If you want bigger, stronger, or more defined shoulders ... don't skip lateral raises!
Do them right and lateral raises can be crazy effective for muscle building. Do them enough and it may even transform your overall look!
What is cool about them is that there is more than one way to do them. There are plenty of modifications in order to make them easier, harder, or change the emphasis.
If you’re ready to learn more about lateral raises and put in the work, let’s get started.
Here’s everything you need to know about lateral raises…
What are Lateral Raises?
Lateral raises, sometimes called side raises, are a strength-training exercise for your shoulders. If you want those big rounded boulder shoulders, this is not the exercise to skip.
At the same time, if you’re looking for stronger, more defined shoulders, they can help there as well! You see, your shoulder muscles (aka the deltoids) pull your arms away from your body.
While some exercises are compound movements that use multiple muscle groups, these are different. Lateral raises are more of an isolation movement for the muscles of your shoulder.
That means not a ton of other muscles get used, and most of the work is done via one muscle.
Now, there certainly is more than only one muscle being used. But for the most part, your shoulders get most of the work.
So which shoulder muscles do lateral raises work exactly?
Lateral Raises: Muscles Worked
Okay, so I already gave this away in the last section, but lateral raises target your deltoids. Your deltoids are the rounded muscles that lay over your shoulder at the top of each arm.
There are different portions of your deltoid though. There are also different variations of lateral raises that target different portions of your shoulder muscle.
Let’s break down the different portions of your deltoids, and what movement trains them.
Lateral raises primarily target your lateral deltoids. Although, that may have been obvious to you by the name of the exercise.
Your lateral deltoids are the muscle in the middle of your front and rear deltoids. If you were to look at yourself from a side view, the part of the deltoid you see facing you is the part I’m talking about.
When you do lateral raises, the lateral deltoids contract to pull your arms out to your side. This isn’t the only muscle getting worked in the lateral raise, but it is the main muscle targeted.
This is a muscle on the back of your shoulder blade that is heavily involved in the lateral raise. Until your arms are about 15-30 degrees from your body, the supraspinatus is doing most of the work. After that, then your lateral deltoids begin to take over.
Aside from helping pull your arm away from the body, it also helps keep your shoulder stabilized.
The anterior (front) deltoid is another part of your shoulder muscle. It is also involved in the lateral raise but to a lesser extent.
They still help stabilize and lift the weight when you do a lateral raise, but it’s not the main function of this muscle.
The anterior deltoid is most involved in raising the arms in front of you and overhead. So front raises and shoulder presses involve this portion of the deltoid the most.
The posterior deltoids are on the back of the shoulders. They are also not the main focus of lateral raises, but they are involved to some degree.
They mostly help with maintaining stability and controlling the movement.
The posterior deltoids are mostly activated in exercises such as bent-over lateral raises. This is because they primarily work to pull your arms behind you.
How to Do Lateral Raises
To perform lateral raises, just follow these steps:
Stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart. Next, grab a pair of dumbbells in each hand and hold them at your sides. Your palms should be facing your thighs.
This is your starting position.
With a slight bend in your elbows, raise your arms straight out to the sides. Stop when the dumbbells reach shoulder level. Your palms should be facing the floor at the top of the movement with your arms parallel to the ground.
Be careful not to swing your body for momentum. This takes the tension out of the muscles and reduces the benefit. Take it slow and control every rep.
Pause briefly at the top of the movement, focusing on squeezing your shoulder muscles.
Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position. Be sure to control the descent and maintain tension in your shoulder muscles all the way down. Repeat this for a set number of repetitions.
Remember to keep your core braced throughout the entire movement as well! This will help encourage stabilization and proper form.
Lateral Raises: Benefits
So, what exactly are the benefits of lateral raises? Truthfully, there are a lot.
Here are some of the main benefits of adding lateral raises to your workout routine:
1. Lateral Raises Can Increase Shoulder Definition
Lateral raises are an effective exercise for developing and defining your shoulder muscles. This can help you create a broader and more sculpted appearance in your shoulders.
2. Lateral Raises are Easy to Do
Lateral raises are relatively simple and easy to perform. Anyone with arms can do them, and you don't need special equipment. You just need dumbbells or resistance bands. Plus, you can do them just as easily at home as you could in any gym.
3. Lateral Raises Promote Shoulder Strength, Range of Motion, and Stability
Aside from increased shoulder strength, lateral raises also enhance shoulder stability and mobility. If you're an athlete or lift heavy things overhead, these can be of big help.
4. Better Performance During Lifts and Pressing Movements
Strengthening your shoulders with lateral raises can translate to a lot of other movements. For one, stronger shoulders can help you lift more weight in many upper-body exercises. When your shoulder muscles are strong and stable, you can reduce the likelihood of injury too.
Lateral Raise Variations
As I said, there are all kinds of variations you can try if the basic lateral raise technique isn’t quite doing it for you.
Sure, you could always keep increasing the weight, or add sets and reps to keep making progress. Or, you could throw in a little variation to spice things up.
Here are some of my personal favorites when it comes to lateral raise variations:
Single-Arm Lateral Raise
This variation involves raising one arm at a time to address muscle imbalances. It also forces you to use your core for balance and stability.
Landmine Lateral Raise
By using a barbell placed in a landmine attachment, it can be much easier to control the weight. It’s a great way to change up the lateral raise while hitting the same part of your shoulder muscles.
Bent-Over Lateral Raise
With a bent-over position, this variation targets the posterior deltoid muscles. For a healthy shoulder you must hit all sides of it, so don't skip this variation. It can help you with proper shoulder posture too.
Cable Lateral Raise
Using cables provides constant tension on the lateral deltoids throughout the movement. Free weights don’t do that. It’s good to train in different ways between both styles in order to fully develop your shoulder muscles.
Kettlebell Lateral Raises
This still challenges your lateral deltoids but in a different way. With the weight hanging below your hand instead of in your hand, it has a tendency to swing. That swinging places more demand on your shoulders to stabilize. Try it out and see for yourself!
Dead-Stop Lateral Raises
Starting each repetition from a dead stop, this technique eliminates momentum. This forces the shoulders to start the movement and improves muscular control. Starting is the hardest part, so this is a simple way to challenge yourself with the same movement!
Leaning Lateral Raises
Remember, the deltoid isn't the prime mover until your arm is already away from the body. The supraspinatus does the heavy lifting for the first 15-30 degrees when standing tall. So, by leaning the upper body at an angle, this variation forces the lateral deltoid to start at the bottom. This makes it more of a challenge, and is a variation that I highly recommend!
Common Lateral Raise Mistakes
You’re only going to get the results you want if you perform these exercises with the proper form. So if you’re new to lateral raises, here are some mistakes you can avoid from the get-go.
Using Weights That Are Too Heavy
Not every exercise is like the bench press where you want to use really heavy weights. It’s tempting to go all in and overdo it, but you will honestly do more damage than good. Avoid using excessive weight, especially when starting out. You won’t be as effective and you may even injure yourself. Focus on maintaining proper form and technique instead.
Bending Your Elbows Too Much
During the lateral raise, the straighter your elbow is the more force is needed to lift your arm. Many people will grab a weight that is too heavy and do lateral raises with their elbows bent. It won’t hurt you to bend your elbows, but you won’t be strengthening your shoulders as much as you think.
Swinging Your Arms
This exercise isn’t about momentum, it’s about control. Keep your movements controlled and avoid using momentum to lift the weights. If you have to swing your arms to complete your reps, the dumbbells may be too heavy. Tighten up your technique and engage your muscles every time.
Start Doing Lateral Raises
Give your shoulders the attention they deserve and start perfecting lateral raises now. Trust me, it’s worth it!
You’re going to love the muscular look your shoulders will start having, but that’s just one perk. You’re also going to have better stability during other workouts.
Don’t forget, stronger shoulders benefit your other upper body lifts too.
The type of exercises you choose isn’t the only factor to consider though. If you want to build muscle or lose fat you will need to eat correctly.
I’m talking about eating enough protein and staying in the right calorie range every day. That’s not even to mention all the essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients you’ll need too.
These are all important elements to earning results and maintaining them long-term.
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If you have any other questions, reach out to our team of NASM Certified Personal Trainers and Nutrition Coaches. They’re available to talk every day from 6 AM to 10 PM Central. Just give us a call at 1-800-409-9732 or send us an email at CustomerService@1stPhorm.com anytime.