by Tom McCullough

Quite a few bodybuilders use upright rows to train the shoulders. But where to grip the bar may be a big help in getting the most out of your training. Most videos you see showing how to do an upright row show the hands in almost a close grip on the bar. However current research shows that this particular grip might not be the best for big shoulders.

McAllister, MJ, Schilling, BK, Hammond, KG, Weiss, LW, and Farney, TM. Effect of grip width on electromyographic activity during the upright row. J Strength Cond Res 27(1): 181–187, 2013.


The upright row (URR) is commonly used to develop the deltoid and upper back musculature. However, little information exists concerning muscle recruitment during variations of this exercise. Sixteen weight-trained men completed 2 repetitions each in the URR with 3 grip conditions: 50, 100, and 200% of the biacromial breadth (BAB). The load was the same for all grip conditions and was equal to 85% of the 1RM determined at 100% BAB. Repeated measures analyses of variance were used to compare the maximal activity of the anterior deltoid (AD), lateral deltoid (LD), posterior deltoid (PD), upper trapezius (UT), middle trapezius (MT), and biceps brachii (BB) during the 3 grip widths for eccentric and concentric actions. Significant differences (p < 0.05) were noted in concentric muscle activity for LD (p < 0.001) and PD (p < 0.001), and in eccentric muscle activity for AD (p = 0.023), LD (p < 0.001), UT (p < 0.001), MT (p < 0.001), and BB (p = 0.003). Bonferroni post hoc analysis revealed significant pairwise differences in the concentric actions from the LD (50% vs. 200% BAB and 100% vs. 200% BAB) and PD (50% vs. 200% BAB and 100% vs. 200% BAB), and eccentric actions of the LD (all comparisons), UT (all comparisons), MT (50% vs. 200% BAB and 100% vs. 200% BAB), and BB (50% vs. 200% BAB), with large-to-very-large effect sizes (ESs). Moderate-to-large ESs were noted for several nonsignificant comparisons. The main findings of this investigation are increased deltoid and trapezius activity with increasing grip width, and correspondingly less BB activity. Therefore, those who seek to maximize involvement of the deltoid and trapezius muscles during the URR should use a wide grip.

In the study of anthropometry, biacromial breadth is the distance between the most lateral points of the two acromion processes in a subject standing upright with arms hanging loosely at the sides. It is a measure of shoulder width. Se the picture below:

So according to the is study the close grip (50%), arms straight down (100%) and arms at about 30 degrees from the body (200%) were all tested using EMG while doing the upright row. The 200% grip showed the most activity in the deltoids as well as the traps. Researchers concluded that those who seek to maximize involvement of the deltoid and trapezius muscles during the upright row should use a wide grip. Is this wise advice?

Well let’s take a look at pro-bodybuilder Jay Cutler who is known to have some of the best shoulders in the business. When you look at the first few minutes of this video note that Cutler not only uses dumbbells but he uses a wide grip. Also notice that he cuts the range of motion to about chest high to no doubt maximize deltoid involvement and minimize the involvement of the upper fibers of the trapezius. Since the upper fibers of the trapezius contract to move the scapula upwards what we are trying to maximize in this particular movement in order to concentrate more on the deltoids.


Also note from this great video (below) some of the tips Cutler gives to what he feels is best for big shoulders.


Cutler also feels free weights are much more effective than machines and adds he prefers dumbbells over barbells because dumbbells allow for isolateral movements which prevent differences in growth from one side of the body to the other..

Cutlers’ order or preference:
  1. Free weights (dumbbells over barbells)
  2. Hammer (isolateral)
  3. Selectorized machines / cables