Are Cable Upright Rows Safe?
Table of Contents
This article will look at the safety of cable upright rows and also compare with other upright row variations using bands, dumbbells and barbells.
Are Cable Upright Rows Safe?
The rope attachment allows for some external rotation as you approach the top of the range of motion. You are not locked in like you are with barbells and there is also no stress on the wrists.
Cables allow for a constant tension throughout the range of motion – this is a big benefit. If you use a straight bar attachment on the cable pulley you will likely experience some pain. Therefore it can be said that cable rope upright rows are safest.
Common Safety Concerns
You will often hear people in the gym telling others that upright rows are a dangerous exercise. Whist this is not entirely true, there are some legitimate safety concerns.
Firstly, bringing the bar up whilst your shoulders are internally rotated can lead to impingement. This is particularly true if you bring your arms above shoulder height. This traditional position can lead to subacromial impingement .
There are also concerns with regards to the wrists. When you perform barbell upright rows, you will find that your wrists can get into an awkward position at the top. It can cause undue stress on the wrists.
Cable upright rows with the rope attachment avoid these safety concerns. This is due to the greater freedom of movement that the rope affords you. You can get into some external rotation on the way up. The rope will also allow you to get a complete range of motion without experiencing any pain.
The narrow grip upright row is better for building up the traps, whilst a wider grip will hit the medial delts better. Personally, I prefer a closer grip for the traps. However, I am sure not to go ultra close.
You have to find the position on upright rows that works best for your anthropometry and feels most natural. This will reduce the risks associated with this exercise and make it feel better.
Personal Experience With Upright Rows
Over the years I have performed countless upright rows and with many different tools. I have used a straight bar, EZ-bar, dumbbells, bands and cables. Overall I would say that the safest variation is the cable rope upright row, followed closely by bands.
Both bands and cables allow for constant tension throughout the range of motion. The movement feels smoother and more natural. Dumbbells are also good for upright rows as you have the same freedom of motion as the rope.
Dumbbell upright rows don’t pose a risk if they are done with good technique. From my experience, the most dangerous are upright rows with a straight barbell. With a straight bar you are locked into a fixed range of motion.
If you go heavy with a straight bar it is likely that you will have shoulder impingement issues down the line. It is risky for the rotator cuffs and not worth the risk in my view.
I would always choose cable upright rows first. But you can also use bands or dumbbells to perform the exercise with very little risk.
There is a good article by Set For Set delving deep into the upright row. You can check it out here.
Views Of Bald Omni-Man
Bald Omni-Man has a tongue in cheek video about the safety of upright rows which can be seen below. He makes some very good points about this exercise and how it is not as dangerous as many people perceive.
He points to the fact that many elite weightlifters spend a lot of their time with larger loads and internally rotating their shoulders. I also agree with him when he says that if you can perform an upright row variation with no pain, you should be able to add a little weight and still feel no pain.
I can attest to this with regards to cable upright rows. I was able to perform that exercise with no pain using very little weight and I still feel no pain today. With barbell upright rows, I would feel pain even with very little weight.
To make upright rows feel more comfortable he advised people to perform the movement in the scapular plane. You can use your shoulders and upper back better and it doesn’t “jam joints on joints”.
In my own training I perform upright rows in this way and find that the exercise feels a lot better and smoother. You can also go very heavy on cable rope upright rows without feeling any pain.
There was a study published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal in 2011  which examined the upright rows and ways to prevent shoulder impingement.
The author’s recommendation was to modify the range of motion in order to reduce the risk of subacromial impingement. Their advice was to elevate the arms during the upright row to just below 90 degrees (shoulder height). Other studies also concur with this recommendation.
Many people figure this out for themselves when doing exercises like the barbell upright row. The body gives out pain signals when something is causing discomfort. If you listen to your body it is easy to recognise where adjustments should be made.
This exercise is fantastic as it allows for a full range of motion to be utilised without any pain. You will also benefit from a constant tension throughout the range of motion.
Other versions of the upright row that are less risky involve using dumbbells and bands. If you perform barbell upright rows and haven’t yet suffered from shoulder impingement, I would recommend altering the range of motion so that you don’t elevate your arms above shoulder height.
If you have any comments on this topic please leave them below. As always, stay safe and enjoy your training!
 Cibrario M. Preventing weight room rotator cuff tendonitis: A guide to muscular balance. Strength Cond J 19: 22–25, 1997.
>> RELATED: Check out my article on face pulls!