Why You Do Not Want To Do Shoulder Lateral Raises and Upright Rows

Shoulder biomechanics is a good topic to start our blog with as there are so many exercises done improperly that lead to significant injury.  I’ll discuss two here.  Before I begin, I’ll address some basic biomechanics.

The shoulder is a complicated joint complex that has three primary joints: the acromioclavicular joint, the sternoclavicular joint, and the glenohumeral joint.  The sternoclavicular joint helps connect the shoulder girdle to the sternum, the acromioclavicular joint connects (although not too well) the scapula bone to the clavicle, and the glenohumeral joint is the big ball and socket joint that moves the most and is what we generally think of when we discuss the shoulder.

Unlike the hip joint, the shoulder gives up stability for mobility.  This means that the soft tissues (muscles, ligaments) holding the shoulder together are relatively fragile, especially if we do things to hurt them.  Improper exercises can really lead to a lot of damage in a relatively short period of time.  As we all know, shoulder injuries are quite common and this is easy to see when you watch people work out in the gym.

The rotator cuff is a combination of 4 muscles that work as dynamic stabilizers of the shoulder.  This means that they help to keep the shoulder together while the rest of the muscles in the region actually move the shoulder.  The health of the rotator cuff is of utmost importance.  Without proper shoulder stability, injury will occur.  Unfortunately, the rotator cuff is generally not addressed properly as few have proper training to properly train the shoulders.

So, this brings us back to the discussion of why lateral raises (in the coronal plane) along with upright rows are bad.  I’ll go as far as saying that if you do these exercises, it’s not a matter of if, but when, you’ll end up damaging your rotator cuff/shoulder.  Why is this?

When we bring our arms up to the side, we enter into a range called the ‘painful arc’ when the shoulder is between 60 and 120 degrees of abduction.  By the time we have abducted 90 degrees, the humeral head has elevated about 3 mm.  This doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is more than enough to put it in close proximity with the acromion process.  Within this range, we can easily compress the structures between the acromion and the humeral head…the main structures being the sub-acromial and sub-deltoid bursa sacs as well as the supraspinatus tendon.  Repeated movement in this range, especially with weights in our hands, will eventually lead to damage to the structures listed above.  The situation gets worse the more you work in this range as the instability in the body leans to arthritic changes.  Unless you change your movements, there is really no way around this!

In regards to the upright row, I still cannot figure out why anyone does this.  I remember taking my CSCS test from the NSCA and having a practical question that asked what you should do if an upright row hurt.  The only correct answer (which was totally WRONG) was to bring the bar up less high.  What a foolish way of dealing with this.  It essentially is telling the strength coach to hurt the client just a bit less!  The upright row essentially replicates an orthopedic test called the Hawkin’s Test.  This test checks if shoulder abduction with internal rotation and compression of the glenohumeral joint creates pain.  If it does, you have supraspinatus damage.  The upright row simulates the Hawkin’s Test to a very close degree, effectively creating a torquing motion that compresses your glenohumeral joint and crushes your acromion process into the aforementioned bursa sacs and supraspinatus musculature.

This begs the question: why do people do these exercises and what are they trying to achieve?  What muscles are being trained SAFELY with the upright row?  Why do them at all?…can other exercises that are safe be implemented instead?

The discussion is open!

This entry was posted in Biomechanics, Shoulder, Working Out. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Why You Do Not Want To Do Shoulder Lateral Raises and Upright Rows

  1. Sherwood Minor says:

    Not being as knowledgeable as most I look forward to hearing what people of a stronger background then myself have to say.

    Yet to address one of the exercises, namely the Upright Row, from a personal but non-scientific point of view, this was my personal find of the exercise.

    For me I found my traps were worked and developed indirectly through back exercises and squats so I never felt the need to do Upright Rows. When I tried Upright Rows just to see what they were like, I never really got anything out of then, nor did I like the position it put ones wrist, hence I never put them in my routine any more. Because of this I never really involved my clients in the exercise either.

    Shrugs I was never big on either except occasionally. So when people felt I had developed traps and asked what I did, I told them I never really worked them directly with Shrugs or Upright Rows.

    There was one exercise I did as a youth (Teenager to Young adult) that did develop my traps and was the only exercise I did for my shoulders for a while directly besides the Shoulder Press which I was also not big on. There was an exercise I used to do in my early workout days where I started out like I was doing laterals with dumbbells than I continued/proceeded to take the dumbbells over my head like one would when they were doing jumping jacks. Then I would bring the dumbbells back down in the same path I took them up from flaring my traps up on the way down like when a bodybuilder does a most muscular pose, only I wouldn’t bend over that much. That was the only thing I did for years, until one day for some reason (Which I’m sure you can tell me since the movement includes the Lateral movement) it began to bother my shoulders so I stopped.

    But like I said I wasn’t, really into Shrugs or Upright Rows and people thought I had decent traps. In my personal opinion I think my traps were also developed slightly during the days of lifting heavy and not using the best technique. Just tying to move the weight.

    Lastly, less I forget, I was also big into Deadlifts as well, in my earlier days of lifting.

    With that being said I would be curious and appreciative to hear your take on Laterals since it’s such a popular exercise.

    As far as working the posterior deltoid, I do sometime employ a different exercise as you suggested some time ago, rather than what is called Rear Laterals all the time.

    I feel you could probably add speaking on Rear Laterals as well as Laterals and Upright Rows in this discussion.

    But today, when working with clients, I’m much more interested in doing exercises that go with the natural movement of the body as much as possible. It seems more functional and safe for the client that way, yet still progressive.

  2. Dr. Manison says:

    Sherwood,

    As you remarked, you were able to train your shoulders with other exercises. I always wonder what people think they are training when they do upright rows. It’s a rotational movement in the coronal (maybe a bit of scapular) plane with compression into the glenohumeral joint. It can really do no good.

    Shrugs are generally safe, provided you don’t roll your shoulders. However, you have to remember that the upper trapezius tend to be facilitated while the lower and middle trapezius are inhibited. Because of this prevalent pattern, you really have to focus on all parts of the trapezius. As you are aware, most people only train the upper trapezius, and this leads to faulty postural patterns and an increased likelihood for injury.

    Concerning the exercise you used to do, I’d have to see it as it’s hard for me to visualize this motion. It’s safe to say that if you’re in the coronal plane, you’re doing significant damage as you’re going right through the painful arc (60-120 degrees of abduction in the coronal plane). If you were in the scapular plane, you could still be creating harm if you’re raising the scapula too much…again, I’d have to see this.

    Regarding ‘laterals’, this is addressed in the blog. Side deltoid raises, which also train the supraspinatus, are considered laterals. This motion, in the coronal plane, is very dangerous and should be avoided. Keep your motion in the scapular plane to avoid compression of the structures between the acromion process and humeral head.

    Rear laterals? I think you mean ‘rear deltoids’. This motion is also very particular…it is usually performed incorrectly (people sitting, hunched all the way over, swinging the arms back, etc…). There is only one proper way to train the rear deltoids…maybe I should save this for a future blog?

  3. Very educational article. Does the lateral rise with the thumb rotated upwards to the ceiling helps to prevent the impingment of the supraclavicular muscle, provided the arm does not go up higher than 90 degrees to the shoulder? What about if the elbow is sightly flexed in less than 40 degrees to the arm with the thumb rotated upwards, as above, to prevent impingement?
    Thanks.
    JohnF Riquelme, MD.

  4. Dr. Manison says:

    You are referring to a ‘full’ can exercise vs. the ‘empty’ can (thumbs down). Studies show that the muscle is activated about the same…those studies do not discuss likelihood for injury, though. If you externally rotate (thumbs up), you are better off. More importantly though, keep the arm moving in the scapular plane to further reduce impingement. How far the elbow is flexed really does not make a difference as the impingement occurs at the shoulder and it is not dependent on elbow flexion…hope this helps…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>