The Upright Barbell Row is one of the most glorified exercises of the golden era when it comes to mid-delt development. Back in the day, this exercise was pretty much all you needed to develop massive shoulders and get that 3d look – at least that’s what all fitness magazines were telling us…
But today, the exercise has decreased in popularity and many people are looking for Upright Row alternatives. Why? Well, for one, programming has completely changed since evidence-based workouts started to become more prevalent.
Upright Row Alternatives Are Often Necessary With Modern Programming
Back in the day, bro splits were pretty much all there was – one bodypart per day. And if you were feeling adventurous you might throw in some tricep work in your chest workout.
Nowadays people like to play around with PPL (Push/Pull/Legs), FBS (Full body splits), and UL (Upper/Lower) structures, which often affect the recovery times of certain muscle groups.
As a result, when (for example) you perform Upright Rows the day after heavy pulling (lat pulldowns, rows, etc), you might start feeling uncomfortable.
Ignore the pain and you will soon have a problem. After a heavy pulling session, you forearms tend to get fatigued. More specifically, you might notice a slight twitching in your Extensor carpi radialis longus and your Extensor digitorum.
The next day (or two) you train your biceps heavily and the day after that you perform upright rows. Your forearms will never get to heal if too many exercises end up targetting your forearms. As a result, you create trauma, and, in the end, all pulling movements will suffer.
The Upright Row Follows Unnatural Body Movement
Another reason why many people don’t like this exercise is the fact that it does not follow the natural pathway of your muscles. As soon as the barbell goes higher than your sternum, the shoulder joints often experience pain which, for some, can be a turn-down.
With all exercises, the goal is to create a natural flow when lifting. Especially when adding heavyweights, there is too much potential for injury if natural muscle movements are not maintained. This is why in the last few years, many established coaches no longer require their trainees to touch the bar on the chest while benching or go “ass to grass” when squatting.
So what are the best ways to train your mid-delts without any of these issues?
The solution – Train your mid-delt smart
The mid-delt muscle is trained using a variety of moves. Most established trainers will tell you that, for this particular muscle, the stretch and burn is more important than going all out with heavy weights. The muscle is small and, just like your biceps and triceps, can be trained lighter and multiple times per week. So, before getting into the alternative options, let’s first mention a few things you need to keep in mind.
1. Don’t overtrain your mid-delts
Evidence suggests that each muscle group requires between 16-20 sets per week for optimal performance and progression. Depending on the individual and their lifestyle this number might be a little bit higher or lower. You certainly don’t need to overtrain your shoulders and your back to see good results. You just need to progressively overload the muscle. A good amount of sets for your mid-delt, on a weekly basis, could be anywhere between 8-12 sets per week. 8 should be the high-end when training shoulders 1x per week while 12 is the high end of a 2x per week mid delt workout.
2. Focus on the stretch and full range of motion
The number one reason people feel pain during upright rows is because the put too much weight on the barbell. But the mid delt doesn’t need heavy weights to develop better. It needs a good stretch and a full range of motion. This is achieved either by using cables (to get a stretch on the bottom part of the movement as well) or by combining dumbell lat raises standing and lying sideways on a bench.
3. It’s ok to superset
When hitting your shoulders, the mid delt doesn’t require a long break (as compared to compound movements). Since it is a smaller muscle, you could combine your lat raises with some trap work, for example, shrugs. Perform the sets back to back and only then take a break.
4. Make sure you are ready for your workout
In order to continue progressing and feel a good pump, make sure your food and hydration are on point. Very often is not the exercise that causes painful discomfort, but the fact that you have no energy to pull through a heavy workout. Only change an exercise if you are certain that it is the cause of a problem.
Upright Row Alternatives
The following middle delt exercises are great for your shoulder development:
1. Dumbbell lat raises
Stand with your back straight and one dumbbell on each hand. Raise the weight upwards from the side while maintaining a small bend in your arms. To isolate your mid delt, make sure your hands remain pronated and slightly turning downwards (pinky higher than index finger). This exercise has several variations and is best done after some heavy pressing movements. Want to make things challenging? One of the best ways to demolish your mid-delts using this exercise is to dropset the “whole rack” during your last set.
2. Dumbbell lat raises (Charles Glass variation)
Charles Glass is one of the legendary bodybuilders of the golden era. Today, he is one of the most creative trainers when it comes to exercise selection. His lat raise is different in that the dumbell raises upwards from the front of the body with hands maintaining a pronated grip during the whole movement. Notice the difference in the hand position with the exercise shown previously. According to Charles, this variation better isolates the mid delts.
3. Lateral raise machine
Machines are always a great idea when trying to isolate a muscle. They are similar to cables in that they allow for a full range of motion with the same pressure applied during all stages of the movement. It is also a great way to work on dropsets and iso-holds.
4. Cable lat raises
Another great option, and my personal favorite upright row alternative, are cable lat raises. Before you do this exercise make sure you leave your ego at the door since you will be lifting light weights for multiple reps. With this exercise, you mid delts get the best bang for your buck and can be done both with the cable in front of you or behind you. Once again, when using cables, dropsets are a lot easier to setup. It might thus be a good idea to add them in as a challenge, possibly as your last set.