Upright row, especially when done improperly, can lead to impingement and increased soreness in shoulder

Dear Colin: I’ve been doing the upright row for a few weeks as part of a new program my trainer put me on. It’s supposed to strengthen my shoulders and neck muscles, but I’ve started to notice that my shoulder joints are getting more sore than usual. Is this exercise OK, or should I be doing something else? My doctor’s telling me I should choose something else that’s “less destructive,” but I don’t know what this means. — Kimberly, Portland

I agree with your doctor, but let’s take a close look at the upright row first.

The upright row is a common exercise for the shoulder muscles, usually done with a barbell (or a dumbbell in each hand). Given the position of the hands relative to the shoulders and spine, the trapezius (i.e., the muscles at the base of your neck used to make a “shrugging” motion), shoulder and biceps muscles are the main muscles used as the bar is pulled upward along the front of the torso.

The main problem is the position of the elbow relative to the shoulder joint, coupled with the weight pulling the hand toward the ground. With the elbow higher than the shoulder and the hand/forearm being pulled downward, your upper arm bone presses against the roof of your shoulder blade, pinching sensitive tissues be­tween them (two tendons, many ligaments and a bursa). This is called “impingement” and can lead to chronic shoulder pain arising from rotator cuff muscle tears, tendinitis and/or bursitis.

And it’s important to realize that the upright row can still potentially cause damage even if you’re not experiencing symptoms. A perfect analogy is performing squats deeper than 50 degrees of knee bend: Just because your knees aren’t hurting now doesn’t mean abnormal forces aren’t being placed on your knees, which can lead to unnecessary wear and tear on knee joints.

A much safer alternative to the upright row exercise is the lateral raise, which should be done carefully to avoid shoulder and neck irritation. This is especially true if you have problems with your shoulder (rotator cuff tendinitis, im­pingement syndrome) and/or neck (degenerative disk disease, chronic neck pain). To facilitate safety and efficiency when learning the exercise, make sure you: Keep your head and torso absolutely still; use very light weight (so you can do at least 15 repetitions); start with your arms at 45 degrees away from your trunk and move to 90 degrees; keep your shoulder blades completely still (don’t shrug); keep your arms straight with dumbbells facing straight ahead.

One great benefit of the lateral raise is that it can be done anywhere with minimal equipment.

Just make sure you do it correctly to avoid more shoulder joint soreness. As with all strengthening exercises, the benefits can be astounding, but the exercises must be done with care.

Colin Hoobler is a licensed physical therapist, hosts a live health segment on KGW Channel 8 and has written two books on exercise as treatment for disease and injury

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