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Smith machine upright row: Should you use one arm or a wide grip? And is it even safe?

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

Out of the countless controversial Smith machine exercises, the upright row has to be the most contentious. Even just uttering its name is enough to cause testosterone-fuelled arguments. By the way that people debate the movement, you'd think it had far-reaching political consequences...

In one camp, you have the old-school bodybuilders who swear by the Smith machine upright row for adding mass to their delts and traps. After all, if Arnold did the exercise, then it must have at least some merit, surely?

Then, across the ring, you've got the modern lifters, who believe that upright rows are the most formidable shoulder sabotager in the history of bodybuilding. You'll often find these people warming up for an hour before they even touch a weight.

Both arguments are definitely thought-proving—that's for sure.

But personally, I see nothing wrong with performing upright rows (if you use the proper form, of course). It's actually a brilliant exercise for broadening your shoulders and beefing up your traps. But only if you avoid these 4 mistakes...

"Therefore, those who seek to maximize involvement of the deltoid and trapezius muscles during the URR should use a wide grip."
McAllister et al
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research

Smith machine upright row exercise details

  • Main muscles: Shoulder, traps
  • Supporting muscles: Biceps
  • Exercise type: Compound
  • Difficulty: Beginner
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Resistance bands, chalk, lifting gloves
  • Exercise purpose: Develop a more prominent v-taper and larger traps

How to Smith machine upright row

  1. Place the Smith machine bar just above your knees.
  2. Grab the bar with an overhand grip, just outside shoulder-with.
  3. Ensure that the barbell is resting against your thighs, as it's important to keep the bar close to your body while you perform the exercise.
  4. Pull the weight to your lower chest by driving your elbows towards the ceiling and shrugging your shoulders.
  5. Stop once the bar reaches your chest and then lower it under control. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 10-15 reps.

Smith machine upright row mistakes

Pulling with your arms

athletic man doing barbell exercises

Admittedly, this mistake is less common with the Smith machine wide grip upright row because the biceps are travelling through a shorter range of motion. However, it's a rookie mistake that you need to eradicate if you want to add a third dimension to your delts.

Rather than pulling the weight up with your biceps, as if you were doing a poor man's drag curl, you want to initiate each rep by driving your elbows to the sky. This way, your traps and delts will always be the prime movers, and your arms will only assist [1].

Bringing the bar too high

Continually raising the bar is a wonderful habit to practise, and it's usually pretty sound strength training advice, too. However, in the case of upright rows, raising the bar too high is suicide for your shoulders.

If your forearms travel above your elbows, then you've gone too high. Understand that by using a wide grip, you've earned the right to bring the bar lower because your delts are more active.

Remember, in bodybuilding; it's not really about the position of the bar—it's about the position of your joints in relation to one another. The bar position is simply the most convenient metric that we have to gauge a given range of motion.

Raising the bar beyond your lower chest won't do anything extra for your delts, but it will wreck your rotator cuffs, whether that's now or later on—whenever you're strong enough to injure yourself [2].

Letting the bar drift forwards

young man training in the gym

Of course, letting the bar drift away from your body is a much more common mistake with EZ bar upright rows than it is with any fixed upright row machine variation. However, if you mess up the starting position, then you're essentially sacrificing your shoulders from the very first inch of movement.

Keep the bar extremely close to your torso. Let it rest on your thighs at the starting position.

Then once the weight's moving, make sure to stick your chest out to engage your traps—don't let your shoulders cave in. Otherwise, your torso will drift away from the barbell, and your rotators cuffs will end up in a very precarious position.

Using a close grip

woman lifting dumbbells
Beautiful young woman in a workout gear lifting dumbbells

Performing a close-grip, rather than a wide-grip Smith-machine upright row, actives more trapezius muscle fibres and comparatively less delts. It also enables you to lift heavier weights because your biceps and traps are in a stronger line of pull.

More notably, though, using a close-grip means that you need to raise the bar higher in order to contract your traps. This is a big no-no. Why? Because it places the rotator cuffs—your itsy-bitsy infraspinatus and supraspinatus—in a very vulnerable position. One in which they're forced to lift more weight than they can handle.

Think about for a second. How much more weight can you handle on shrugs than on cable external rotations? Probably a lot more, right?

Well, when you do the trap-focused upright row rather than the shoulder Smith machine upright row, you're essentially demanding that your fragile little rotator cuffs keep pace with your big meaty traps—a rather outrageous demand, don't you think?

It's certainly not a demand that your rotator cuffs can put up with for long. While you might not injure yourself immediately—once you become strong enough or grind out one too many reps—your shoulder stabilisers will go on strike. And my that I mean they'll snap. Or, at the very least, become severely sprained, perhaps permanently so.

Recommended training gear for Smith machine upright rows

"You're putting handcuffs on your potential in the gym if you're overlooking the rotator cuff."
Jeff Cavaliere
ATHLEAN-X™

1. Resistance bands

As I've mentioned, I don't think that Smith machine upright rows are actually a bad exercise at all if you use the proper form.

a red bestope resistance band

That said, I always like to be safe rather than sorry, which is why I warm up before every upper body session with my versatile Bestope resistance band.

This band is perfect for warming up and strengthening your rotator cuffs because it provides just the right amount of tension. My shoulder muscles always feel nicely challenged, but they never feel like they're going to get injured from overexertion.

I highly recommend a simple resistance band like this if you're interested in building muscular shoulders that are also healthy.

2. Chalk

liquid chalk sizes

Using chalk during upright rows helps me to maintain a firm grip on the Smith machine bar, which in turn enables me to lift more weight and build my shoulders faster.

However, most gym staff aren't exactly appreciative of our efforts to better our grip. But if you're willing to be a little bit naughty, then you can still get away with chalking up your hands by using the liquid variety.

This way, there won't be any conspicuous dust clouds that give away your rebellious behaviour.

Smith machine upright row muscles worked

Lateral delts

side-view of a bodybuilder flexing his arms and shoulder

The lateral delts are the prime movers during a wide grip Smith machine upright row. But just how wide should you go?

Research from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research says the wider, the better. Specifically, a grip equalling 200% of biacromial breadth (the distance between the two bony points on your shoulders) maximises side delt activation while simultaneously minimising bicep involvement [3].

Isn't it just brilliant when science backs up what bodybuilders have been saying for years?

Rear delts

close-up of a man flexing his arm muscles

As with the side delts, the rear delts are most active when you perform upright rows with a wide grip. Interestingly, the URR is one of the only shoulder exercises that truly hammers both of these deltoid muscles without the front delts being the limiting factor. Which is great considering that most of us are front delt dominant (thanks, bench press).

Biceps

bodybuilder doing cable curls

You'll naturally feel some minor bicep involvement once the force output of your shoulders and traps declines from the inevitable fatigue. This is because the biceps are a strong elbow flexor. If they didn't contract, then the exercise would quite literally turn into a shrug.

Traps

bodybuilder training his trapezius muscles

Whether you do the traditional EZ bar upright row or prefer to perform the upright row Smith machine style like me, the upper traps will still be highly active.

While conventional wisdom says that a closer grip leads to higher trap activation, research actually suggests that the opposite is true. This is likely because the traps contribute to shoulder abduction (it's why you feel them working in lateral raises), which increases in proportion to your grip width.

However, since the upper traps also perform scapula elevation (as in shrugging), the higher you bring the bar, the more of their muscle fibres you'll recruit. So in theory, bringing the bar up high with a wide grip is the best upright row variation for your traps—just a shame that it's complete suicide for your shoulders.

Smith machine upright row benefits

Improved weightlifting performance

group of people lifting weights together in a gym

You know, it's funny. Olympic weightlifting exercises like the high pull (though they involve other muscles, too), are essentially explosive upright rows. Yet, they don't have a reputation for causing shoulder impingement. So what gives?

Personally, I think the gym bros and meatheads are to blame. Their form is so utterly atrocious that they've single-handedly given the upright row a bad reputation [4]. Cheers fellas...

But Olympic weightlifters, on the other hand, are sticklers for proper form. Since Olympic lifting is as much (if not more) about technique as it is about strength, it requires its athletes to pay their dues and learn the correct form.

Anyway. You can improve your weightlifting performance by doing explosive upright rows. In particular, you want to use a snatch-grip to make the exercise as similar as possible to the actual practice of Olympic lifting.

Also, don't worry about "feeling the muscle" working too much if your main goal is strength. Just pull with your traps and keep the bar below you mid-chest. If you start trying to squeeze your delts (or whatever else bodybuilders do to get a pump), then you might actually make yourself less explosive.

Broader shoulders

bodybuilder flexing his upper body

The upright row is for your side delts what the bench press is for your chest—a true mass builder. Yet most lifters overlook this hotly-debated delt exercise in favour of lateral raises.

Now, lateral raises are a fine shoulder exercise, but they don't exactly let you lift heavy—nor do they put your side delts under much of a stretch. And for those of us aiming for maximum muscle mass, that's a problem.

Upright rows, on the other hand, naturally lend themselves to heavy weights and explosive rep tempos, making them an excellent exercise for recruiting the fast-twitch muscle fibres [5].

But upright rows also provide the side delts with that all-important growth-provoking stretch, which is essential for adding size to any muscle. It also explains why upright rows make your shoulders sore while side raises generally don't—they simply create more muscle damage.

Of course, combining Smith machine upright rows with lateral raises will give you the fastest and best results. This is in much the same way that combining squats and leg extensions will give you bigger quads than if you did only one of those exercises.

Bigger traps

bodybuilder flexing upper body muscles

The deltoids get all the glory with upright rows—and rightly so. After all, nothing benefits a physique like a broad pair of shoulders. However, the traps are important too. And research shows that in some cases, upright rows activate more trapezius muscle fibres than shrugs [6].

But this isn't actually all that surprising if you think about. After all, what exactly is a shrug? A "shrug" is simply the meathead-friendly term for scapula elevation. And what functions does an upright row train? It trains shoulder abduction and scapula elevation.

Now you know why upright rows are so effective for building towering traps—they literally are a shrug.

Smith machine upright row alternatives

Smith machine lateral raise

muscular man performing dumbbell lateral raises

If your gym doesn't have a side delt machine...well, your gym sucks. But the Smith machine lateral raise is a more-than-suitable replacement. It takes all of the tension off your wrists and elbows and places it squarely on your side delts. Combine this lateral raise variation with a citrulline-based pre-workout, and you'll have yourself a skin-splitting shoulder pump.

Smith machine shoulder press

sporty woman training her shoulders

No shoulder exercise has added size to my anterior deltoids faster and more reliably than the Smith front press. Unlike with free weight presses, I don't have to work my so-called "stabiliser muscles" at the expense of my delts—I just unrack the bar and press. All of my attention goes towards blasting my shoulders, which is what bodybuilding's all about.

Smith machine BTNP

young woman working out at a modern gym

I still do the Smith machine behind the neck shoulder press from time-to-time just to see how it affects my rotator cuffs. The results are not usually good. I don't think that the BTNP is a bad exercise per se, but it's definitely more injurious than most in my experience.

Also, you can give Smith machine shrugs a try if you want to limit shoulder involvement. However, as I explained above, they're not necessarily any better for trap development than URRs.

Smith machine rear delt row

bodybuilder training his rear delts with dumbbells

If upright rows are the ultimate side delt mass builder, then the Smith machine rear delt row is the undisputed champion of adding mass to the back of your shoulders.

So if you thought that performing reverse flys with pink dumbbells was the only way to train your rear delts, then think again. With a little anatomy knowledge, you can create a mass-builder for just about any muscle group!

FAQ

What is a Smith machine upright row?

thinking women with question mark on white background

A Smith machine upright row is a shoulder exercise that mainly workout the upper trapezius muscles and the lateral head of the deltoids.

Is the Smith machine one arm upright row good for delts?

bodybuilder doing smith machine shrugs

Yes, the Smith machine one-arm upright row is an excellent deltoid exercise because it enables you to even out your muscles imbalances by training each side of your body independently.

However, I wouldn't rely on the one arm Smith machine upright row unless you have a good pair of lifting straps because your grip will often give out before your delts and traps, meaning that you're leaving muscle growth on the table.

Will doing smith machine wide grip upright rows widen my shoulders?

Portrait of shirtless bearded bodybuilder over grey background.

Yes, absolutely. Performing a Smith machine wide grip upright row is a great way to add mass to your side delts providing that you consume enough calories and high-quality protein.

What's the most effective Smith machine upright row replacement?

muscular man performing dumbbell lateral raises

Cable lateral raises are the most effective Smith machine upright row alternative because they provide your side delts with plenty of growth-stimulating time under tension.

As for my preferred Smith machine one arm upright row alternative, that would definitely be the one-arm dumbbell upright row because it allows for complete freedom of movement.

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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