Nothing says you mean serious gym business more than rocking a pair of boulder-lookin’ shoulders. And while compound movements are essential for burning fat, building muscle, torching calories, and increasing strength, isolation moves like the lateral raise are the icing on top of your weight lifting cake.
Essentially, isolation moves are incremental in targeting specific muscle groups that a compound movement might not target. For the upper body, think spider or preacher curls, tricep extensions, and of course, as previously mentioned, lateral raises.
The lateral raise exercise helps show the sides of your shoulders some much-needed love, ensuring you have noticeably round deltoids while improving your shoulder stability and range of motion.
There are also plenty of great versions using an assortment of workout equipment, making it a versatile, broad shoulders move you can do at home or the gym.
In this post, we’ll discuss:
- What is the lateral raise?
- Muscles worked
- How to do the lateral raise
- Benefits of lateral raises and common mistakes
- 7best lateral raise variations
- Frequently asked lateral raise questions and answers
- Programming thelateral raise
What is the Lateral Raise?
The lateral raise is a shoulder isolation exercise that increases deltoid muscle hypertrophy, leading to muscle growth, improved joint stability, and a greater range of motion.
The lateral raise is commonly associated with raising dumbbells upward and laterally; however, there are many lateral raise variations, making this versatile move an excellent one to add to your upper body workout.
Whether you have free weights or kettlebells or access to a gym’s cable machine, one thing’s for certain: Adding this exercise into your strength training routine will create muscularly rounded shoulders that are certain to be the envy of fellow weight lifters.
It is also an excellent exercise to strengthen your shoulders for more demanding compound exercises, including the bench press or shoulder overhead press.
What Muscles Does the Lateral Raise Exercise Work?
The lateral raise primarily works the lateral deltoids, but since we’ve included variations that hit each shoulder head, all three muscles of the deltoid muscle group are included here.
1. Lateral Deltoids:
Found on your shoulder’s outer side, the lateral deltoid’s primary job is shoulder joint abduction, which enables you to lift your arm up and out to the side.
This movement is exactly what you do when performing the lateral raise, similar to these lateral deltoidexercises. Building side shoulder muscle is incremental in achieving wide rounded shoulders.
2. Anterior Deltoid:
The front shoulder's primary job is shoulder joint internal rotation, flexion, and horizontal flexion. Since the anterior deltoid is involved in most pushing exercises, like these frontdeltoid exercises, you typically hit this muscle sufficiently when completing your chest exercises for the week, such as the bench press.
Lateral raises also target the front delt, although to a much lesser extent than the work the side delt gets.
3. Posterior Deltoid:
Located on the back of the shoulder, the posterior deltoids work the opposite jobs of the anterior shoulder, including rear delt exercises that involve shoulder joint external rotation, extension, and horizontal extension.
The back shoulder muscles are involved in most pulling exercises, like the bent-over row. They don’t get much attention in the standard lateral raise, but we’ve included a variation that does target them.
Benefits of Lateral Raises
As if beautifully rounded shoulders weren't enough, there are also several other great benefits to working the lateral raise into your routine.
1. Contributes to rounded, muscular bolder shoulders.
Working your side shoulders is incremental in creating a V-taper look. Think about it: Your definition starts at your shoulders, so the wider they are, the more defined your V-look will seem.
In addition, the larger, wider, and rounder your shoulders get, the better the rest of your physique will look.
2. Improves shoulder strength, flexibility, and joint stability.
Similar to what we just discussed about the side shoulder muscles playing a big role in achieving your aesthetic physique, they are also crucial for overall shoulder health. They help prevent shoulder muscle imbalances, and by doing so, help to stabilize the shoulder joint.
And since this joint is the least stable and most mobile in the body, it’s injury prone. Strengthening it and its surrounding muscles ensures the joint remains flexible, stable, and strong.
3. Improves performance of compound movements.
Most pushing and pulling movements can’t be performed without activating the shoulder muscles. But if there is a muscle imbalance in your shoulders, which can happen with your lateral delts as they aren’t targeted in many main compound lifts, it results in muscle compensations and weakness.
And if your shoulders become imbalanced in any way, you’re going to notice that your major compound exercises, such as bench presses and barbell bent-over rows, will seem a lot more challenging (and not in a good way).
By creating a well-rounded workout program that targets all three shoulder muscle heads, you'll have strong anterior, lateral, and posterior delts that are evenly balanced and ready to help you push and pull those heavy weights.
Dumbbell Lateral Raise:Correct Form
- Grasp your dumbbells by your sides using a neutral grip with your palms facing your outer legs. Place your feet hip-width apart, bending your knees slightly.
- Keep your trunk upright as you bend forward slightly in your hips, ensuring your shoulders are slightly in front of your hips, maintaining a neutral head and neck. Roll your shoulders back, retract the shoulder blades, and gaze forward.
- Keep your arms straight with a slight bend in your elbows, simultaneously moving your dumbbells upward while lifting your dumbbells away from your body.
- Continue raising your dumbbells until your elbows reach shoulder height. Your palms should be facing toward the floor. Pause here, before slowly lowering the dumbbells back toward the sides of your legs.
Don't let these common mistakes sabotage your shoulder growth! Here are a few errors to keep an eye out for.
1. Your weights are too heavy.
In general, isolation moves are not the exercises you pull out your heaviest weights for, side lateral raise included. Select lighter weights that enable you to complete 8 to 12 reps per set are ideal.
If you can easily get to 12 without feeling the side shoulder burn, move up in weights to achieve muscle hypertrophy. Just don't increase it so much that you have to activate other muscles to lift them.
2. You lift with momentum rather than muscle.
Recall the poor form we just discussed with using overly heavy weights. When you lift heavy, you end up swinging the dumbbells up, rather than making the shoulder muscles slowly raise the weights. Look for cues such as tilting your trunk back and forward or using a bounce in the knees to help move them upward.
If either of these is occurring, it means your legs are involved, which takes a significant amount of work out of your lateral deltoid head. So even though you’re using heavier weights, you’re less likely to fatigue your side shoulders enough to achieve hypertrophy. This is also a great exercise to use for muscular endurance.
And as the shoulder joint is the most mobile in the body, thrusting your dumbbells upward significantly increases your chance of injuring your shoulder. Do your shoulders a favor and select weights that enable you to move with slow control.
3. You’re moving too fast.
Slow and steady wins the best-defined shoulder race. Use control as you bring the dumbbells upward and back down again. If you’re moving through the motions too quickly, you’re likely using momentum (see mistake #2).
4. You strain your neck.
Part of the correct form for the lateral raise is to keep a neutral neck and a forward gaze. If you notice that you’re looking downward when performing the exercise, your neck is likely straining, another common sign is weights are too heavy and your shoulders are overly fatigued.
If you notice neck strain or your neck forward occurring, correct your form so your neck moves back to neutral and you gaze straight ahead. You may also need to drop your weights. Remember, this isn't the ideal move for improving strength.
5. You involve your traps.
Overly heavy weights are going to activate your trapezius muscle, which is not what you want in a shoulder isolation exercise. An easy way to check is if you notice your shoulders shrugging upward during the lateral raise.
If you can see (mirrors are great for form checks!) or feel your shoulders moving up with your dumbbells, lower your weights, stat.
If after switching to lower weights you can still feel your traps putting in work, use your mind-muscle connection as you apply force to the sides of your shoulders and picture pushing the weights away from each other.
The 7Best Lateral Raise Variations
There is no shortage of variations when it comes to the lateral raise. Whether you’re using dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, or gym equipment, there’s a version here best suited to help you meet your shoulder-building goals.
1. Bent Over Lateral Raise:
Also referred to as the rear lateral raise, your rear deltoids rather than your lateral shoulder muscles are targeted in this exercise. Again, it’s important to not go overly heavy with your weights, or you’ll turn it into a back exercise. Don't get us wrong - barbell back exercises are great. Just not when you're trying to target your shoulder.
How to do the Bent Over Lateral Raise:
- Grabbing your dumbbells, hinge at the hips, and bend your torso until your chest parallels the floor. Your arms begin the move extended, with the dumbbells hanging toward the floor.
- Slowly raise your dumbbells out to the sides with your elbows slightly bent. Continue raising until your arms are parallel to the floor, in line with your shoulders.
- Lower back down, and repeat.
2. Dead Stop Lateral Raise:
Looking for a move that achieves shoulder hypertrophy, promotes good form, and supports delt health and function? The dead stop lateral raise checks all the boxes.
The main difference with this variation is you sit on a bench, rather than stand, while focusing on not allowing your shoulders to fully relax as your dumbbells lower down.
Maintaining shoulder tension throughout the exercise is key to fatiguing your lateral delts. Avoid using too much weight for this exercise, using about 25% less than what you’d use for the standing lateral raise.
And if you're going through this much work to grow your shoulders, don't forget to pick one of the best protein powders to support muscle growth.
How to do the Dead Stop Lateral Raise:
- Grab your dumbbells with an overhand grip, and sit on a bench, with your arms straight by your sides. Begin with the elbow slightly bent, sitting up tall, with an upright trunk.
- Before beginning the exercise, create tension in your delts, so they contract the entire time.
- Slowly raise the dumbbells up and out toward your sides. When your upper arms parallel the floor, stop, and begin lowering back down.
- Don’t allow your shoulders to fully relax as you reach the bottom of the move, pausing only briefly before bringing the weights back up again.
3. Cable Lateral Raise:
Drop the dumbbells and instead try the cable version for some added variation. You can use both arms for this exercise, but performing it unilaterally is a great way to increase the exercise’s difficulty and identify any side delt muscle imbalances.
How to do the Cable Lateral Raise:
- Select your weight. Standing next to a cable pulley machine, begin with your feet shoulder-width apart. Rotate your shoulders back, bending your knees slightly, while keeping your trunk upright.
- Reaching across your body, grab the pulley handle with your outside arm.
- Keeping a slight bend in your elbow, raise your arm up and out to the side, until it’s in line with your shoulder. Pause at the top of the move before slowly lowering back down.
4. Kettlebell Lateral Raise:
For this exercise, you’ll follow the same form as a standard lateral raise, swapping out your dumbbells for kettlebells instead.
Kettlebell training is unique for the fact that the weight is below the handles, meaning your shoulders work extra hard to fight gravity for the duration of the move.
Stand up to hit your side delts, and lean forward to target your rear shoulder. This is another move that you'll want to use relatively light weights. Interested in more kettlebell training? Check out our kettlebell shoulder workouts.
How to do the Kettlebell Lateral Raise:
- Grab your kettlebells, standing tall with an upright torso, and your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, raise the kettlebells to your shoulders with a neutral grip (your palms should face each other).
- Lower your kettlebells down, and repeat.
5. Landmine Lateral Raise:
We love utilizing all types of equipment for a well-rounded program (as well as bodyweight only shoulder exercises), and using a barbell for the lateral raise is no exception.
How to do the Landmine Lateral Raise:
- Stand tall, torso upright, and your feet shoulder-width apart. Place the barbell slightly in front of you. Grasp the barbell with one hand, in front of you, using an overhand grip. Your arm should be straight down by your side to begin the move.
- Keeping a slight bend in your elbow, begin raising your arm upward. As your arm lifts the barbell, move it up and out toward your side, until it’s in line with your shoulders. Your elbow will be more bent in this exercise than in other variations, causing your hand to be more in front of your shoulder at the top of the move.
- Slowly lower down, and repeat.
6. Three Way Lateral Raise:
We’ve talked a lot about the lateral and rear delts, but this move switches the attention to the lateral head and front shoulder instead. The three-way raise puts the shoulder joint’s full range of motion to work, as you lift the dumbbells to the side, to the front, and then up above your head.
It is great for pushing your muscular endurance. Go light on your weights for this one.
How to do the Three Way Lateral Raise:
- Start with your feet hip-width apart, standing tall with an upright trunk. With a dumbbell in each hand, extend your arms by your sides.
- Raise the dumbbells up and out to your sides to shoulder height.
- From here, bring the dumbbells toward the front of your body until they meet in the center of your chest, still at shoulder height.
- Keeping your arms straight, raise the dumbbells overhead, and then lower your dumbbells straight down to they meet in the center of your chest. From here, bring them back out toward your sides, and then slowly lower them down, back to your starting position.
7. Lateral Raise Machine:
Throwing machine work into a routine is great for variation and an excellent option for bumping up your weights. Don't forget to finish your workwith some shoulder mobility exercises.
How to do the Lateral Raise Machine:
- Sitting at the lateral raise machine, keep your trunk upright and your back straight against the pad.
- Grab the handlesof the machine, elbows bent, starting with a neutral grip. Your outer arms will push against the machine's padding.
- Push your elbows outto the side, so your palms now face downward. Pause briefly at the top of the move before returning your arms to the starting position.
Let's take a look at some common questions and answers regarding the lateral raise, so you're bestequipped to master this move.
1. Are lateral raises good for building muscle?
The lateral raise hits your side shoulder, which doesn’t get as much love as your anterior and posterior delts. Not only is it good for ensuring you have well-rounded and muscular-looking shoulders, but it’s also essential for preventing muscle imbalances in your upper arm.
If you’re only working your front and back shoulder muscles, you're going to run into problems. Perform lateral raises and you'll gain muscle mass while strengthening crucial stabilizingmuscles. As part of the muscle-buildingprocess, be sure to give yourself rest time as well to support muscle recovery.
2. Why are lateral raises so hard?
Lateral raises are an isolation exercise designed to target a muscle that doesn’t get much attention with most compound movements. You might notice that it’s not as strong as your front and back delts, which makes the exercise seem infinitely harder. Keep working on it, and you’ll begin to notice progress. Just make sure to use a lighter weight.
3. How heavy should a lateral raise be?
Light dumbbells should be your go-to for the lateral raise. This is not an exercise to go ultra heavy on. If you do, you’ll take some of the work out of your side delts, placing it onto your traps. Save trap work for your trap exercises - they don't need extra attention in this move.
Also, if you go too heavy, you may notice you start to use your lower body some to help gain momentum for the lift. This is not going to benefit your side delts, so drop the ego and your weights for this one.
PROGRAMMING THE LATERAL RAISE
When finding room for the lateral raise in your workout split, add them on to whichever day hits the shoulders, whether you are doing achest and shoulders workout, a push-pull split, or an upper-lower split.
This is an isolation exercise, meaning you should save it for later in your routine. Always perform your larger, compound exercises first, then follow with the isolation moves like the lateral raise. Target 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps for hypertrophy, and if your current program is focusing more on muscular endurance, drop your weights extra light, targeting 2 to 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps.
Remember, proper form is essential for the lateral raise. Go slow, keep the work in your shoulders, and pair the lateral raise with shoulder moves like the overhead press. Follow our guidance, and you’ll be well on your way to bolder shoulders.
Related: The Ultimate Dumbbell Shoulder Workout
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