Lateral raises will push your delts and upper body to new heights.
By Sarah Chadwell, NASM CPT
Every man wants a set of boulder shoulders. They represent strength and brute power – manliness! Without large, chiseled shoulders, you simply won’t have the complete upper body package. Broad, bountiful shoulders help to create an X shape body. Wide, thick shoulders along with large, impressive quads also make your waist and hips appear much smaller than they actually are. It’s an optical illusion, but one that truly works. So how do you go about creating that look typically sported by serious lifters wearing tank tops? The must-have shoulder day exercise you need to be doing is the lateral raise.
The prime movers, or main muscles trained using lateral raises, are your shoulders, otherwise known as deltoids. Your shoulder muscles are comprised of three heads: an anterior, medial, and posterior. The anterior and medial heads of your deltoids are positioned on the fronts and sides of your shoulders.
Unfortunately, you can’t build them with just front to back exercises like rows because the medial delts will be neglected. Lateral raises place a load on your shoulders as it moves away from your body through the act of lifting your arms, which targets your medial heads. Developing the medial delts results in the desired shape of your shoulders. The posterior heads of your deltoids, or rear delts, are activated when you hinge forward at your hip and lift laterally.
Besides working your deltoids, lateral raises also work the muscles that support your shoulders. Of course, these are the stabilizer muscles, which for this exercise are your upper back and traps.
Your shoulder joints are protected by your rotator cuff muscles. Rotator cuffs are the joining site where muscles attach to your shoulder blades. When you perform lateral raises correctly, and with appropriate weight, you're able to strengthen your supraspinatus, a rotator cuff muscle.
Here are some pointers to ensure you get the most shoulder activation out of lateral raises and some common mistakes people make that diminish their goals of building bountiful shoulders:
Controlled Pace And The Negative
Use a slow to medium pace for each rep. Don't use momentum to power through this exercise. Why? Not only will you look like an out of control bird, you'll change the prime mover. Using momentum diminishes the use of the targeted muscle, your front delts. No bouncing!
Instead, raise the weight at a medium pace, and make sure to pause and hold when your arms are in the lateral position. When you lower your arms, be sure to do it slowly. Don’t just let them flop back to your sides. Not only is that sloppy technique, but you could be cheating yourself out of shoulder gains. Controlling the eccentric portion, the lowering, of this lift will aid in muscular growth as this is the part of the exercise when most of the muscle fibers are recruited and torn.
When you lift into the lateral raise, let your elbows guide the movement. Your elbows should come all the way up to form a horizontal line with your shoulders even if the weight is too heavy to get your wrists perfectly in line. By keeping your elbows up and in proper position, you'll directly target your delts. If your elbows drop below your wrists, your body recruits the anterior deltoids as the prime movers. So, you aren't working the targeted muscle, the front delts.
Another benefit of the elbows up approach is that you remove some of the stress from your rotator cuffs. By keeping a slight bend at the elbow, instead of straightening your arms perfectly lateral, you relieve stress from the rotator cuff and can prevent injury.
Just Don’t Do This
It doesn't take excessively heavy weight to complete lateral raises and get the desired muscle development. The combination of the lift with excessive weight can cause rotator cuff tears. To avoid injury, make sure you aren’t feeling abnormal pulling of the muscles or pain when you lift. At the first sign of abnormal discomfort, drop to a lower weight that you can control. Remember: Higher rep, lower weight is ideal when you begin.
Just because your full range of motion allows you to raise your hands all the way over your head doesn't mean that using that range of motion is effective for targeting your middle delts. The optimal and effective range of motion when completing lateral raises is to shoulder height. You don’t need to raise the weights any higher to effectively train your medial deltoid. Also, your elbows should never end up behind your shoulders. Once again, you'll lose the emphasis on the delts.
Variations Of The Lateral Raise
There are many different ways to perform lateral raises. The following are different variations you can try while still keeping your workouts varied each week:
Standing – To execute this exercise, stand with a dumbbell in each hand with them resting at your sides. Keep your back straight. Engage your core and then lift the weights slowly and controlled out to your sides until your arms are parallel with the floor. Your elbows should be slightly bent.
Seated – Sit at the end of a flat bench with your feet flat on the floor for stabilization. Hold the dumbbells with your palms facing toward your body and your arms straight down at your sides. Engage your core and lift the weights slowly and controlled out to your sides until your arms are parallel with the floor.
Prone – Set an incline bench at a 75-degree or smaller angle. Get in a face down, prone position on the incline bench with your dumbbells in hand. Kneel into the bench or straddle it from a standing position. The bench should support your torso. Lift the weights slowly and controlled out to your sides until your arms are parallel with the floor.
Single Arm – Use the back of an incline bench or the bar of a power rack to hold onto with one arm to stabilize your body. With your other arm, lift the weight slowly and controlled out to your side until your arm is parallel with the floor. Then switch to the other side.
Side-Lying – Set an incline bench at a 75-degree or even smaller angle if you wish. Get positioned on your side on the incline bench with your dumbbells in hand. Your knees should be bent in the seat of the bench. Obviously this is a single arm lift. Lift the weight slowly and controlled out to your side until your arm is parallel with the floor. Then switch to the other side.
Lean Away – Lean away side lateral raises increase your range of motion and are a single arm exercise. Stand next to a squat or power rack. Hold a dumbbell in the hand that's the farthest away from the rack. Hold onto the rack with one hand for support and lean your body out at an incline. Your feet will be close to the rack almost under the hand you use for support. Using a slow and controlled manner, raise the dumbbell out to your side until your arm is parallel to the floor.
Barbell – This may be the least commonly seen variation of side lateral raises, but it's just as effective. It'll require you to use less weight than you do with dumbbells because you must stabilize the barbell even more due to the difference in weight distribution. It's performed the same way as a single arm side lateral raise.
Cable – Cables add a little something extra to this exercise by providing constant tension throughout the movement unlike with dumbbells where there are points in the exercise where tension is released. Use a low cable pulley for this exercise. Begin by standing to the right side of the pulley. Grab the attachment with your left hand and pull across your body until your arm is parallel to the floor. Then switch to the other side. You can support yourself with the rack or complete this method in a free-standing position.
Resistance Bands – Stand centered on an exercise band that has handles. Hold the handles with your palms facing your thighs. The starting position is your arms resting at your thighs. Lift your arms keeping a slight bend in your elbows. Bring the handles up until your arms are parallel to the floor. Slowly lower back to the starting position. Try not to let the tension completely out of the band before beginning your next rep.
Front Lateral Raise – This mainly targets the anterior, or front, and medial delts. One tip for front lateral raises when using dumbbells is to turn your thumbs up slightly at the top of the movement to reduce the risk of shoulder impingement, or basically to lessen the stress placed on the tendons of the rotator cuff. Stand up and hold a pair of dumbbells, palms down, resting on your quads. Keeping your elbows slightly bent, lift the weights directly in front until your arms are parallel to the floor. Don't raise the weights above shoulder height. You can also use a barbell or cable pulley system.
Combination Front And Lateral Raise – Hit the front and side delts at the same time! If you want to save some time, you can combine front and side lateral raises into the same set and really punish those shoulders. Talk about shoulder burn! These can be done several ways, but the most common is to first complete a front lateral raise, and then immediately after, complete the side lateral raise. As with all variations, stay in control of the weights with slow, controlled movement.
Rear Delt Lateral Raise – This targets the posterior head of the shoulder. You can use a standing, sitting, or prone position to target the rear delts. The only difference is that you must hinge forward at the hips at about a 45-degree angle. Then laterally raise the dumbbells like you would for a standard lateral raise.