Add definition and width to your shoulders by incorporating lateral raises into your workout schedule. This powerhouse isolation exercise target the deltoids, which are the muscles that wrap around your upper arm and give you that really ripped, boulder shoulder physique. Not only are they incredibly effective, but they’re also very flexible with any number of variations to choose from. Work the muscles from multiple angles using all sorts of equipment to suit your needs and circumstances. Once you nail the perfect form, there’ll be no stopping you on our journey to shredded shoulders.
What is a Lateral Raise?
A lateral raise is an isolation exercise designed to strengthen your deltoids and trapezius muscles, giving you broad, muscular shoulders through hypertrophy. The movement involves lifting weights up and away from your body in an external rotation. It’s generally performed using dumbbells, weight plates, resistance bands, or cables. One of the great things about the lateral raise is that there are many variations that allow you to work all the fibers of your muscles in a variety of directions for the best results. As an isolation exercise, these are best incorporated into an upper body workout after your big compound moves like presses, push-ups, or pull-ups.
Benefits of Lateral Raises
One of the main benefits of the lateral raise is that it really works your lateral and anterior deltoids. You can achieve hypertrophy with lighter weights and therefore build mass without a significant strain on your upper body. The result is well-defined upper arms and shoulders with the much-sought-after rounded, cannonball look. Aesthetics aside, this exercise will also improve your shoulder mobility, stability, and range of motion. In turn, this can help improve your performance in other activities such as presses and lifts. Finally, because this can be performed as a unilateral exercise, it works each side of your body independently. This gives you the opportunity to identify and correct muscle imbalances between your left and right.
Lateral Raise Muscles Worked
The lateral raise predominately targets the deltoids, which wrap around the top of the upper arm. These muscles are responsible for shoulder stability and moving your arm in different directions. There are three heads – anterior (front), lateral (side), and posterior (rear), with the fibers of each running in different directions. To achieve muscle growth, you’ll need to work all three of these heads in various directions to hit all of those fibers. Luckily, changing how you hold your arms when performing a lateral raise can cover each of these heads.
Side Lateral Raise
In the side lateral raise, you lift your arms and weights out to the side of the body. As such, this primarily targets the lateral deltoid. Of course, it doesn’t work in isolation, so you’ll also feel it in your other deltoid heads, plus upper traps, supraspinatus, and serratus anterior.
Front Lateral Raise
In a front lateral raise, you’ll lift your chosen weight up in front of your body. Doing so targets the anterior deltoid, as well as the lateral deltoid, serratus anterior, upper and lower traps, part of the pectoralis major, and the biceps.
Rear Lateral Raise
Finally, you work from a forward-leaning position in the rear lateral raise, starting with your arms in front of your torso before pulling back and up. This shifts the emphasis to the posterior deltoid, as well as the lateral deltoid, infraspinatus, teres minor, and lower and middle trapezius fibers.
How to do Lateral Raises
A lateral raise is a relatively simple exercise; however, it’s crucial to nail your form. Doing so will protect your shoulder joint, avoid injury, and ensure you’re getting the best results from all your hard work and sweat. Moving along the scapular plane is one of the most important elements of this exercise. This ensures your rotator cuff tendons, humerus, and clavicle have enough room to move and won’t get damaged during execution. You’ll use lighter weights for this exercise than your compound moves, but don’t be fooled – you’ll still feel the burn. Below is the execution and some tips for a basic side lateral raise, which is the most common variation of this iconic exercise.
- Stand with your feet just wider than hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, and keep your core and glutes tight. You’ll also want to focus on bringing your shoulders back but keeping your traps relaxed – no shrugging.
- Start your hands just outside your hips (at around two degrees), with a slight bend at the elbows.
- Lift your arms out to the side, up to around 89 degrees. As you lift, you’ll want to make sure you’re moving along the scapular plane, which is approximately 30 degrees in front of your torso.
- It’s important not to go higher than 89 degrees; otherwise, you’ll start to engage your traps.
- Pause for a second at the top before lowering your arms with control to the starting position.
- Repeat 12-15 times for three sets.
Lateral Raise Form
It can be tempting to use momentum to lift the weights on a lateral raise. After all, you’re going to be feeling the burn! However, this won’t give you the results you want, and it’ll all be a wasted effort. Avoid rocking forward at your torso to get the motion started. Instead, focus on keeping your glutes and abs tight and using your delts to lift the weight. Additionally, start with your hands close to your sides rather than in front of your body. If you’re really struggling, consider using lighter weights until you build more strength.
Lead With Your Elbows
One big mistake that people commonly make is leading the movement with their hands. Often this results in the hands coming up higher than the elbows. Doing so takes tension away from the delts, redirecting it to the rotator cuff muscles. It also shortens the exercise’s range of motion, meaning you won’t get the best results. Avoid this by leading with your elbows instead, keeping your hands in line at the top of the move. If you’re finding it too challenging, enhance the mind-body connection by switching to kettlebells instead of a cable or dumbbells.
Create more safety for your rotator cuff by turning your thumbs up slightly as your arms approach the top of the move. This will encourage external rotation of the shoulder joint and open up space between the clavicle and shoulder bone.
Don’t Lift Too High
The lateral raise is designed to work the deltoids with a little help from the surrounding muscles. However, if you lift your arms above parallel to the ground, you’ll engage the traps instead, which takes the tension off the delts. While training your traps is fine, this isn’t the exercise for that purpose. As such, for maximum results, don’t lift too high – aim for just below parallel with a goal of 89 degrees.
Dropping Your Head Forward
If you’re using too much weight or are just approaching the end of your set and are feeling completely wrecked, you might find yourself craning your neck forward. This is risky and can lead to neck strain and too much engagement of the back muscles instead of the lateral delts. Avoid this by keeping a neutral neck and spine alignment. If you’re unsure of your posture, perform your lateral raises in front of a mirror to ensure you’re looking up and forward.
Go Down Slower
Once you reach the top of the move, it can be tempting just to release your arms back to the start position. However, the slower you lower your hands and the more control you use, the greater the tension on your muscle fibers. While this will take more work, it’s also more likely to result in hypertrophy and, therefore, muscle size and mass increase.
Lateral Raise Variations
At the core of it, lateral raises are an exercise where you lift your arms up, then put your arms down (then do the hokey pokey, and you turn around). Jokes aside, though, that means they lend themselves well to variations. It’s a flexible move that can be performed with a variety of equipment, depending on what you have on hand and how you want to work your delts. Some change your arm position, some change trunk position, and you can even sit down for some. Add these to your upper body or shoulder workout after your big compound moves. There are so many it’s easy to keep your schedule interesting and mix things up for your entertainment, and to prevent muscle boredom.
1. Cable Cross Body Lateral Raise
Using a cable cross machine for lateral raises allows constant tension throughout the entire movement as you focus on controlling the descent (eccentric contraction). This is an excellent option when you have access to a fully equipped gym. The cables provide a little more control than free weights but are less inhibited than weight machines. If you prefer, you can also perform this one arm at a time, keeping your non-working hand by your side or gently resting on your hip.
2. Bent-Over Lateral Raise
A bent-over lateral raise is a brilliant choice if you’re looking to hit your rear deltoids. The change in upper body position means that rather than your lateral deltoids acting as the prime mover, it’s the posterior head of the muscle. This also activates your rhomboids, lower and mid traps, and hamstrings. Stand with your feet around shoulder-width apart, and knees slightly bent to perform this. Tilt forward at your hips with a neutral spine and head facing down. Then, squeeze your shoulder blades together and keep your core tight. Hold the weights in front of you with a slight bend in your elbow before bringing both arms up to nearly parallel to the floor and lowering them with control.
3. Seated Lateral Raise
You don’t always have to do your side lateral raises standing. Instead, you can take a seat on a workout bench and perform them from there. Hold a weight in each hand, arms down next to the seat and palms facing inward. Like the standing side lateral raise, lift your ups up and out, keeping a slight bend in the elbow. Stop just before parallel and lower again with control. One of the main benefits of sitting is that it minimizes the possibility of cheating the raise.
4. Front Lateral Raise
A well-rounded shoulder routine will work all heads of the deltoid. When it comes to emphasizing the anterior deltoid, front lateral raises are ideal. Adopt a similar stance to the regular side lateral raise, but instead of lifting your arms to the side, raise the weight in front. You can choose to hold your dumbbell either with your palm down or in a hammer-style hold. As you lift the weight, don’t go higher than your shoulder. At the top, pause for a moment and squeeze before slowly lowering it with control. You can do one arm at a time, alternating one after the other, or complete your set on one side before starting the other.
5. Lateral Raise Machine
Free weights and cables are great, but they don’t provide a lot of stability in the movement. Consequently, if you’re new or feeling unsure, you can start by using a lateral raise machine. Choose a bent arm grip using the handles, or you can keep your arms straight and lift from there. Of course, if you’re more advanced, you can still use a lateral raise machine for Dusty Hanshaw’s killer superset. With your chosen weight, do ten reps of a full-range raise lowering each time for a count of four. Follow this with 20 partial raises, pausing at the top for two counts. Finally, finish by holding a partial raise for two sets of 30 seconds (or until failure).
6. Cable Lateral Raise Wrist Height Variations
Another common variation is the cable lateral raise. With two choices for pulley height, this option is excellent if you have access to a gym. The first is a low pulley, which is set up from the lowest point on the frame and biases the mid-range of the movement. Meanwhile, setting the cables at wrist height (or just below) biases the lengthened position. You can choose either, mix them up throughout your programming, or do both for a superset. When performing a cable lateral raise, you’ll hold the handles with opposing hands so they cross in front of you. As you pull, focus on driving outward rather than upward. You might also need to hinge slightly at the hips to prevent the cables from touching you and to allow you to hit that middle deltoid head.
7. Dumbbell Lateral Raise
The dumbbell lateral raise is probably the most common occurrence of this exercise. Dumbbells are easy to hold, most gyms have them, and because you don’t need a heavy weight, they’re also an excellent option for home gyms. Just remember to keep your elbows and knees slightly bent, move on the scapular plane, and go slow and steady. Avoid swinging for momentum, and don’t go overboard with the weights – even light weights will feel heavy!
8. Egyptian Lateral Raise
Take your delts to another level by choosing an Egyptian lateral raise. You can do this variation in a gym or at home with cables or a dumbbell. All you need is something to hold onto, such as a door frame or cable machine upright so that you can lean away. You’ll need to position your feet close to the wall/machine and lean out until your support arm is fully extended and parallel to the floor. Then, same as a conventional lat raise, lift the weight out until just below parallel, keeping your elbow slightly bent. The benefits of this include a lengthened range of motion and increased time under tension. Plus, its unilateral execution helps correct muscle imbalances between your left and right.
9. Landmine Lateral Raise
While not all gyms have a landmine, if yours does, it offers a unique way to work on your deltoids with a landmine lateral raise. The trajectory of the arc creates a movement that’s a hybrid between a front and side lateral raise, giving you a rounded workout. However, be careful not to load this up too heavy, as it’s a lot harder than it looks! In addition to building broad shoulders, you’ll also strengthen your grip and get a core workout from stabilizing the bar.
10. Three Way Lateral Raise
The muscle fibers of each head of the deltoid run in different directions. As such, to work them all effectively, you need to vary the angle of movement. A three-way lateral raise is a great way to do that without switching things up too much. On your first lift, your hands move in front of your body and finish at your sides. The second lifts from your sides, finishing behind your back, and the last one starts from behind and ends in front.
11. Wall Press Lateral Raise
If you find yourself cheating your lateral raises, why not try a wall press variation? In this exercise, you’ll stand very close to the wall and press the back of the non-lifting hand against the wall. Doing so will create tension across both shoulders through a process known as irradiation. Then simply perform a unilateral lateral raise on your weighted side, maintaining the same mechanics and movement as a regular lat raise.
12. Kneeling Lateral Raise
Similar to a seated lateral raise, a kneeling variation can help limit your swinging motion. To do this, protect your knees by kneeling on a pad. Dig your toes into the ground to help brace your balance. Then, with a dumbbell in each hand, lift up until your arms are just below parallel to the ground. As always, keep your core and shoulder blades tight and your elbows slightly bent. This position will give you more immediate feedback if you’re using a hip swing to help lift the weights.
13. Lateral Raise Hold
Feel the burn with an extra isometric contraction of the deltoids by performing a lateral raise hold. This is the same as a regular side lateral raise, with one small difference. Once you reach the top of the move, you’ll only lower one arm back down for your reps while keeping the other one extended out for three to five seconds. Swap and do the other side, repeating as required/desired/until you cry. This variation will require much lower weights than you’d usually use, as it significantly increases the burn!
14. Dead Stop Lateral Raise
At the opposite side of the variations to the lateral raise hold is the dead stop lateral raise. In this variation, you’ll do your side lat raise, but at the bottom, come to a complete halt by either touching your hips or your bench. Doing so arrests any momentum you’ve built up that you can use to restart the next lift. Instead, you have to begin from scratch, engaging the deltoids all over again.
15. Y Raise
You might more commonly associate a Y Raise with a back workout, as it really engages your upper and middle traps. However, it’s also an excellent muscle builder for your deltoids, especially when loaded with small weights. To perform this, you’ll need to set up an incline bench to around 30 degrees and lie face forward on it. At the bottom of the move, your back will be relaxed and your arms hanging loose. To commence the raise, squeeze your shoulder blades together before lifting your arms up at a 45-degree angle to create a Y shape in line with your torso. At the top, hold for a count of six before relaxing back down. Even with the lightest weights, you’ll definitely feel this exercise!
16. 1.5 Rep Lateral Raise
If you’re an absolute sucker for punishment, then a one and half rep lateral raise will be your new favorite shoulder-building exercise. It’s a great way to increase your time under tension, arrest momentum, and improve your body awareness and mechanics. It’s also good for improving mental toughness and an alternative to increasing load or set numbers. To apply this to a lateral raise, lift the weights up as per usual. Then, rather than coming all the way down, lower your arms only halfway before returning to the top. After this little half rep, lower your arms to the bottom – combined, this is one complete rep. Be gentle on yourself with these and use a lighter weight to begin – you’re going to feel that additional movement!
17. Leaning Away Lateral Raise
The leaning away lateral raise is essentially the same as the Egyptian lateral raise. The goal is to increase the range of motion by tilting the torso towards your lifting arm. This also increases the amount of time spent under tension and increases the difficulty of the raise the closer your get to the top of the move. Try to keep your movements slow and controlled.
18. Body Weight Lateral Raises
There is no need to despair if you don’t have access to any gym equipment but still want to train your delts. There is a bodyweight option! This hybrid plank/push-up/twist is perfect for home workouts, if you’re on vacation, or if traveling for work. Start in a plank position on your elbows (using a pad if you need it). Twist your left shoulder and side up and away from your right arm. You should feel a contraction through the right delts. Rotate back down, bringing your left shoulder slightly lower than the right to feel a stretch. Repeat as many times as you like, then do the same on the opposite side. You certainly won’t notice the lack of equipment as all your muscles fire up. Not only will you feel this in your shoulders, but you’ll also get an epic core workout in at the same time.
19. W Raise
Having nailed the Y raise, a similar exercise is the W raise. You’ll set yourself up similarly, lying prone on an incline bench with light weight in each hand. Then, rather than straight arms, you’ll bend your elbows at 90 degrees. Leading with your elbows, bring your arms up to align with your torso. At the top, you should look like a W with your head as the middle peak. With control, lower the weights back down to the beginning position. You’ll feel this through the back, including the upper and middle traps, and in your posterior deltoids. Like the Y raise, choose a lighter weight as you’ll be at a mechanical disadvantage and working harder against gravity.
20. Banded Lateral Raise
Another great option for at-home or on-the-road workouts is the banded lateral raise. You’ll target the lateral deltoids for increased width with minimal equipment – all you need is a looped resistance band. This also puts less pressure on your joints than dumbbell options, so it’s good if you have problem shoulders. Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart, with the foot on your pulling side stepped back a little. With one end secured under the opposite foot, lead with your elbow to pull your arm up and out until nearly parallel to the floor before lowing with control. Because you’ll likely be using less resistance, aim for higher reps between 15 and 20, then repeat on the opposite side.
Lateral Raise FAQs
What does the lateral raise work?
The lateral raise predominantly works the deltoids – the muscles that wrap around the top of the arm and give you that boulder shoulder look. They also work the trapezius as well, to a slightly lesser extent.
Are lateral raises worth doing?
Lateral raises are an isolation exercise that really targets the deltoids. They're definitely worth doing but are best performed in association with bigger compound exercises such as presses and pulls for well-rounded, total body results.
Why is lateral raise so hard?
A lateral raise is an isolation exercise, which means it relies on a single muscle group for the majority of movement and effort. As such, it can be more challenging, and you'll want to opt for lighter weights, as there aren't other muscles to share the load. As a unilateral move, they can also highlight imbalances between the two sides of your body, adding to the difficulty.
Should you lift heavy for lateral raises?
No, you should generally opt for lighter weights in a lateral raise because it's an isolation exercise. If you choose too heavy, it can impact your form and performance, leading to wasted effort or even injury.
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