What are Lateral Raises? (A guide for bodybuilders)

What are lateral raises?

What are lateral raises?

Lateral raises are a resistance exercise that targets the outer (lateral) deltoid muscles in the shoulder. This is a muscle that is not heavily activated during pressing or rowing exercises, so performing lateral raises can be beneficial to help build a rounder shoulder and wider frame.

Which muscles are worked with lateral raises?

The lateral raise targets the outer shoulder muscle (lateral deltoid). Development of this muscle can give you a wider upper body, accentuate the upper arm muscles, and assist your other shoulder muscles with compound lifts
Muscles worked by a lateral raise

Although you are primarily targeting the lateral deltoid muscles, other muscles are activated and act as stabilisers. The anterior and posterior heads of the deltoid are activated as are the trap muscles in your upper back. Rhomboid muscles in the back and abdominal muscles are used to stabilize your core, and forearms are used to keep your wrists straight. 

What are lateral raises benefits?

Bodybuilders will use lateral raises to give their deltoids width and a rounder look. A well-defined shoulder muscle will make the biceps and triceps of the upper arm appear bigger as well as provide definition in the upper chest and back. 

Strength trainers will often use accessory movements such as lateral raises to increase overall strength and mobility. When pressing or lifting heavy bars, you are prone to injury in weaker areas. 

Your shoulders are complex structures as they allow you to move your arm in a circular or lateral movement. Making sure that they are as strong as possible reduces the risk of injury.

A well-rounded shoulder will also help with posture, especially when you have a developed back and chest. By adding lateral raises to your routine, you are improving one of the major assisters of good posture. 

Good posture can stop you from looking hunched over and make you appear confident. In addition to this, good posture helps you combat fatigue and back pain. 

How do I perform lateral raises?

There are a few different options when it comes to lateral raises. Some people like to train heavy with dumbbells, whereas others find it more beneficial to hit high reps with low weights on the cable machine. The method you choose should be based on the following criteria...

  1. Your goals. If you are training for health and mobility, using a low weight with higher reps will be beneficial. For strength or bodybuilding, you will want to ramp up the weight and drop the reps.
  2. Your genes! You may have a genetically broad upper back and shoulders, but skinny arms. If this is the case, you may want to prioritize other areas and not go too heavy on the lateral deltoids.
  3. Your mobility. Some people struggle to move their arms in a lateral direction due to previous injury. This is usually an issue with the brachialis muscle underneath the bicep. If this is you, head to a lateral raise machine at your gym and use a slightly reclined position with your arms further in front of you.
Dumbbells are the popular choice for this exercise. Most gyms have a rack of dumbbells in front of a mirror. This allows you to carry out drop sets and pyramid sets while keeping an eye on your form. 

Dumbbell one-arm lateral raise

The execution of a dumbbell lateral raise is relatively straightforward. Simply select your dumbbells (start with a light weight to ensure good form and to warm up the rotator cuffs). Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, dumbbells by your side with an overhand grip (palms facing inwards). 

Keeping your arms fairly straight (a slight bend is acceptable, but try to make sure the weight is extended away from the body), raise the weights to the side until they are level with your head. Lower the weight back to the starting position and repeat for the required number of reps and sets.

This movement can be performed on a cable machine with a stirrup attachment. 

Cable lateral raise example

The movement is the same as a dumbbell lateral raise. The cable pin needs to be set at the bottom of the machine. Select the appropriate weight and add the stirrup attachment. 

Stand sideways onto the machine and raise the stirrup across your body. Keep your back straight and only a slight bend in your arm. Your wrist can have some flexion to take your forearm muscles out of the movement. 

Move the stirrup until it is level with your head, hold for a second before slowly lowering it to the starting position. 

There are a few advantages to using a cable machine over dumbbells. It is quicker to increase or decrease resistance, making it ideal for pyramid or drop sets. It is also a smoother movement with more resistance throughout the motion instead of just at the top.  

Most people prefer to work one arm at a time, but if you have a twin cable machine at your gym, it is possible to work both arms at the same time as illustrated below. 

Cheating the movement.

There are some people that will be a stickler for correct form with this movement, but many professional bodybuilders claim that this is one of the exercises you should cheat form with. This is going to be down to your mobility and your goals (conditioning or hypertrophy). 

Many claim that it is more beneficial to swing the weights slightly by slightly bending over and then quickly straightening the back at the top of the movement. This certainly allows you to shift a much heavier weight but will involve your traps more than a traditional raise. 

Another cheat is to lean back instead of using a straight back. This can be helpful if you have mobility issues or an issue with your rotator cuffs/brachialis. Arguably, this will activate the front delts as well as the side, but it is another option. 

Thirdly, there are the partial reps. Many bodybuilders will claim that they only really get a connection with the first part of the movement, so will only raise the dumbbell halfway up so that it is in line with the chest. 

Others say they get the best results but raising the dumbbell above shoulder height and may start their reps from the halfway point. 

Any cheat or adaptation to a standard raise does increase the risk of injury, so make sure that you are properly warmed up and listen to your body. If a movement does not feel right or puts an uncomfortable strain on a joint, find a way to work around it safely.

Seated dumbbell lateral raises.

If you want to keep a strict form and take the strain away from the stabiliser muscles in your trunk, you can perform a lateral dumbbell raise on a dumbbell bench.

The seated dumbbell lateral raise is performed in the same way as a standing lateral raise but in a seated position. Your dumbbell bench should be in the upright position or with just a slight incline to keep the spine straight. This is a great way to superset side lateral raises with seated rear delt raises.

It is possible to cheat on this movement if you want to move heavier weights by shrugging as you raise the dumbbells. 

This creates more of a swinging movement and activates the traps, but many professional bodybuilders claim that cheating and moving a heavier weight has been beneficial to their gains. 

Incline/flat dumbbell raises. 

Incline and flat bench lateral raises are one of the lesser-used exercises for shoulder development. The Motion increases resistance on the first few inches of the movement so it can be advantageous to add in to your shoulder routine. The range of motion is fairly small compared to other raises.
Flat bench lateral raise
The illustration above shows the movement being performed on a flat bench, but if you want to change the angle, you can raise the bench into an incline position. 

Incline bench lateral raise

It will feel like you are doing partial reps as you are only lifting the dumbbells a few inches with each movement.

To perform an incline dumbbell raise, select your weight, hold it in one hand, and lay on the bench on your opposite side. Rest the dumbbell on your thigh to start. 

Take a deep breath, and upon exhaling, raise the dumbbell to an angle of around 45 degrees. Hold this position for a second or two before lowering the weight. 

At the bottom of this movement, do not let the weight rest on your thigh. As soon as it is an inch away from touching your leg, start the next rep. 

Some people like to let the weight hang down in front of them instead of resting it on the leg. This does give a greater range of motion but targets the posterior delts as well as the lateral delts.

 If you are looking to increase the range of motion purely on the lateral delts, you are better off using a standard dumbbell lateral raise or a leaning lateral raise as detailed below. 

Leaning lateral raise.

Leaning dumbbell lateral raise

If you want more resistance at the top of the movement and a wider range of motion, try a leaning dumbbell lateral raise. This movement can be performed with a stirrup on a cable or a dumbbell. You will need a solid base to lean from, such as a wall rack or a cable machine. 

By leaning outwards while performing a lateral raise, you are removing any element of cheating or bad form. 

Stand with your feet together next to the rack or machine. Grab the support and lean outwards to around 30 degrees with your dumbbell in your opposite hand. You will need to use a lighter weight than you would use in a standard lateral raise. 

Keeping your back and working arm straight, slowly lift the dumbbell until it is level with your head. Hold this position for one second before slowly lowering the weight. Light weight, slow movement and high repetitions are the key to success with this exercise. 

If you normally perform standard lateral raises. Add this in to your routine occasionally to shock the lateral deltoid and promote growth. 

Leaning lateral raises can also be performed with cables. As with the dumbbell lateral raise, you will obviously only be able to work one arm at a time. 

Cable machines generally have handles or upright bars that make them easy to use for leaning lateral raises. The movement is the same as the dumbbell leaning lateral raise. 

You will need to add a stirrup attachment or a wrist strap and set the pin at its lowest setting. Using a machine instead of dumbbells is great for quick weight selection and smoother movement. 

Lateral raise machine.

Lateral raise machines are a common sight in most modern, commercial gyms. They take a bit of getting used to at first as the movement feels different to a standard, dumbbell or cable lateral raise, but they do target exactly the same muscle. 

Have a play around with your machine at a light weight. Adjust the seat height and arm position until you find a comfortable position that allows you to fully connect with your lateral deltoid. 

Lateral raise machine how to

The main advantage of using a lateral raise machine is that it takes all of your core stabiliser muscles out of the movement. This allows you to focus and connect purely with your lateral delts.  

If the machine has a weight stack, it is easy to change the resistance up or down with the pin. This makes it ideal for drop sets or pyramid sets. 

What are lateral raises alternatives?

Shoulder press

Upright row

We hope that you have found this article informative!


Gymenix offers a selection of free training programs to suit all abilities and goals. Click on the links below for FREE access. 

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