Ah… thought number 1: the bad rep Upright Row, cousins to bad rep Leg Extensions and Reverse Lunges and even little brother to the “horrible” Overhead Presses. These are all terrible exercises because some person once upon a time got injured doing them so they must be bad for everybody. Better throw Lat Pull Downs and Lateral Raises into the fire as well.
Or thought number 2: The issue is not the exercise, but the way it’s commonly performed. Any exercise done incorrectly can create issues for even the most healthy and well trained; and any exercise done perfectly in strict, flawless form can also create issues for certain individuals.
I’m going with thought number 2.
Consider the technique of many other exercises in which we move a weight implement in the same manner… power cleans, high pulls (at least the way it should be completed), snatches, etc. In these exercises the elbows do not travel much higher (if at all) than shoulder height before the shoulders start to rotate externally.
The issue with the Upright Row, as it is most commonly performed is the excessive internal rotation created by bringing the elbows too high at the top of the movement. The higher the elbows or the lower the wrists in relation to the elbows the greater the risk for shoulder impingement. To reduce this risk the exercise can be modified so that the elbows don’t come much higher than shoulder height and the humerus is not greater than 20 degrees above horizontal (parallel to the floor).