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Upright rows have long been a staple exercise for shoulders. After all, shoulder presses and upright rows are the only multi-joint movements for the shoulders. While shoulder presses are a pushing exercise that include mainly the three deltoid heads and the trapezius, upright rows are a pulling movement that target the same muscles.
The upright row is typically done with a close grip (about half of shoulder width) because it allows the elbows to raise higher than the shoulders for maximum range of motion (ROM). But going with a wider-than-shoulder-width grip on upright rows is beneficial for two main reasons: it prevents the elbows from going too high, which can promote rotator cuff injuries, and it involves more of the middle head of the deltoids, which provides the real mass with roundness and width.
Researchers from Memphis University measured muscle activity of the front, middle, and rear deltoids, as well as the upper and middle traps during upright rows performed with a close grip (half of shoulder width), a shoulder-width grip, and a two-times wider-than-shoulder-width grip. With the two-times shoulder-width grip, the muscle activity of both the middle deltoid and even the rear deltoid increased by more than 20% compared with the close grip. Also, the wider grip increased muscle activity of the upper traps.
So, what’s the verdict?
Doing the upright row with a wider-than-shoulder-width grip is the best option to target the deltoids and the traps. Add the upright row, using a twice-than shoulder-width grip, into your workouts somewhere in between shoulder presses and raises. This will allow you to focus more on the middle delts and even hit the rear deltoids, as well as the traps. Also consider doing upright rows on the Smith machine, as well as with dumbbells.