If there is one exercise that makes me cringe and fear for peoples safety it’s when I see them performing the upright row with a kettlebell.
If you are one of those people who uses the kettlebell upright row or is thinking of giving it a try then I implore you to stop.
Today I’m going to show you why you should not be using the kettlebell upright row and much safer and more effective alternatives.
The 5 main issues with the KB upright rows are:
1 Develops Problems with Shoulder Impingement
The upright row is performed by holding a kettlebell with both hands by the handle and then pulling it directly upwards to around upper chest height.
In principle the exercise appears quite straightforward but it is what is happening to the shoulder and rotator cuff muscles that is cause for concern.
The problem begins with the closed grip way that you hold the kettlebell. With the kettlebell hanging down with straight arms there is worrying issues but once you start to bring the kettlebell directly up the shoulders are forced into internal rotation.
Holding the kettlebell with both hands makes matters worse because each hand prevents the other one from natural rotating outwards. However, don’t think that using two kettlebells will save you, the shoulders still remain in a compromised position when performing the same movement with two kettlebells.
With the shoulders internally rotated inwards and the hands elevated the tendon of the supraspinatus (one of the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder) can get impinged and aggravated by the bony provinces of the local area.
In short, the shoulder is placed in a position that it is naturally not designed to be in and through repetition starts to aggravate the soft tissue.
Many people can perform the upright row without feeling any pain at first but over time shoulder issues will start to present themselves.
2 Creates Further Bad Posture
As a personal trainer and kettlebell instructor one of the common problems I get presented with is an over activation of the upper back or trapezius muscles.
Due to most peoples daily routine of sitting in front of computers, mobile phones, or tv’s, bad posture is more common than ever.
Overactive trapezius muscles is a primary cause of Upper Crossed syndrome which results in a forward head posture, upper back rounding and a whole slew of problems from headaches and pinched nerves to breathing difficulties.
One of the easiest ways to further exacerbate upper back and neck issues is by performing the kettlebell upright row.
The constant shrugging of the the shoulders and compression at the neck feeds into the vicious cycle of over activation of the trapezius muscles which leads to an under activation of the cervical flexors at the front of the neck.
Almost everyone should be spending more time using exercises that keep their shoulders down rather than feeding a postural problem that exists in most of us.
Discover more: 11 Kettlebell exercises to improve your posture
3 Uses a Kettlebell Inefficiently
The kettlebell is an incredible workout tool that can produce some truly great results quickly and efficiently.
However, kettlebell training is often misunderstood and used just like a different shaped dumbbell. Dumbbell training with a kettlebell completely misses out on the major benefit of the kettlebell and that is it’s ability to be used more dynamically.
The true benefits of kettlebell training come from when you use your full body dynamically to swing, push and pull the kettlebell using every muscle in your body.
You can save huge amounts of time using kettlebells by flowing from one exercise to the next or using complex exercises like the clean and press. Using the kettlebell in this way challenges your cardio at the same time so you can even cut down on your cardio workouts.
Now consider the kettlebell upright row, which was originally adapted from the barbell upright row. Not only is this exercise jeopardising your shoulder health but its also feeding into a poor postural loop.
The kettlebell upright row is a bodybuilding exercise that isolates more than it integrates the body. There are much more effective kettlebell exercises than the upright row that can get more done in less time.
4 Not As Effective As Upright Row Alternatives
The reason that many people perform the kettlebell upright row is to develop the upper back and shoulder muscles.
However, as I’ve mentioned above over activation of the upper Trapezius muscles can lead to serious postural issues and pulling a weight while your arms are internally rotated can damage your shoulders.
To exercise the shoulder muscles more effectively you should use a two pronged approach.
First you should work on your shoulder stabilisation with exercises including the Turkish Get Up, Overhead Holds and Windmills. Then second progress to more prime mover shoulder based exercises including the clean and overhead press.
Working through this two stage process ensures that your smaller stabilising shoulder muscles are resilient before you start over utilising your larger deltoid shoulder muscles.
If you want to challenge your cardio while still using a pulling based movement for the upper back then the kettlebell high pull is the best choice. With the high pull the kettlebell gets pulled backwards rather than upwards so the shoulder does not get injured or impinged.
Learn more: 10 best kettlebell exercises for the shoulders
5 No Practical Carry Over Into Daily Life
One final point to bare in mind is how the kettlebell upright row has no real impact on your daily life activities.
For example, squats help you sit down and stand up again, deadlift variations help you safely pick things up from the floor, and lunges help you climb steps and hills.
Kettlebell upright rows have no purpose in daily life. Getting strong at upright rows just makes you good at upright rows.
Using exercises that have a natural carry over into daily life are generally safer and utilise your full body.
One of my favourite practical exercises is the farmers carry below:
I’m sure you can see how the farmers carry would apply to daily life, carrying groceries is a simple example.
Not only is the farmers carry practical but it’s also an excellent exercise to develop the shoulders and trapezius muscles in a way that is better for counteracting bad posture.
The farmers carry pulls the trapezius muscles down rather than elevating them which is what happens when sat at a desk all day.
As an added bonus the farmers carry is also a superb core exercise, your core has to work hard to keep your spine upright and protected at you walk. If you think about it, the farmers carry is like a moving side plank.
Discover more: 5 bodyweight core exercises every beginner should master
Conclusion to the Kettlebell Upright Row
Kettlebell training is a great way to change the way you look and feel but using the kettlebell upright row is not the safest or best use of your time.
You can choose much more effective kettlebell exercises for both the shoulders and upper back that are both safe and will help prevent further postural issues.
If losing weight is one of your goals then there are also more effective exercises that you can choose that activate more muscles and burn more calories without the risks.
I really hope that this article was useful for you and you continue to use your kettlebells in a safe and effective way.
To see more posts about pull workouts, go here.
Do you still use the Kettlebell Upright Row? Let me know more below….
A MUCH safer alternative to the upright row is the armpit row (a.k.a. side raise, standing side pull or – funny as it may sound – “monkey row”).
My 2 cents. The upright row is not a dangerous exercise per se. The fact is that most people do it wrongly. First of all, the exercise should be done with a kb in each hand (or in the single-arm fashion). Secondarily, the starting position shouldn’t have the hand(s) holding the kb(s) in front of the thigs, but down by the side(s). Third, the elbow(s) should NEVER travel past the shoulder level. For a better understanding, try gripping a broomstick with a shoulder-width grip and do the movement. I’ve always done this exercise this way and I never ever had shoulder problems. About the upright row having no real impact on daily activities, well, it’s the same movement you do every single time you raise your hand at shoulder level. Anyway, that’s just my opinion.
I have just started using this exercise, the Kettlebell Upright Row, for working my shoulders and upper body. I had a feeling that this was not a safe exercise based on simply the actions involved and the stresses I could feel on my joints. I’m glad I found this information. I am going to remove the KUR from my workouts and begin using the alternatives you’ve mentioned here. Thanks for the info
A really excellent article. I actually gave up on this exercise about 20 years ago simply because it was painful. Anyone still wasting their time and risking injury should read this. Although I once saw a bloke rip his big gold chain off by catching his thumb in it doing this exercise, so maybe it’s useful for giving us a good laugh in the gym.