Lateral Raise Vs. Upright Row

group of men with barbells in gym

A strong upper body is important for both sports and daily functions. Strengthening the upper-body muscles takes dedicated effort and a steady workout schedule. Upright rows and lateral raises are two exercises commonly performed in a shoulder workout. Aside from the fact that they both require added resistance, they have varying characteristics. For a well-rounded workout, it is best to include them both.

Joint Movement

Compound exercises involve movement of more than one joint. Isolation exercises on the other hand, involve only one joint. This is one of the biggest differences between upright rows and lateral raises. When you do an upright row, you activate the shoulder, wrist and elbow joints all at the same time. A lateral raise activates only the shoulder joint. From an anatomical standpoint, compound exercises tend to build more muscle mass because they allow you to lift heavier weights.

Targeted Muscles

When you do an exercise with multiple joint movements, you in turn work multiple muscles. This is why you can lift heavier weights with the upright row. As the name implies, isolation exercises "isolate" a single muscle or part of a muscle. The main function of these exercises is to increase definition in one location. The shoulder area has a three-part muscle called the deltoid. It consists of a posterior, medial and anterior head. The delts are the main muscles targeted with lateral raises, and most of the focus goes to the medial segment. The word "medial" is used interchangeably with lateral. This part of the deltoids is on the side of the shoulder. The upright row targets the medial deltoid as well, but because you bend your elbows, you also work your biceps. The upper and middle trapezius -- the muscle that starts at the top of the neck and flares out over the collarbones -- also see a high amount of action.

Movement Pattern

The movement pattern is very different with the upright row and lateral raise. One involves moving your arms out to your sides and the other involves keeping your arms close to your body. To do an upright row, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a barbell in front of your thighs with your hands about 10 inches apart. Steadily raise the bar up as high as possible. The goal is to get the bar up to neck height, with your elbows higher than your forearms. Hold the top position for a second, slowly lower the bar and repeat.

The lateral raise is performed with dumbbells and involves an outward, arcing motion. Begin in the same starting position as with upright rows, except hold the weights in front of your thighs with your palms facing each other. Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, raise the weights out to your sides until your arms are parallel to the floor. Slowly lower them and repeat.

Equipment Options

Both upright rows and lateral raises offer you several different choices of equipment. Upright rows can be performed with a barbell, dumbbells, a weight machine, cables, kettle bells or resistance bands. Lateral raises, however, require tools that move freely to your sides. This narrows your options to cables, dumbbells or resistance bands. Your own body weight can also be an effective option for lateral raises.


With upright rows, you can change the placement of your hands, moving them either closer together or farther apart, when you work both shoulders simultaneously. By moving them out, you place more emphasis on the lateral and posterior delts and less on the traps. You can vary the speed, performing them slowly. You can also work different parts of your shoulders range of motion, focusing on the upper range one workout and the lower range in your next workout. With lateral raises, you have the option of using a palms-down or palms-forward grip. You can also slightly bend your elbows or change the angle of your arm. All of these variations will slightly change the emphasis on your muscles.

Safety Issues

Safety is a concern when it comes to doing upright rows. The debate is whether they cause excess stress on the rotator cuff, which is a small muscle group that surrounds the shoulder joint. As long as you perform the exercise with proper technique and do not have any current rotator cuff issues, the exercise is safe.