Upright rows can be helpful to train shoulder and bicep muscles. At the same time, you likely need to do weighted variations to see muscle gains.
Depending on what muscles you want to focus most on, your preference for weighted upright row variations will vary.
If you really want to focus on the deltoids, trapezius, and bicep muscles you likely want to go for cable, EZ curl bar, and resistance band upright rows since these require less stabilizing.
On the other hand, if you want more of a compound exercise that engages more stabilization muscles, you will likely prefer dumbbell and weight plate upright rows.
1. Barbell upright row
Barbells are popular pieces of fitness equipment you can find in any good gym. One of their benefits is how versatile they are. The list of barbell exercises is big and upright rows are on it.
Because your hands are connected through the bar, you will have to engage muscles around your shoulders like rear deltoids, front deltoids, chest, and scapular muscles to a lesser extent.
This can be good or bad depending on your training goals.
One potential downside of using a barbell for shoulder exercises like weighted upright rows is that your wrists may get in angles that are uncomfortable.
The bar stays horizontal while your wrists may prefer to be in a sideways position at the top of the movement.
2. Cable upright row
Cable machines are not as common or popular as barbells but if you have one available you can use it to do upright rows. In terms of training, many people will really like this variation.
The first reason for that is that you can use cable attachments like a double rope or EZ curl bar handle that allow your wrists to stay in relatively comfortable positions.
Secondly, setting up the exercise and adjusting the weights is really convenient.
On the flip side, the main downside of the cable upright row is that many people don’t have a cable machine available.
There are some relatively at-home-friendly wall-mounted cable machines and gyms do often have a few cable machines. However, these are pricey and when it comes to the gym, sometimes occupied.
These things aside, when it comes to muscles worked, cable upright rows should not work shoulder stabilization muscles that much.
Whether you want to choose cable upright rows or one of the other variations ultimately depends on things like training goals, personal preference, and what equipment you have available.
3. Resistance band upright row
Resistance bands are similar to cable machines in the direction of the pull, wrist comfort, and stabilization muscle engagement. At the same time, there are also positive and negative differences.
First of all, resistance bands are great in that they are budget-friendly, easy to use at home, and still offer enough resistance to see muscle growth and strength results with upright rows.
The main downside is that resistance bands are less durable compared to the equipment options for most other weighted upright rows. You will have to replace your set every once in a while.
Something else to keep in mind is that the tension of resistance bands is not constant. As you stretch them out further, the resistance increases.
This is not necessarily better or worse but some people don’t like the feeling of this resistance band shoulder exercise.
Another small potential downside is that you preferably have a good resistance band anchor for upright rows. That being said, you can make something work with just resistance bands too.
4. Dumbbell upright row
Besides maybe the barbell version, dumbbells are generally the most popular equipment choice for weighted upright rows.
A big reason for this is how common dumbbells are. Most gyms will have them available in a wide range of weights.
Additionally, dumbbell upright rows will be relatively comfortable on your wrists with how much freedom to move your hands you have.
The main thing to keep in mind is that the weight jumps in dumbbells are typically bigger than weight plates and cable machines. For weaker muscles like your deltoids and biceps, this can matter.
Depending on your training goals dumbbell upright rows also have a few small potential downsides.
First of all, dumbbells are just a bit wider than the previous equipment options at the points that pass your body.
This makes it so you have to keep your hands slightly further forward and in turn, leads to just a tiny bit more focus on your front deltoids instead of the side parts.
Additionally, because your hands are free to move around, you will have to engage the muscles around your shoulders more to keep the dumbbells in the right trajectory.
5. EZ curl bar upright row
An EZ curl bar is a specialty barbell that can be described as a bar with curves. The main goal of this piece of equipment is to make a variety of exercises more comfortable on your wrists.
The upright row is an EZ curl bar shoulder exercise where this piece of equipment positively stands out. Thanks to the curved handles, the upright rows should put your wrists in more comfortable angles.
When it comes to downsides, the main thing to keep in mind is that not all gyms have EZ curl bars. They are somewhat popular but your local gym may not have one yet.
When it comes to muscle engagement, EZ curl bar upright rows will generally work shoulder stabilization muscles less because your hands are connected.
6. Smith machine upright row
A smith machine is the piece of fitness equipment where a barbell follows a rail system. Additionally, you can rack the bar at different heights thanks to the hooks.
Smith machine upright rows have both proponents and opponents.
On the one hand, you don’t have to worry about the trajectory of the barbell. This allows you to really focus on working your deltoids, trapezius, and bicep muscles.
Additionally, the different rack heights make it a bit more convenient to get the weights to the height you need.
On the other hand, you could also feel like the guided trajectory is not comfortable.
Similar to barbell upright rows, the angles of your wrists could also be uncomfortable and you get less activation of the muscles around your shoulders.
Lastly, not all gyms have smith machines and the few ones they do have could be occupied. In these cases, there is no other option than to choose some of the other equipment options or do smith machine upright row alternatives.
7. Kettlebell upright row
You can describe kettlebells as metal balls with a handle. These are typically used for exercises like kettlebell swings and Turkish get-ups but in theory, you could also use them for shoulder exercises like upright rows.
At the same time, it is important to note that these are not ideal for this exercise.
The handles of kettlebells generally do not have knurling (grooves in their handles). This makes upright rows harder on your forearm grip muscles. If these fatigue before the main target muscles this is suboptimal.
Additionally, you may not like the more forward position of your hands due to the thickness of the kettlebells. This leads to slightly more front delt engagement and slightly less side delt engagement.
In short, most people will prefer other equipment options for weighted upright rows.
However, if kettlebells are the only weights you have available they should still be more effective for muscle growth and strength gains than nothing.
8. Plate upright row
Where there are barbells, there are weight plates. That means you will also often have this last weighted upright row variation available. At least if these weight plates are the models with handles.
Plate upright rows are somewhat similar to dumbbells in terms of benefits but they also have the advantage of being thinner. This allows you to work your side deltoids nicely.
At the same time, your wrists can still get in relatively comfortable angles during this weight plate shoulder exercise.
One thing to remember is that plate upright rows will work the muscles around your shoulders a decent amount because your hands move freely.
Additionally, advanced lifters may find the maximum resistance of 90 pounds (40.8 kg) of plate upright rows too easy for a lot of muscle growth and strength progress.
How much weight should I use for upright rows?
How much weight you should use for upright rows depends on your current strength level. You generally want to use a weight where you can complete between 6 and 25 repetitions. For one person this could mean 30 pounds, for another person, this could mean 100 pounds (45.4 kg).
Is an upright row better with dumbbells or barbells?
Dumbbell upright rows are slightly different than the barbell version but not necessarily better or worse. The dumbbells can be more comfortable on your wrists but focus slightly more on the front deltoids and other muscles around the shoulders. On the other hand, barbell upright rows allow for smaller weight jumps and more focus on the side deltoids, trapezius, and biceps.