In the last year I have had the opportunity to take over the strength and conditioning efforts with the volleyball team at the University of New Hampshire. As a result I have had to do a lot more research and gain more understanding of the shoulder in order to maintain and improve the health of our team.
Thankfully there are always people in our industry that put out phenomenal information for free on various topics, and the shoulder is no different. Surprising to no one, I turned to Eric Cressey (as well as others) and his website, which has been a lifesaver in gaining more knowledge and gaining a better understanding of the shoulder.
One thing kept coming up when reading the work of all these incredibly smart people: Upright Rows are a terrible idea, and not just for overhead athletes but basically for almost everyone. Even though the exercise has been popularized by bodybuilders for developing the muscles of the shoulder girdle and maybe more specifically the traps, it is a very bad choice for most people, especially overhead athletes.
Don’t want to hear it from me? How about from Eric Cressey?
“I’ll be blunt; in my experience, of all the potentially harmful exercises for the shoulder girdle, this one (upright row) warrants the most apprehension.” Eric Cressey
So why is the upright row contraindicated?
The upright row places the glenohumeral (GH) joint into abduction and internal rotation. Abduction and internal rotation is the exact position that creates impingement of the rotator cuff and subacromial bursa. Additionally, in many cases, people will perform the upright row by elevating the scapulae and protracting their head has they raise the bar or the dumbbells.
There aren’t a ton of good things going on with the upright row. Most of these things that are undesirable when training most anyone, especially an overhead athlete. I would argue that no one should be performing the exercise, but think it’s downright careless to have an overhead athlete perform the exercise.
What should you do instead of upright rows to develop the shoulders?
Again, look to the work of Eric Cressey. Landmine presses are phenomenal for overhead athletes. Boring but extremely beneficial would be the classic push up, something that more people struggle with then you would intitially think. And last but not least, my favorite, the bottoms up KB overhead press. All these exercises should be staples in a strength program for an overhead athlete, making up the majority of their pressing movements.
Moral of the story, understand what you are doing and why you are doing it. Just because an exercise has been around for a while and is a staple in many strength programs doesn’t mean it is beneficial and should be included in any strength program.
Remember the number one rule of strength and conditioning, do no harm. Eliminate the bad, focus on the good.