Upright Row vs. Lateral Raise

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on July 12, 2022
4 min read

Lateral raises and upright rows are both great exercises for your shoulders. That doesn't mean that the two exercises will produce identical results, though. 

A lateral raise is an exercise that involves pulling a weight vertically up. You can use a dumbbell, looped resistance band, kettlebells, or a cable machine.

Lateral raises are an isolation exercise that focuses on your shoulders. They're mainly used to target strengthening shoulders rather than as part of a full-body workout.

Lateral raises focus on a single muscle group in your shoulders that include:

  • Lateral deltoid muscles
  • Front deltoid muscles
  • Upper trapezius (trap) muscles

The main muscle used during a lateral raise is the lateral delt.

About the lateral deltoid muscles. The lateral delts run across the top part of your shoulder and down toward your bicep. They allow you to move your arms out to your side, up, or down.

A lateral raise engages these muscles. By using dumbbells or resistance bands, you make the muscles stronger. 

Lateral raises use lower weight, so you'll need more reps. Aim for 10 to 30 reps per set.

Starting position. 

  1. Start in a standing or seated position in a chair without armrests.
  2. Hold your dumbbells or resistance bands in a fist with your palms facing your body. Hold them down by your side with your elbows extended but slightly bent.
  3. If you're standing, stand with your feet a little wider than your hips. 

Upward movement. 

  1. Engage your abdominal and core muscles, rotate your shoulders back and down, exhale, and bring the dumbbells out to your sides. 
  2. Exhale as you raise your arms.
  3. Your arms should be straight, your elbows and hands rising at the same time. 
  4. Stop once your hands reach your shoulder height.

Downward movement.

  1. After bringing them up to your shoulder height, slowly lower your arms to the starting position.
  2. Inhale as you lower your arms.

Lighter weights are best for lateral raises. As an isolation exercise, it utilizes fewer muscles and can be harder to do with heavier weights. 

Resistance bands are a great, low-weight alternative for lateral raises. You can also use everyday objects like tote bags weighted with books.

Lateral raises have great benefits depending on your needs:

  • They specifically target your shoulder muscles.
  • It's an easy exercise for beginners.
  • The equipment is accessible and easy to get. 
  • Lateral raises are easy to do at home.

The biggest mistake most people make is starting with too heavy a weight. Using little to no weight is recommended for developing good form.

Another common mistake is to use the momentum from the hips. Keep your hips and trunk steady and don't thrust with your hips to drive the weights upward. 

An upright row is an exercise that uses minimal equipment. Like a lateral raise, an upright row can be done with dumbbells, kettlebells, or similar weights. 

For the most effective exercise, use a barbell. A barbell guarantees a well-rounded exercise for your upper body.

The upright row is a compound exercise. It strengthens multiple muscle groups in your upper body and can be a part of a full-body workout.

As a compound exercise, upright rows work multiple muscle groups:

  • Lateral deltoid muscles
  • Front deltoid muscles
  • Upper trapezius (trap) muscles
  • Rhomboids
  • Biceps

The primary focus of the upright row is the lateral and front deltoid muscles. The difference is that it engages more muscle groups than the lateral raise. 

Upright rows use a heavier weight than lateral raises, so fewer reps are needed. Aim to do between 8 and 15 reps per set.

Starting position.

  1. Grab the weights you're using and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Stand straight with your arms and hands hanging slightly in front of you, palms facing you. 

Upward movement.

  1. Focus on your core, trunk, and shoulders. Bring your elbows slowly up and slightly back to pull the weight up.
  2. With the weight close to your body, raise it along your body vertically, close to your collarbone. 

Downward movement.

  1. Slowly return to the starting position, keeping the weight close to your body, and repeat.

You can always make upright rows easier by using less weight. Form is more important than weight, so opting to use resistance bands or light dumbbells can help.

For a more engaging exercise, use a wider grip on a barbell. A wide grip utilizes more muscle groups that can strengthen more of your upper body.

Upright rows have many of the same benefits as lateral raises. A few extra benefits include:

  • All-around strength for your shoulders, making your shoulders look bigger
  • Stronger trap muscles to help with other exercises
  • Engaging biceps

The main mistake of upright rows isn't much of a mistake: Many people simply don't raise the weight high enough. 

Only raising the weight to your mid-chest will still work your muscles, but you won't see the same effects as consistently raising the weight to your collarbone. 

You may also raise the bar by using your leg or hip momentum, letting the bar swing up into position. Always focus on letting your body stay stationary and engaging your upper body.

The main difference between lateral raises and upright rows is the muscles they work. Choosing between the two comes down to the results you want. 

If you're trying to strengthen your shoulders to overcome persistent pain or to excel at certain activities, lateral raises may help. 

Upright rows, on the other hand, tackle many muscles, increasing your overall upper body strength. Improving these muscles also increases the overall size of those muscles, giving them that classic, superhero appearance. 

Whatever your goals are, lateral raises and upright rows are great for improving your shoulder strength.