Also Known As: Lateral Raise
Targets: Shoulders, especially the lateral and anterior heads of the deltoid
Equipment Needed: Dumbbells
The side lateral raise is an effective shoulder-strengthening movement designed to isolate the lateral head of the deltoid muscle. Performed regularly, this can help you develop stronger, broader shoulders. All you need is a pair of light dumbbells and enough shoulder flexibility to abduct your arms (lifting the weights out and away from your body) until they form a “T” shape at your shoulders.
Generally speaking, lateral raises should be incorporated into upper-body strength training routines, and they should be performed after compound exercises that incorporate the shoulder, such as incline dumbbell press, shoulder press, push-ups, or pull-ups. This is similar to the dumbbell front raise.
The side lateral raise is a shoulder exercise that specifically targets the deltoid muscles. The deltoid muscle group actually consists of three separate points of origin (referred to as “heads”), each with its own group of muscle fibers. The three heads of the deltoid then merge together before they insert on the upper arm bone (the humerus).
The side lateral raise primarily targets the lateral head of the deltoid (although it also engages the anterior and posterior heads to a lesser extent), enabling you to isolate this muscle groups. Specifically, lateral raises are considered the best exercise available for working the lateral head of the delts.
Done regularly, the lateral raise can help you achieve muscle hypertrophy (growth) of the lateral deltoid, giving you the appearance of broader, stronger shoulders.
Aside from superficial appearance benefits, the exercise also helps strengthen your shoulders independently. This can help correct potential strength discrepancies between your right and left sides.
And because the shoulder joint is the least stable joint in the body, a well-rounded strength-training routine designed to target all three heads of the deltoid (as well as the stabilizing muscles of the rotator cuff) can help you keep this finicky joint healthy. Strong and flexible shoulders are key to warding off intermittent pain or potential injuries, and side lateral raises can function as one piece of the puzzle in a well-rounded shoulder workout.
You don’t need much room or equipment to perform a side lateral raise. All you need is a set of dumbbells (start with a pair between 5 to 15 pounds if you’re a beginner), and enough space to raise your arms in a “T” formation out to each side.
- Stand tall, a dumbbell in each hand. Arms are at your sides, palms facing in. Position your feet roughly hip-distance apart. Check your posture—roll your shoulders back, engage your core, and look straight ahead.
- Raise your arms simultaneously just a couple inches out to each side and pause. This momentary pause should help ensure you disengage your trapezius muscle from the movement, targeting the deltoids as intended.
- Lift the dumbbells up and out to each side, keeping your arms almost completely straight, stopping when your elbows reach shoulder-height and your body is forming a “T” shape. Breathe in as you lift.
- Pause and hold for a second at the top of the movement.
- Lower the weights slowly (take about twice as long to lower the weights as you took to lift them), bringing your arms back to your sides. Breathe out as you lower the dumbbells.
The side lateral raise is an easy exercise to master, but because it involves free weights, there’s almost always room for error. Check your form and avoid using dumbbells that are too heavy—this almost always leads to errors in performance.
Selecting Too Much Weight
Side lateral raises are an isolation exercise designed to target a very specific muscle group. Also, because you’re using dumbbells to perform the movement, you end up targeting each side of your body independently (unilaterally). These two considerations mean that you need to select a lighter weight than you might use for exercises like the incline dumbbell press or dumbbell shoulder press.
If you’re new to the exercise, select dumbbells between 5 to 15 pounds, then make adjustments as needed. It’s always better to start with a lighter weight and adjust upward than to start with a weight that’s too heavy. When you use too much weight, you’re more likely to perform the exercise with poor form or unwanted momentum that could open you up to potential injuries.
Using Momentum to Swing the Dumbbells
When someone selects a pair of dumbbells that are too heavy, but they don’t want to switch to a lighter weight, you almost always see them using momentum to swing the dumbbells upward. This often involves a kind of bouncing with the knees and a forward-backward tilt of the torso as they jerk the weights up and out to the sides.
This type of momentum-generating motion is problematic for a few reasons. First, you stop efficiently targeting the muscle group the exercise is intended to target. Instead of isolating the lateral head of the deltoid, you end up using your legs and your back to propel the weight upward. This will actually prevent you from seeing the type of strength and hypertrophy improvements you’re hoping to achieve.
Second, throwing the weights up and down like this reduces the control you have over the weight, making it more likely you could injure yourself. Slow down, select a lighter weight, and focus on form to achieve optimum results.
Dropping Your Head Forward
Another common mistake is craning your neck forward or dropping your chin toward your chest as you perform the exercise. This happens most often when you’re using too much weight, or you’re nearing the end of a set and your shoulders are feeling fatigued.
It’s important to maintain good posture with a neutral neck and spine alignment throughout the exercise. This helps prevent neck strain and also ensures you’re targeting the lateral head of the deltoid, rather than allowing your back muscles, specifically your trapezius, to take over.
Watch yourself in the mirror as you perform the exercise—even this action can help correct the problem because it ensures you’re looking up and forward, rather than dropping your head down.
Using Your Trapezius to Power the Movement
Again, almost all the mistakes associated with side lateral raises come down to improper weight selection. With dumbbells that are too heavy, you won’t be able to power the movement with the appropriate muscle group—the deltoids—and will instead recruit other muscles to help power through.
The most common culprit? The trapezius muscle (“traps”) of the upper back. You’ll notice this happening if you start the exercise by shrugging your shoulders up to try to pull the dumbbells up and away from your sides. Pay attention as you lift, looking for any shrugging action. When in doubt, switch your weights out for a lighter set of dumbbells.
Modifications and Variations
Need a Modification?
The easiest modification for the side lateral raise is to simply bend your elbows before performing the exercise. This bent-arm lateral raise modification “shortens the lever,” bringing the weight closer to your body throughout the movement. Perform it just as you would the regular exercise, but keep your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle throughout.
Up for a Challenge?
A lateral raise variation for more advanced exercisers is the kettlebell lateral raise. Simply switch out your dumbbells for a pair of kettlebells. The difference between dumbbells and kettlebells is in how their weight is distributed.
Dumbbells have an equal distribution of weight across the entire dumbbell, and you hold the weight in the middle, providing a balance to the weight you’re lifting. Kettlebells, on the other hand, have unequal distribution of weight, with the bell portion significantly outweighing the handle. Using kettlebells for the side lateral raise forces you to further engage your shoulders to control the awkward distribution of weight as you lift through a full range of motion.
Safety and Precautions
Selecting the correct weight is the single best thing you can do to prevent injury while performing a lateral raise. Check all the common mistakes—all of which are associated with improper weight selection—and if you notice yourself making a blunder, switch your dumbbells out for a lighter pair.
The side lateral raise is a generally safe movement, but if at any point during the exercise you feel a sudden or sharp pain, stop your repetitions. You may want to try it again with the bent-arm modification to see if that alleviates the pain, but if the pain continues, discontinue the exercise for the day.
Try It Out
Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:
- Shoulder Exercises for Strength and Flexibility
- Total Body Strength Workout for Beginners
- Upper Body Tri-Set Challenge Workout