Forgotten Exercises: Monkey Rows


Monkey or Armpit Rows… Admittedly it’s not the most enticing of names. Regardless of its poor labelling the following exercise is one of my favourite forgotten exercises of recent times. A godsend for individuals with shoulder pain, Monkey Rows offer a great alternative to commonplace exercises for trap and deltoid development like the upright row. So in today’s brief post we’ll be discussing the correct way to perform the Monkey Row and try dig into its history a little bit deeper.

Monkeying Around

How to perform the perfect Monkey Row? Thankfully this one is simple enough. Begin with a pair of dumbbells in each hand. Bring the dumbbells to the side of your body and exhaling out, pull the dumbbells as far up the sides of your body as is comfortable. Some people like to hold the dumbbells at the top for an additional second, which to me is sadistic, but to each their own right?

So what’s special about this particular movement? Well as someone with a history of wrist and shoulder pain, the Monkey Row allows me to train my deltoids and traps without risking any unwanted injuries. During times when my body isn’t slowly breaking down, the Monkey Row also provides a nice addition to any supersets or circuits I might be running. A recent example of this is a Dumbbell Shrug/Monkey Row superset I’ve been using at the end of my upper body workouts after I’ve fried my shoulders with some military pressing.

Now for those visual learners out there the following video provides a nice illustration of the Monkey Row in action

The History of the Monkey Row

As is so often the case with these stranger movements, it has proven particularly difficult to trace the history of the Monkey Row. Internet trawling has however led us to a rough starting point. Writing in 2014, Eric Neil Augspurger claimed that

Back in the early 1970s I used to lift weights at the old YMCA in my hometown and a unique exercise was popular in the gym at the time that was done with a pair of dumbbells to work the traps and side delfts that we never did give an adequate name to..  Today we would probably refer to this exercise as an Armpit Row or Monkey Row for want of a better name.  So what is an Armpit Row or a Monkey Row?  No doubt many seasoned bodybuilders and weight trainers have never heard of this exercise and even fewer have performed it.  In a nutshell, it is the exact opposite movement of a parallel bar dip.

So while we cannot say who invented the exercise, we can say that it appears to have existed as far back as the 1970s. Now as a further development it is interesting to note the rise of the ‘Monkey Shrug’ in recent years. The brainchild of Adam Meakins, the ‘Monkey Shrug’ is a clever twist on the traditional Monkey Row. Devised to help those suffering from trap pain, Meakins began publishing the Monkey Shrug from 2013 onwards. You’ll see from Meakins’ below video just how similar the two exercises are

Incorporating the Monkey Row

So admittedly this isn’t an exercise you’re likely to see in the near future but I would strongly urge you to consider using it as part of your shoulder workout. Returning to Meakins, the Monkey Row/Shrug can help solve a litany of shoulder and neck pain. What I would recommend doing is incorporating the exercise as part of your warm up routine or near the end of your workout to really work the traps. From personal experience I’d recommend using higher reps, say somewhere in the region of 12.

How about you? Have you used or seen the Monkey Row before? Let us know in the comments below.

As always… Happy Lifting!

11 thoughts on “Forgotten Exercises: Monkey Rows

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  1. Yes i have used this for a few off my favourite shoulder exercises.secound to millitary press.i saw it in an old fitness book but i never see it or hear of anyone doing it.

    1. Hi Lee, thanks for getting in touch. Glad to find another Monkey Rows user! Its a great exercise isn’t it? I never see anyone in my gym using it and often get quite a few stares when I use it!

  2. I started doing these rows purely by accident, didn’t know it had a name! Was just trying to find a way to isolate my left middle delt to correct an imbalance, without killing my shoulders & wrists, which was happening with the upright row. Been doing armpit /monkey rows for 2 months, noticable improvements.

    1. Hey Nicholas, thanks so much for stopping by. That’s very funny about the Monkey Row. Glad you discovered them on your own. They’re a godsend for those with shoulder problems aren’t they? Wishing you continued improvements!

  3. Funny, I was trying to come up with something that would be a perfect inverse of a parallel bar dip, and pictured something like this; I typed my description into google and this was the first result I got – very cool, and thank you for sharing.

  4. Just tried the Monkey Row. I have been dogged by a pinched nerve in my upper back for the past few days, and doing some Monkey Rows did seem to ameliorate the pain. Good exercise!

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