Exercises tend to have periods of popularity and decline, much in the same way as fashion. One day bell bottoms are the standard uniform of choice for everyone walking through the halls of the local high school, and then when I walk through wearing a set of hand-me-downs from my two older brothers, I’m all of a sudden the uncool kid wearing bell bottoms and getting ham sandwiches lobbed at me from across the cafeteria. Then a few years later, the new thing is “flared” legs, which was pretty much the same thing. Either I was too far ahead of my time, too far behind the times, or just in time to catch a serious social beat down.
Similarly, training programs tend to get tossed around. When I started out, bodybuilding was the shiznit. It was the basis for every program being used in the gym, from little old ladies wanting to not fall down and go boom, to hockey players and everyone in between. I remember talking with Randy Gregg, who played with the Edmonton Oilers back in their glory days, and their weight workouts were indistinguishable from most typical isolationist programs out there.
Then the functional guys got a hold of common interest and had everyone squatting on stability balls and pulling bands in every direction, all while saying that staples like bench press and deadlifts weren’t “functional enough” to provide a great workout. Now the riguer is to blend concepts of cardio with powerlifting, and then throw in some corrective exercises and talk about things like metabolic conditioning and back-loading and stuff like that.
One exercise that seems to get picked on a lot is the poor old upright row. This little guy has been blamed for everything from subacromial impingement to cervical irritation to a nuclear holocaust. It will rip you up immediately and cause you to have massive injuries. The size of that massiveness? Immense. The scale of that immenseness? Large.
While I can definitely see how there is some potential to be injured, especially if done incorrectly or with too much weight or without looking at secondary aspects that would be important to note before even doing the exercise (thoracic extension mobility, type of acromion, available rotation range of movement available, strength of scapular stabilizers, compensation patterns, etc), you could also say this about every single exercise ever in the history of anything.
One reason why everyone gets their panties in a bunch when thinking about the upright row is that the movement essentially involves internal rotation of the shoulder (thumb pointing towards your thigh instead of away), and abduction (moving the arm away from your side). This movement can put a lot of pressure on the commonly injured rotator cuff tendon called the supraspinatus.
Now one feature that doesn’t typically get mentioned is that after the first 30 degrees of abduction, the scapula is supposed to rotate to allow further abduction to occur. What this means is that with decent scapular mechanics, thoracic spine mobility, and glenohumeral joint available movement, you should be able to get about 180 degrees of abduction while completely internally rotating your arms and not have any issue with subacromial impingement because the scapula is doing the movement and it’s not creating an issue in the subacromial space.
You can see in the video that the bottoms of my shoulder blades flare out at the top of the movement, showing that they are rotating to allow the movement to occur. Now fortunately I have some decent thoracic mobility to accomplish this, as well as some pretty good internal rotation at my shoulders. The downside is that I completely suck when it comes to external rotation, which means I won’t be throwing no-hitter in the world series anytime soon, but I’ll be alright with that.
Now a common issue a lot of people face in today’s society is a sitting posture from working as a cubicle donkey and all the ailments that come with that. Specific to this exercise, we tend to see people who lose thoracic extension, have protracted shoulders, and limited rotation at their shoulder joints. What this means is that if they try to move their arms overhead, they don’t get the thoracic extension or scapular rotation necessary, and wind up creating massive compression on that poor little tendon, and also look like a hot mess crossed with a bucket of fail.
So in this instance, I would guarantee an upright row would create all the issues everyone says they’re supposed to create. But the problem doesn’t lie in the exercise itself, but rather in the individual doing the exercise incorrectly. The thought of throwing the baby out with the bathwater doesn’t seem to cross too many people’s minds, and instead of saying there’s no bad exercises, just couterindicated ones, they simply say to never do the exercise at all for anyone.
An interesting thing about the upright row is it’s pretty much the sole occupier for the upper body of the second pull phase of a clean movement, used in olympic weight lifting and also by the kettlebell crowd. The major difference between the standard upright row and the clean is a primary hip drive being used in the clean to provide the upward force rather than relying on the delts and traps to do that job. That’s not to say those muscles aren’t working, but they’re not going to do the job if the weight is heavier. In fact, a hang pull or a power pull is essentially a heavy weight, high force high velocity version of a “cheating upright row.”
It’s also a very similar finish position (internal rotation and abduction) as a bench press, chest press, or even a lot of variations of pushups. Now the exact degrees are slightly different, but you will still see people happily give clients a full day of pressing based exercises without thinking anything about impingement, but balk at the thought of including a couple sets of upright rows.
If this still proves to be too intense, you could try it’s little brother, the cable face pull. This gives a similar movement but in a different plane of action, and with some more lee-way regarding the grip positioning.
Now let’s say you’re one of the occupiers of keyboard farms in the corporate world who has the posture resemblant of Mr. Burns from the Simpsons, yet you want to try this out. As I mentioned earlier, to qualify to do this exercise safely, you have to have considerable thoracic extension mobility, decent scapular stability (no winging like a mofo), and some adequate internal rotation at your shoulder. If you don’t know if you have these, give these exercises a try to help build it up.
If you’re good to go with these, you can give it a try, but again it’s one of those exercises that may or may not be good for you, but they shouldn’t be avoided by everyone. I’ve had these in some clients programs, where applicable, and only if they hit the qualifying components mentioned above, and have never had a client complain of shoulder pain following them. They are a great shoulder exercise when done correctly, but if not it’s sort of like handing a 5 year old a chainsaw and hoping everything works out in the end.