Want the perfect workout program?Take Quiz
Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
August 10, 2022
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:
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 shoulder 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.
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.
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 deltoid exercises. Building side shoulder muscle is incremental in achieving wide rounded shoulders.
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 front deltoid 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.
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.
As if beautifully rounded shoulders weren't enough, there are also several other great benefits to working the lateral raise into your routine.
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.
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.
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.
Don't let these common mistakes sabotage your shoulder growth! Here are a few errors to keep an eye out for.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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 work with some shoulder mobility exercises.
How to do the Lateral Raise Machine:
Let's take a look at some common questions and answers regarding the lateral raise, so you're best equipped to master this move.
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 stabilizing muscles. As part of the muscle-building process, be sure to give yourself rest time as well to support muscle recovery.
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.
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.
When finding room for the lateral raise in your workout split, add them on to whichever day hits the shoulders, whether you are doing a chest 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.
Comments will be approved before showing up.
September 21, 2023
September 21, 2023
At SFS we strive to equip you with the tools and knowledge needed for your fitness journey. Sign up to get the latest on sales, new releases, killer workouts, actionable fitness content and more. As our motto goes - "You don't have to get ready if you stay #alwaysready!"