6 Smith Machine Upright Row Alternatives

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Doing smith machine upright rows can be great but you may want other options. Find out what alternatives offer similar effects.

Smith machines can be useful for weighted upright rows because you have to pay less attention to guiding the bar straight up. It can not move forward or backward anyway.

At the same time, this exercise can still help you grow and strengthen your shoulder, trapezius, grip, and bicep muscles, help you burn calories, and offer other typical exercise benefits.

Whether you don’t enjoy smith machine upright rows, you want to focus on more or fewer muscles, or you want an alternative for any other reason, these smith machine upright row substitutes can offer you some or all of the same benefits.

Keep in mind that if you don’t have a smith machine available, you can also do upright rows with other shoulder workout equipment.

Options like the cable machine and resistance bands typically engage balancing muscles less than other equipment.

1. Lateral raises

For the first smith machine upright row alternative you need some type of one-handed resistance. Dumbbells, kettlebells, a cable machine, and even a heavy backpack are examples of suited objects.

Take the following steps to do a lateral raise with a cable machine:

  1. Set the cable machine low to the ground, attach a D-grip handle, and select your desired weight.
  2. Stand right in front of the cable machine with your side toward it. Pick up the D-grip handle with your hand furthest away from the cable machine. Stand up straight. Your arm with the handle is slightly less than stretched and starts pointing down. You can put your other hand on the cable machine to brace yourself.
  3. Slowly raise your hand with the handle out to the side until it is at shoulder height. Keep your arm slightly less than stretched.
  4. Lower your hand back into starting position in a controlled motion.
  5. Repeat the same number of repetitions with your other arm.

Lateral raises are an exercise to isolate your shoulder muscles, more specifically the middle part. To do this as much as possible equipment options like the cable machine and resistance bands are typically the best.

The narrow focus of this smith machine upright row alternative can be both an advantage or disadvantage depending on your training goals.

To work out muscles like your biceps, grip muscles, and trapezius some of the other options on this list are better.

2. Shrugs

To do shrugs most people need some form of resistance to make the exercise challenging enough. Generally something heavier like a loaded barbell.

Individuals less experienced with resistance training may find dumbbells, kettlebells, or similar objects hard enough. Once you have one of these, take the following steps to do a shrug:

  1. Set up the barbell on a rack at a height right below where your hands would be when letting your arms hang down. Load it with the desired number of weight plates.
  2. Grab the barbell with your hands at about shoulder width with your hand palms facing backward/downward. Unrack the barbell, take a step or two back, and stand up straight with your feet at about shoulder width. For now, the barbell rests against your body. Keep your arms slightly less than stretched throughout the exercise.
  3. Raise your shoulders as far as you comfortably can in a controlled manner.
  4. Slowly lower your shoulders again.

The shoulder shrug does not look like the most impressive motion but this alternative can be great to help you work your trapezius and grip muscles in the gym or at home.

As you can tell, this is another exercise that has a relatively narrow focus.

3. Machine shoulder presses

The shoulder press machine is basically the popular shoulder press exercise in machine form.

Instead of using free weights and standing up, the resistance has a fixed motion and you are sitting down with your back against back support.

You can describe this machine exercise as a compound exercise but barely so. On top of removing your core muscles from the exercise, you don’t even need to use balancing muscles to make the resistance go straight up.

A shoulder press machine is similar to smith machine upright rows in that they have a relatively narrow muscle focus. However, the target muscles are slightly different.

Smith machine upright rows focus on your deltoids (mainly the middle part), trapezius, grip, and biceps.

The shoulder press machine mainly works your deltoids (mainly front but also middle part), triceps, and to some extent, trapezius depending on how you do the movement.

4. Shoulder presses

The machine form is slightly more of a smith machine upright row alternative but shoulder presses with free weights can also offer a good shoulder workout.

Take the following steps to do this exercise with dumbbells:

  1. Stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at about shoulder height with your hand palms facing forward. Your elbows can point slightly more forward than just a horizontal line with your shoulders.
  2. Slowly move the dumbbells up until your arms are slightly less than stretched.
  3. Lower the dumbbells back into starting position in a controlled motion.

You can do shoulder presses with shoulder workout equipment like kettlebells, a cable machine, a barbell, a smith machine, resistance bands, etc. too.

Compared to the machine form, shoulder presses work more balancing muscles. If you don’t like this, you can reduce this a small amount by using a smith machine, cable machine, or resistance bands.

5. Pike pushups

One of the potential downsides of smith machine upright rows and some of the other alternatives is that they require fitness equipment to do the exercise.

Luckily there are also bodyweight ways to train your shoulder muscles. One of these is the pike pushup. Take the following steps to do this exercise:

  1. Sit on your hands and knees on the ground with your hands at about shoulder width.
  2. Move your hips in the air so that your body makes a triangle together with the ground. You likely have to lift up your heels in the air and lean on the front of your feet.
  3. Slowly fold your arms at your elbows until your face is close to the ground. Your upper arms should be at an angle of about 45 degrees or less to your sides. Another way to put it is if someone is looking down at your upper body from above your arms should make an arrow, not a T.
  4. Stretch your arms again until you are back in the pike position of step 2.
How to do a pike pushup

Something to keep in mind is that pike pushups focus on slightly different muscles than smith machine upright rows. Similar to shoulder presses the focus is more on the front part of the deltoids and tricep muscles.

Another potential downside of pike pushups is that they require a lot more balance and coordination than exercises like smith machine upright rows.

Additionally, pike pushups are too easy for a lot of muscle growth and strengthening for some people. Luckily, there are a few ways to make the regular version of this exercise more challenging.

The first one is raising your feet by putting them on an elevated surface like a chair or a plyo box. If that is still not challenging enough, you can also do this handstand pushup alternative while wearing a weighted vest.

6. Power cleans

Smith machine upright rows can be challenging but you may want something similar that is a lot more challenging. In that case, power cleans can be the right alternative for you.

Take the following steps to do this exercise with a barbell:

  1. Stand up straight with your feet at more or less shoulder width in front of a weighted barbell.
  2. Slightly fold your legs at the knees and tilt your upper body forward to grab the barbell on the ground with your hand palms facing backward.
  3. Tilt back your upper body and stretch your legs in one continuous motion in an explosive way so you can raise the barbell enough for the following steps. It is very important to keep your back in a straight line during this step.
  4. Most of the upward force of the barbell will come from your legs but you can pull it upward slightly higher.
  5. Move under the barbell to a position where you can do the next step. You will have to change the angle of your wrists in relation to the barbell.
  6. Catch the barbell on the front part of your shoulders with your hands still holding the barbell to control it. Your hand palms will point upward and your legs should be in a quarter squat position.

As you can tell, power cleans are a lot more challenging, require a lot more balance, and work a lot more muscles than smith machine upright rows.

Between the explosive deadlift and front squat, there is an upright row movement but this part will play a relatively small role.

Power cleans work your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, lower back, erector spinae, trapezius, grip, shoulders, and core muscles.

For most people, this is not the best smith machine upright row alternative but a few individuals will like the extra challenge and muscle engagement.

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Matt Claes founded Weight Loss Made Practical to help people get in shape and stay there after losing 37 pounds and learning the best of the best about weight loss, health, and longevity for over 4 years. Over these years he has become an expert in nutrition, exercise, and other physical health aspects.