Bigger shoulders have probably been on your physique wishlist since you picked up your first dumbbell in high school. Broad shoulders not only help you look strong, but a stronger pair of delts can help to fix poor posture as well as improve your joint stability and mobility.
If you’re reading this article now wondering why you don’t have bigger shoulders, there’s help to be found: lateral raises.
Typically performed with dumbbells, cables, or resistance bands, lateral raises work your medial deltoids to help give your shoulders that iconic cannonball look. Lateral raises are an isolation exercise that can increase shoulder hypertrophy while avoiding heavy strain on your upper body.
This article will take you through ten different lateral raise variations. You’ll also learn how to perform lateral raises, why you should be programming lateral raises, and how to warm up your shoulders to maximize your gains.
Lateral Raise Variations
- Cable Lateral Raise
- Wall Press Lateral Raise
- Three-Way Lateral Raise
- Landmine Lateral Raise
- Kneeling Lateral Raise
- Leaning Away Lateral Raise
- Lateral Raise Hold
- 1.5 Rep Lateral Raise
- Dead Stop Lateral Raise
- Y Raise
While cables aren’t necessarily worth performing every exercise with, they are particularly relevant to the lateral raise when it comes to maximizing muscular fatigue. The range of motion of the exercise has an inconsistent resistance curve — lateral raises are very easy in the beginning, but extremely hard at the end.
Using cables instead of free weights evens things out to provide smooth, consistent tension while the muscle works through its entire range of motion. Simply set a cable attachment to roughly knee height and perform the lift as you normally would.
Simultaneously pressing one hand into the wall while performing a lateral raise with your other arm creates more tension in both shoulders through a process called irradiation. The core idea is simple — when you’re pressing against the wall, you’re less likely to “cheat” on your reps.
You’ll essentially be flush against the wall on your unweighted side. You will still feel tension against the left side, which comes from a need to stabilize as you move the weight — that’s normal. When you try this, remember to maintain your posture, and don’t forget to breathe.
Muscle fibers don’t just run in one direction. They weave and do not always directly align with the motion of whatever implement you’re lifting, so it makes sense to vary your angles when you lift. You may have seen other people do something similar to this in the gym by slightly hinging at the hips while doing lateral raises.
You can also achieve this by changing the direction in which you lift the dumbbells. The three-way lateral raise changes the direction for the concentric and eccentric contraction of each rep, ensuring you’re attacking your shoulders from all angles.
By performing lateral raises with a barbell fixed into a landmine position, you can work your core as you stabilize the bar and even get a bit of extra grip training in since you’re forced to grip the thick sleeve of the barbell.
As with all lateral raises, start light with this movement, and be sure to take it slow. These are harder than they look. And again, lead with the elbows.
If you’re prone to swinging on your sets, you might consider performing lateral raises from a kneeling position. Not only will the kneeling lateral raise help prevent any unwanted “body English,” but it also gives strong tactile feedback — you’ll notice quickly if you’re trying to force the weights up with motion from the hips.
Performing lateral raises while leaning increases the distance that your arm needs to travel, and a longer range of motion means more muscle-building tension.
By tilting the torso towards the side of the working arm, the movement becomes more difficult towards the top of the range of motion due to the adjustment in leverage. Leaning lateral raises should be done slowly and controlled to maximize your time under tension.
Provided you can maintain proper form, leaning into the working side should allow you to use slightly more weight. Grab a power rack or any stable fixture and lean slightly — think a 60 to 75-degree angle.
This is an extremely simple variation — but simplicity doesn’t make it less effective. Lateral raise holds demand a pause at the top of each repetition for up to three seconds for some extra isometric stimulus.
Even if you’re using a very light load, counting to a full three seconds may well induce a bit of trembling. Holds will also dramatically reduce the amount of weight you can use, but that just means you get more bang for your buck.
When it comes to the one-and-a-half rep lateral raise, the technique is simple but the result is painfully effective. Lift the weight to the top of your range of motion normally, perform half of the eccentric portion, return to the top, and then lower the weight fully. That’s one rep.
As with any 1.5 rep scheme, these will challenge your control, increase time under tension, and seriously skyrocket your strength. Keep it light on these, but rest assured that the extra work per rep — especially with killing all that momentum — will build some impressive shoulders.
With lateral raise holds, you’re coming to a full pause at the top of the lift. Here, the pause will happen at the bottom of the lift. Typically, you’ll want to keep your delts activated by keeping your hands away from your body at the bottom. But here, you want to let the weights touch your hips, or each other, to fully stop.
Why? To kill all the momentum between each rep. No pumping action here — with each rep, you’ll be completely recreating the force you need without help from physics.
Although it is typically performed for rehab or as upper back work, the Y raise is a fantastic middle deltoid builder. It essentially does the opposite of the leaning raise — by severely compromising your leverage, even the lightest of weights will feel highly challenging.
Set an adjustable bench to a low incline and lay prone on it. Let your arms hang down and then raise them up and out such that your body forms a “Y” at the top. If you can’t raise your arm to be parallel with your torso, the weight you’re using is too heavy. As a side benefit, this variation is also stimulates the middle and lower trapezius.
How To Perform Lateral Raises
To perform a lateral raise, you’ll set your feet about hip-width apart and hold a pair of light dumbbells at your sides. Set up with a tight core. Squeeze your glutes and quads to protect your low back and minimize any unwanted momentum.
You want the main motion to come from your shoulders, so keep your arms relatively straight. Still, keep your elbows unlocked throughout the lift.
Maintaining neutral wrists, raise your shoulders to lift your arms as though invisible strings were pulling your arms up toward the ceiling. Avoid elevating your shoulders up toward your ears. Once you’ve raised your arms until they’re roughly parallel to the floor, lower slowly under control.
Optimize Your Lateral Raise
When it comes to most isolation exercises like the lateral raise, creating and maintaining tension is paramount. If you don’t feel the muscle working while you do lateral raises, then chances are it’s not. One issue could be that your form is wrong, and another could be that you’re using too much weight.
The most common mistake with lateral raises is going too heavy at the expense of tension. This results in using momentum from the upper traps, resulting in a loss of good posture. This will decrease or remove all tension in the lateral deltoid — turning the movement into something it isn’t meant to be.
Here are some form tips and ways to add tension without upping the load you’re lifting. You can increase tension by:
- Adding more reps;
- Pausing in the top position;
- Changing your body position — for example, tall kneeling;
- Manipulating tempo — for example, three seconds up, three seconds down;
- Performing the move unilaterally (one arm at a time); or
- Adding instability (thereby compelling your muscles to help you stabilize).
As with any changing variable in training, only alter one factor at a time. That way, you can keep track of what works best for your body and avoid progressing too fast.
When you’re programming lateral raises, aim to complete higher reps (12-20) for two to four sets. Do them toward the end of training, after finishing all of your compound exercises.
Benefits of Lateral Raises
You’re not your average powerlifter — you consider the overhead press one of your main lifts. And you prioritize overhead strength and stability at every turn. Your clean and jerk is impressive, and your dumbbell press is pretty darn strong. If your pressing game is already picture-perfect, why bother with such a light dumbbell movement?
One of the principal benefits of lateral raises is within the name itself: moving laterally will pretty much always benefit your training. Training in the frontal plane (side-to-side) is often neglected in most training regimes.
Only moving in the sagittal plane (where your main lifts occur) can help get you strong at your lifts, but incorporating lateral movement can help your body become more resilient against injury and more efficiently tolerate the stress of loaded movement. And when your body becomes more efficient at moving, you can lift heavier weights.
Build Boulder Shoulders
All that pressing work is great for making strong shoulders — but if you also want big shoulders, lateral raises will help you get there. While your overhead presses can and will help give your shoulders some mass, well-rounded growth comes from stimulating your delts at all angles.
Improve Mental Focus
For athletes who love lifting heavy, taking it easy on the weights can be tough on the ego. However, the light loads used with lateral raises will force you to tune into your body and really move with intent. The more deliberately you perform each move — no matter what the weight is — the better a lifter you’ll be.
That’s because you’ll be ingraining positive movement patterns into your brain and teaching yourself mental discipline. Moving relatively light weights is great practice for becoming the kind of dedicated, diligent lifter that can consistently smash personal records.
How To Warm Up Your Shoulders
Since lateral raises typically involve such light weight, they might seem like a warm-up in and of themselves. To an extent, that can be true. Light lateral raises can be helpful additions to your warm-up routine when you’re specifically preparing for a shoulder workout.
But that doesn’t mean the movement requires no movement prep of its own. Especially when you’re working with your shoulders — two of the most articulate joints in the body — make sure you prioritize safety over ego at all times.
- Band Pull Aparts: 3 x 15 – 20
- Banded Face Pulls: 3 x 15
- Inchworm: 3 x 10
- World’s Greatest Stretch: 3 x 6 per side
- Pushups To Side Plank: 3 x 6 per side
Building shoulders requires a mix of compound and isolation exercises combined with time and patience. Changing your body position and reducing or increasing your stability may be the spark your shoulders need to grow or bust through a plateau.
Working in the frontal plane of motion will help target areas of the shoulder you might otherwise be neglecting. All in all, lateral raises are great for maximizing shoulder growth and resiliency.