Here are a few variations of the cable upright row that you can add to your exercise arsenal:

1. Dumbbell Upright Row

In this upright row variation, you will be using a pair of dumbbells instead of the cable pulley machine. Dumbbell upright rows require greater stabilizer and core recruitment as you need to balance both dumbbells as you pull them towards your shoulders. 

2. Barbell Upright Row

The barbell upright row is arguably the most popular upright row variation. Grab a bar with a shoulder-width overhand grip and lift it while driving through your elbows.

3. Kettlebell Upright Row

The kettlebell upright row should be performed with a lighter weight as a close grip on this exercise can lead to shoulder impingement. Grab a kettlebell with both hands, and pull it towards your shoulders while keeping your arms close to your body.  

Tip: If you are a beginner, you should opt for an upright row variation that allows you to maintain a wide grip.

4. Snatch-Grip Upright Row

The snatch-grip upright row is performed using a barbell. You will be grabbing the bar with a snatch grip (extremely wide). At the start of the exercise, your arms should be extended straight, and the bar should rest in your hip crease.

This is one of the riskiest upright row variations and should be done with utmost care. Make sure you are not using a jerking motion to lift the barbell towards your chin, as it can lead to a lower back and shoulder injury. 

The exercise will help improve your snatch technique and isolate and strengthen the traps.

5. Single-Arm Upright Row

The single-arm upright row can either be performed with a dumbbell or kettlebell. Since it is a unilateral exercise, it can help fix muscle imbalances and improve conditioning and strength. 

6. Resistance Band Upright Row

If you are a beginner, you cannot go wrong with the resistance band upright row. It is a low-risk upright row alternative that will prime you for the free-weight exercises. 

Stand on a resistance band and hold the handles with an overhand grip. Your arms should be resting against your thighs at the starting position. Keep your hands shoulder-width apart throughout the exercise to reduce the chances of shoulder impingement. 

Alternatives 

People dealing with shoulder injuries can have a tough time performing the cable upright row. If you are one such individual, you can get similar benefits by adding the following alternatives to your training regimen:

1. Inverted Row

The inverted row is one of the most underrated bodyweight exercises. It works your core, hams, glutes, upper body, including traps, posterior delts, biceps, forearms, lats, and rhomboids. 

How to perform inverted row: 

  1. Stand in front of a squat rack or Smith machine.
  2. Set the bar at waist height. 
  3. Get under the bar and lie on the floor so that the bar is directly above your chest. 
  4. Reach up for the bar and grab it with a shoulder-wide overhand grip. 
  5. At the starting position, your arms should be fully extended, and your body should be suspended or just off the floor, with your heels being the only body part in contact with the floor.
  6. Pull yourself towards the bar, leading with your chest.
  7. Pause at the top and contract your lats and shoulder blades. 
  8. Slowly return to the starting position.
  9. Repeat for reps. 

2. Barbell Bent-Over Row

The traditional barbell row trains many of the same muscles but from different angles and to varying degrees. While an upright vertical row puts most of the tension on your shoulders, a bent-over vertical row focuses on your lats.

How to perform barbell bent-over row: 

  1. Get into the starting position by holding a barbell with a shoulder-wide overhand grip and hinging forward until your torso is roughly parallel with the floor.
  2. While driving with your elbows, pull the barbell towards your abdomen. 
  3. The bar should be a few inches away from your belly button at the top. Pause and contract your lats and shoulder blades at this position.
  4. Slowly return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for recommended reps. 

3. Snatch Pull

The snatch pull is arguably the hardest exercise on the list. The exercise involves using power from the lower body to row the barbell upward. 

How to perform snatch pull:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Grab the barbell with a snatch grip.
  3. Once the start position is set tight, push through your legs to lift the bar off the floor.
  4. When the bar reaches your hip level, make strong hip contact and rapidly extend your hips and legs.
  5. Pull your elbows up and back as your ankles, knees, and hips drive you to full extension. 
  6. Aim to lift the barbell to your chest but not any higher. 
  7. Slowly return to the starting position.
  8. Repeat for reps.

Wrapping Up

The cable upright row is one of those exercises that look super easy but will smoke you by the time you are done with it. To make the most of the exercise, prioritize form over lifting heavy.

Using different variations of the exercise will ensure you do not hit a plateau and have something to look forward to in every workout. Best of luck!


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References

  1. Trivisonno A, Laffan M, Giuliani H, et al. The influence of age on the recovery from worksite resistance exercise in career firefighters. Exp Gerontol. 2021;152:111467. doi:10.1016/j.exger.2021.111467

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