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January 13, 2022 8 min read
You either love them or hate them, but lateral side raises are great for isolating a part of your shoulder that rarely gets attention from larger compound lifts.
Lateral raises add width to your delts, so while you might be using the overhead shoulder press or dumbbell press to build out the majority of the mass on your shoulders, the lateral raise also has a place in your shoulder routine.
Learn the right form with the tips in this exercise guide and you’ll be able to build boulder shoulders with a well-rounded routine that includes lateral raises.
Before we get into the dynamics of this shoulder exercise and why so many lifters are dead set against them, let’s talk about how the lateral raise is done in the first place.
You don’t need anything except a pair of dumbbells for this exercise.
You can use light weights here not only because the shoulder joint is particularly at risk for impingement and other injury but also because heavier weight recruits the wrong muscles and causes form errors.
Once you have the right amount of weight, follow these steps to execute lateral raises with the proper form:
Run through 15 repetitions per set and aim for at least four sets. Lateral side raises are most effective at high volume since the weight is reduced.
When performed properly, the dumbbell lateral raise we’ve just described is a shoulder isolation exercise. Your arms and back are involved to a lesser degree.
The deltoid muscles are found on the top of each shoulder. They resemble an inverted triangle (“delta”) and comprise three sections: the anterior, lateral, and posterior. When all three parts are activated simultaneously, they help abduct (raise sideways) the arm past 15 degrees and hold the humerus in the shoulder socket under heavy loads.
Your front delts, another name for the anterior deltoid, help with internal rotation of the shoulder, swinging your arms forward when you walk, and flexing the arm at the shoulder. The posterior deltoid works with the rhomboids and traps to retract the shoulder blades. But the lateral deltoid is the one these dumbbell raises hit most. Their job is to abduct the shoulder beyond the first 15° from the side of the torso.
Anyone who has spent time lifting is likely already familiar with the tricep, a three-headed antagonist to the bicep muscle. The tricep’s function is to help stabilize the upper arm bone in the shoulder joint and adduct the arm, which is what happens when you bring your arms back to your sides.
We already mentioned that the traps and posterior deltoid work together with the rhomboids to retract the shoulder blades. But during the lateral raise, you don’t want that to happen.If you put one hand on the opposite shoulder blade while raising the other hand above your head, you can feel that the scapula doesn’t get involved in lateral raises until your arm is above shoulder height. This is why restricting the range of motion in your dumbbell side raises is so important - go too far and the traps take over.
Some swear by the lateral raise because it’s pretty much the only isolation exercise for the side delt. Others insist that the entire deltoid muscle gets plenty of exercise during compound lifts, making lateral raises unnecessary.Who’s right?
It’s undeniable that the lateral raise stands alone as a lateral deltoid isolation exercise.
Detractors are also correct in claiming that this shoulder muscle contributes to other lifts, such as the bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and barbell row. And yes, these exercises are very likely already a part of any halfway decent strength training routine. But the lateral raise isn’t meant to replace any of these exercises. The main aim of the raise is to bulk out the middle of your shoulder for additional width and definition - if you want boulder shoulders, this is what you have to do.
So the big question we should all be asking ourselves is this: are lateral raises worth the time?
You could very easily get a great shoulder workout without the lateral raise. But for many gym rats, weekenders, and fitness enthusiasts, the lateral raise is a great addition to any lifting routine.
And that's because it’s so easy to fit seamlessly into a superset or any kind of interval training.
Research shows that shoulder presses and lateral raises cause higher levels of anterior and medial deltoid activation than bench presses or dumbbell flyes, so these two exercises are the perfect companions.The lateral raise is a fantastic way to push your shoulder to exhaustion without risking failure in the middle of one of those big compound lifts and you won’t have to drop a barbell in the middle of the gym when you do reach failure.
Switching to light dumbbells on a superset to push your shoulders to exhaustion is also a great use of your time.
Pair the lateral raise with these bigger lifts, push the deltoid toward exhaustion and hypertrophy. Be sure to refuel with ADABOLIC to promote optimal muscle recovery.
Watch someone running through side raises and it seems like a perfectly safe move. After all, we’re dealing with a fairly short movement here. A fair concern with lateral raises among the weightlifting crowd is that the potential for injury outweighs their benefits. While it is true that the shoulder joint and rotator cuff are not only among the most commonly injured places in the body but also among the most ruinous for bodybuilders, virtually all of this injury risk can be mitigated with the proper form and attention.
The biggest thing to change to make lateral raises safer is the internal shoulder rotation that many lifters insist is crucial.
Maybe you’ve heard a personal trainer or gym buddy suggest “pinky to the ceiling” or “pretend you’re pouring water” to get that perfect internal rotation. This advice does make a kind of intuitive sense since the deltoid does perform that internal rotation.
However, it’s also one of the best ways to cause an impingement.
You might not get an immediate injury from incorporating that internal shoulder rotation, but rest assured that it will happen over time if you continue performing your lateral raises that way.
Positioning your shoulders internally rotated puts the tendons and other connective tissues at greater risk of rubbing against and pinching between bone.
Don’t worry though, because the solution is simple.
Rather than internally rotating your shoulder, pull them back to rotate the arm externally. Use a neutral grip on the dumbbells and keep your palms facing each other, thumbs up rather than pinky. These two quick changes should be enough to avoid the bulk of that impingement risk. If you can check your ego enough to use 5, 10, or 20-pound dumbbells rather than the heaviest ones you can handle, then the odds of a disastrous injury from these lateral raises have dropped significantly.
A few important pieces of advice will help make these side raises as effective as possible.In addition to the considerations in the last section, we’ll reiterate the need to use lighter weight and a higher volume of repetitions both to spare your shoulder undue duress and also because the deltoid builds strength better with high-volume, low-intensity exercise.
You can also use the lateral raise as a way to pre-exhaust the medial deltoid before bigger exercises like the deadlift.
If you’re put off by that order, you can use them to fully exhaust the deltoid after your bigger lifts - but the research does indicate that pre-exhaustion leads to greater activation during the bigger lifts, so it’s worth a try if you can do it safely.Focus on lifting with your elbows and pushing the weight out to the side rather than raising it. Flex your lats and make sure you feel the burn in your shoulders and not your traps.
If you don’t have dumbbells or want to put constant tension on your deltoids, this is a great variation. You can always incorporate the dumbbells into this banded version as well, using both to make the exercise more challenging.
Follow these steps to do resistance band lateral raises:
This variation is super convenient when you’re supersetting with other cable exercises. It’s a unilateral exercise, so you can also use it to find and reduce strength imbalances.All you need to do is remember to set the pin at a lighter weight than whatever you were using for your other exercises.
Follow these steps to do the cable lateral raise:
If you want to work out the anterior deltoid, switch to this variation. You can alternate between front raises and lateral raises to get a more complete shoulder workout.
Follow these steps to do the front raise:
Reduce the impact of momentum on your lateral raise form by sitting on a chair or bench while you perform them. The form is pretty much the same but you might find these to be a bit more challenging. They’re also great if you’re pushing toward full exhaustion.
Follow these steps to do the seated lateral raise:
If you want to hone in on that middle deltoid to bulk out your shoulders, the lateral raise is the best isolation exercise for the job. It’s a great way to push toward full exhaustion safely and it’s also a fantastic interval filler between bigger compound exercises.