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Lateral Raises: Facts vs. Fiction

7204-train6The lateral—a.k.a. lateral raise or side raise—remains one of the most common shoulder exercises. Everyone from beginners to Mr. Olympia winners does it. Even though it’s a simple exercise to perform, a number of variations on the basic move have come into practice—and not all of them are effective or safe.

Some trainees try to be a bit creative with their exercises. That’s not necessarily a good idea because they don’t usually give much consideration to biomechanical or clinical precautions—and bad things can occur. Typically, that means injuries.

I have written several columns over the past 20 years about why you should not turn down the front of the dumbbell “as if pouring water out of a pitcher.” When you raise your arm up in any direction with the arm and shoulder in internal rotation, you run the risk of an impingement in the shoulder that compresses the rotator cuff tendons, biceps tendon and a fluid-filled sack known as a bursa. The end result of performing laterals with your hand tilted forward is rotator cuff tendinitis, biceps tendinitis and bursitis. It can also contribute to fraying and tearing those tendons, causing pain during many chest and shoulder exercises.

If the thumb is turned up during a front or side raise, the deltoid does perform work, but the emphasis is shifted to the biceps and biceps tendon. Light weight may not cause much of a problem, but heavier dumbbells certainly can cause biceps tendinitis or tear a cartilage ring surrounding the shoulder socket. Laterals performed this way usually cause the exerciser too much shoulder pain to continue doing it.

Years ago I watched a trainee in World Gym try to convince a Mr. Olympia contender to perform laterals with his wrists flexed as he raised his arms. He claimed that bending the wrists was a far more effective way of performing the exercise. It was amusing to listen to someone making up ideas as he went along. The Mr. Olympia contender was rightfully skeptical, but he was convinced to try it anyway—with much heavier weight than the trainee. “I don’t know about this,” he said, but the trainee kept insisting that it was the “best way to perform laterals.”

The fact is, keeping the wrists flexed offers no advantage. The only remote enhancement is that you’d have to perform the laterals more slowly to reduce the strain on the wrists because there is an inherent risk of wrist injury. A much simpler, similar modification would be to perform the laterals slowly, with the wrists in a neutral position. Fortunately, the Olympia contender saw through the myth and did only one set with his wrists flexed.

Always use a bit of caution when trying new ideas, especially fad training ideas. All you have to do is turn on the television late at night or in the early morning hours to see the latest gimmick being marketed. Check a few months later to see if the same infomercial is on or there is yet another new gimmick. These training methods and pieces of equipment enable the companies to sell you something. The basic truths in training aren’t very sexy or marketable, but they work.

A few years ago at the Powerlifting Hall of Fame inductions I ran into someone I’d known for 28 years. Paul Ward, Ph.D., is a former Detroit Lions player and has been part of the fitness world for decades. I asked him what he thought of the training fads involving balance work. Paul’s answer was short, great and to the point, and I have used it in lectures for years. Paul’s response was, “Everyone wants to polish the chrome on the car, but nobody wants to build an engine.” Stay in the gym using lifts and training principles that work, and build an engine.

Train smart; then train hard.

—Joseph M. Horrigan


Editor’s note: Visit for reprints of Horrigan’s past Sportsmedicine columns that have appeared in IRON MAN. You can order the books, Strength, Conditioning and Injury Prevention for Hockey by Joseph Horrigan, D.C., and E.J. “Doc” Kreis, D.A., and the 7-Minute Rotator Cuff Solution by Horrigan and Jerry Robinson from Home Gym Warehouse, (800) 447-0008 or at


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