An important and apparently simple exercise like the lateral raise is often performed incorrectly. The result is that many shoulders are not fully developed: they lack thickness on the side, while this is so important for a broad appearance. That’s why once and for all: this is how you do a decent dumbbell lateral raise.
AN (ALMOST) INDISPENSABLE EXERCISE
The only “MUST do” movement in bodybuilding would have to be a DB lateral raise.
Was signed, renowned natural bodybuilder Cliff Wilson. A somewhat controversial statement, but the fact is that the lateral raise is the only move that really targets the side of the shoulders .
Only in the compound exercises upright row and behind-the-neck press those sides still participate somewhat, but those are relatively risky exercises, especially the second one. For all other muscle groups you basically have several alternatives, is what Cliff Wilson tried to make clear.
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE LATERAL RAISE
Lateral, also called side or sideways dumbbell lifting, is an isolation exercise. Lateral and side are synonyms, so the commonly heard term side lateral raises is not correct.
Isolation means that the only significant movement in this case is in your shoulder joint. This is in contrast to, for example, shoulder presses, a compound exercise, which involves the shoulder and elbow joints.
With the lateral raise you isolate the middle shoulder head, or the deltoideus lateralis, or lateral deltoid (hereinafter, for convenience: side delt). Hence the name of the exercise. The front shoulder head (anterior deltoid, hereinafter: front delt) only plays a supporting role, while the rear shoulder head (posterior deltoid, hereinafter: rear delt ) is virtually unaffected by sideways dumbbell lifting. Furthermore, the lateral delts get some help from the trapezius, especially the top (‘upper traps’). More on that in a moment.
A good development of the lateral delts is essential to get broad shoulders. Since shoulder presses almost exclusively address the front delts, you can hardly ignore lateral raises as we saw. They are the movement for the side delts.
If you want to do some other movements for your side delts in addition to lateral raises, do face pulls and possibly upright rows. But only do the latter exercise if you don’t have or have had no shoulder problems. We do not recommend the behind-the-neck press, because it offers no further added value, but is somewhat risky from an injury point of view. Face pulls mainly target the rear delts, but also the side delts to a certain extent.
THE PROBLEM WITH THE LATERAL RAISE
So no broad shoulders without the lateral raise. Fortunately, most bodybuilders have the movement pretty much standard in their exercise arsenal. Yet they often lack thickness in the side of their shoulders. Cause: they’re doing lateral raises wrong, so it’s not the side delts, but other muscle groups – especially the upper traps and the front delts – that do most of the work. Usually you notice that because you can’t achieve a good mind-muscle connection with your side delts.
You want to keep the front delts out of harm’s way as much as possible during this exercise. You do this mainly by leaning slightly forward and by not keeping your arms too much inwards. See later in this article.
You can never completely eliminate the upper traps when raising your arms and you don’t have to: it is completely natural and no problem that they participate. However, you must ensure that their role does not become too dominant. In principle, you only run that risk in the last part of the lateral raise. After all, the anatomical function of the upper traps is not to raise the arm sideways, but to raise the shoulders (shrug the shoulders, so to speak).
Because the upper traps are much stronger than the side delts, they tend to help you with a shrug during the last part of the lateral raise – the heaviest part in the dumbbell version. The dumbbells will then still reach their destination, but not in the right way:
Sometimes shrugs with lateral raises are so ingrained that you first have to teach your body to let the traps sing a little lower when raising your arm. Coach Jeremy Ethier has the following exercise for this:
The following mind cue can help you activate less of your upper traps and more of your side delts.
Pretend to push the dumbbells sideways, instead of lifting them. So try to bring the dumbbells as far away from you as possible. So the weight goes up because you push it sideways, not because you raise it.
See also the explanation of coach Christian Thibaudeau (from 2:00).
Dumbell lateral raises are usually performed standing, with feet about shoulder-width apart. Turn your feet firmly into the ground.
There is a slight bend in your knees. So you are not standing with fully stretched legs.
You can also do the exercise sitting down . For some, that helps to show stricter execution. In the following, however, we will only deal with the standing version.
BACK AND CORE
Keep your back straight, chest out. Maintain a natural curve in your back. Tension your core by tightening your abs, glutes and lower back. So don’t go ‘loosely’ with it.
Hold this pose and keep your body more or less still throughout the exercise. You don’t have to be ‘robotic’ either: it’s okay if your hips move slightly back and forth. As long as you don’t start rocking your torso, because then you cheat .
LEAN SLIGHTLY FORWARD
In lateral raises, we lean forward slightly to align the muscle fibers of the side delts with the movement. In this way we put the tension optimally on the side delts, without interference from the front delts, who are already trained enough thanks to the presses.
Hinge your hips slightly backwards (about 10-20 degrees). Don’t lean forward any further, because then your rear delts come into action.
POSITIONING OF THE ARMS
The positioning of your arms has a big influence on activating your side delts. The problem with this is that the optimal activation of the side details is at the expense of the safety of the exercise.
INTERNAL OR EXTERNAL ROTATION?
The major point of discussion with lateral raises is the rotation of the arms or the shoulder joint. Should it be internal (turned in, so with the little fingers up) or external (turned out, so with the thumbs up)?
We owe you a conclusive answer and hypertrophy expert Brad Schoenfeld does not dare to make a firm statement about it either .
Coach Mike Israetel is outspoken about it though: he advises to keep the little fingers up a bit (as if you were pouring out a watering can), because that way you activate your side delts the most. The more you rotate externally, i.e. turn your thumbs up, the more front delt you involve in the exercise, as an EMG study also shows. According to Israetel, that is a form of cheating, because your side delts are no longer alone.
But while internal rotation may provide a better stimulus, it’s not the best position for the shoulders, says YouTube physical therapist Jeff Cavaliere. And vulnerable shoulder positions in exercises can lead to shoulder impingement in the long term, in other words to persistent injuries. He therefore advises: thumbs up.
In this case, our thumbs up don’t go up for Mike, but for Jeff. We prefer the version with external rotation, i.e. with the thumbs turned up a little bit, so not as exaggerated as this (because that would indeed be cheating). Maybe that makes it a bit more difficult to activate the side delts, but it feels more comfortable on our shoulders. If you have had to deal with shoulder injuries in the past, as we have, you simply let that importance weigh a little more heavily.
Incidentally, coach and author Greg Nuckols thinks that, from a hypertrophy standpoint, you should ideally do three variations: internal rotation, external rotation and neutral. This is because the muscle fibers in the side delts go in different directions.
WRISTS AND ELBOWS ALIGNED
Keep your wrist and elbow in line. If your wrists are significantly below your elbow, the exercise is more like rowing upwards (upright rows) and your front delts take over some of the work again.
ARMS SLIGHTLY IN
Although we are talking about side raises (as opposed to front raises), you should not keep your arms completely at your sides. The safest position is the so-called scapular plane, where you keep your arms slightly inward, at an angle of 15-30 degrees with your torso. Again no more than that, because – you guessed it – then the front delts will get involved again.
In addition, it is safest to keep a bend in your elbows and not to lift with outstretched arms. According to Coratella’s EMG research, this is also somewhat at the expense of the side delts activation. So ‘kink’ is minimal to keep the front delts out of harm’s way as much as possible.
The most common performance of dumbbell lateral raises is where you hold the dumbbells next to your body, palms together, and raise up from there until your upper arms are roughly parallel to the floor.
Another embodiment is that in which the dumbbells are in the starting position in front of the thighs. However, this is a less strict execution where you can create more momentum. We prefer the version with the dumbbells next to the body.
In each hand you hold a (not too heavy) dumbbell. You can use either a regular or thumbless grip, depending on your preference.
Bring the dumbbells up by pushing them away from you. You breathe in.
Don’t raise your arms (much) higher than parallel, as that can be uncomfortable for your shoulders. In addition, your upper traps will take over more and more of the work. If you still want to go high, do a ‘butterfly raise’ , where you turn your arm out halfway through the movement.
However, don’t go lower than parallel, because then you skip the heaviest part of range of motion (ROM).
Hold the top position for one second before lowering the dumbbells back down. That helps you enormously in achieving a good mind-muscle connection with your side delts.
Lower the dumbbells in a controlled manner. In doing so, you exhale.
“Controlled” means you shouldn’t “drop” the dumbbells. You certainly don’t need to do your eccentrics overly slow, just slow enough to let your side delts burn and feel a good pump.
In combination with the isometric hold at the top, you may be able to use less weight than you are used to, while the exercise feels heavier and less comfortable. But that’s exactly what hypertrophy training is all about: not the absolute weight, but the stimulus. Or as Mike Israetel aptly puts it :
Don’t run away from the stimulus, run towards it.
We summarize everything with the help of the checklist below. As you can see, it’s not that bad and after a few times most things have already become automatic.
|▢ Straight back with a natural curve.|
|▢ Core under tension by tightening abs, glutes and lower back.|
|▢ Slight bend in the knees.|
|▢ Lean forward 10-20 degrees (bend at the hips).|
|▢ Keep arms 15-30 degrees inwards.|
|▢ Rotate arms slightly externally, ie with thumbs slightly up.*|
|▢ Do not fully extend arms, but keep a small (!) bend in the elbows.|
|▢ Keep wrists and elbows aligned.|
|* This is our preference. Rotate slightly internally, if desired, with the pinkies pointing upwards.|
|▢ Bring the dumbbells up by pushing them sideways away from you. You breathe in.|
|▢ Raise your arms until they are parallel to the floor, or slightly higher.|
|▢ Hold this position for one second.|
|▢ Lower your arms in a controlled manner until the dumbbells are next to your body again.** You breath out.|
|** If you apply constant tension (see next section) you will not return the dumbbells completely to the starting position.|
DO YOU HAVE TO APPLY CONSTANT TENSION?
Another issue: should you lower dumbbells completely, or should you cut off a little bit of range of motion (ROM) so that your side delts stay under tension (constant tension)?
From the dumbbells along your legs to the moment your arms are at about a 30-degree angle, there is indeed virtually no tension on your shoulders. In fact, an unnecessary piece of ROM that takes the tension off your muscles.
According to some, you should therefore not bring the dumbbells back completely, but approximately to where that angle of 30 degrees is. So as follows:
Due to constant tension, the repetitions run into each other, making the exercise heavier.
Now constant tension is indeed a way to train and a way to achieve muscle growth, as long as you make progress over time . But the method is not necessarily better or worse than training without constant tension, i.e. with very short breaks between reps, in which the trained muscle can gasp for breath.
With constant tension you can simply use less weight, or do fewer reps with the same weight. However, as long as you train the exercise close to muscle failure and as long as you provide enough stimulating reps (about five per set), it makes no difference to muscle growth. It can be compared to blood flow restriction training, where you train with low weights and still create a growth stimulus that is equivalent to that of normal training, with higher weights.
The choice for constant tension is therefore mainly a matter of preference: perhaps you prefer to train the relatively vulnerable shoulders with lower weights (or you do not have high weights available) and/or perhaps you experience a better mind-muscle connection through constant tension. Others can show a better training focus if each repetition is on its own, preceded by a minuscule pause.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF MUSCLE GROWTH
With regard to muscle growth, is there no difference at all between constant and non-constant tension? Perhaps, because with constant tension you create more metabolic stress and therefore you may mainly induce sarcoplasmic muscle growth. With non-constant tension you create a little more mechanical tension, which would mainly cause myofibrillar muscle growth. ‘Possible’ and ‘would’, because for the time being this remains a gray area within hypertrophication. In any case, it could be an argument to include both variants of the exercise – constant tension and full ROM – in your schedule, as if they were two different exercises.
If you only do one variant, which is fine for beginners and intermediates anyway, make a clear choice: either full ROM or constant tension. So don’t mix both training methods in one exercise, because then you won’t be able to keep track of your progress consistently.
FULL ROM VS PARTIALS
Finally and for the record, in principle, full ROM for muscle growth is always best , but if ‘cutting’ the ROM can improve the Stimulus To Fatigue Ratio (SFR), it’s okay . In the case of lateral raises, the improvement may therefore lie in creating the same stimulus with lighter weights and/or increasing metabolic stress.
ARE CABLE LATERAL RAISES BETTER?
Because of the tension curve with dumbbell lateral raises, which we just mentioned, some think that the cable version is better.
With dumbbell lateral raises, the tension increases as the dumbbell rises – a matter of gravity. As mentioned, there is almost no tension at the bottom. The cable variant does offer tension over the full ROM, so also at the bottom of the movement. The tension also remains the same as you move upwards.
Are cable lateral raises therefore more effective than those with dumbbells? No, not necessarily. The stimulus is just slightly different, hypertrophy expert Brad Schoenfeld also thinks: with the cable variant the challenge lies in the even tension, with the dumbbell variant in the increasing tension.
Overall, according to EMG research (PDF), the side delts in the dumbbell variant are activated slightly more than with a cable. If you like to train with constant tension, then the cable version may be slightly better, but we already saw that with the dumbbell version it is a matter of shortening the ROM slightly.
Our advice: include both variants, with dumbbell and with cable, in your schedule. This way you can be sure that your side delts receive the most complete and therefore most optimal training stimulus.
Side lifting exercises come in many flavors. But basically the movement is always the same.
A well-executed dumbbell lateral raise, preferably supplemented with the cable variant, should therefore already be sufficient to develop your shoulders in width. It’s only as you get more advanced that you may need some more variations.
As long as you don’t randomly alternate between different variants, because then you can never develop proper adaptations and make progress from there.
Despite the directions in this article, are you unable to feel and stimulate your side delts when you do dumbbell lateral raises? Then try this variant, where you lie on a bench with an angled backrest. That can help you make your upper traps participate less dominantly:
ABSOLUTE INTENSITY (WEIGHT)
Most people use too much weight when doing lateral raises. And that leads to incorrect execution.
First, you don’t lift the dumbbells purely on muscle strength, so you swing the dumbbells to create momentum:
Secondly, you cannot control the eccentric phase of the exercise that is so important for muscle growth.
In fact, you should choose a weight that, even on your last rep, you can hold for a moment in the top position. And with which you can do at least ten repetitions.
So aim for 10-20 reps, but 20-30 is also fine, if it benefits your execution and mind-muscle connection. At very high rep ranges it is more difficult to reach the point of muscle failure (see next paragraph).
RELATIVE INTENSITY (EFFORT)
For optimal muscle growth, you should train your sets close to muscle failure, i.e. the point where you can no longer do a decent rep. While it is better to stay a little further away from muscle failure with compound exercises (two to three repetitions of muscle failure, or 2-3 RIR ), you can train isolation exercises short on muscle failure, for example with 1 RIR or even all the way to muscle failure (0 RIR). .
So feel free to train your dumbbell lateral raises with 0-1 RIR, for example:
set 1: 1 RIR
set 2: 1 RIR
set 3: 0 RIR (until muscle failure)
You can also gradually increase the relative intensity during your training block, for example by starting with 3 RIR in week 1 and training all sets to muscle failure in week 6. However, for an adequate stimulus, start no further from muscle failure than 3 RIR, certainly not in the higher repranges.
How many sets do your side delts need on a weekly basis to grow (the training volume)? That mainly depends on your training status.
According to Mike Israetel beginners usually have enough with direct six sets per week. For intermediates and advanced athletes this is usually no longer a challenge: they need 10-20 direct sets. This is possible with only lateral raises, although we already saw that it is best to do several variants.
Whatever your training status, get the hang of the execution first. Perhaps you have always done the exercise wrong and therefore never effectively trained your side delts. In that case you can suffice with 6-10 sets per week. Only when you no longer make convincing progress (while your recovery is in order), you add sets.
Spread your volume as much as possible over the week. So if you need 12 sets, don’t do them all in one workout. After about five sets, the growth stimulus already starts to decrease sharply, as does the quality of your sets (the execution and intensity). In addition, as a small muscle group, your side delts will recover quickly.
Dumbbell side raises: how the effectiveness of a seemingly simple exercise is determined by details. In this article we have tried to cover them as well as possible.
But no one is the same, so how you exercise, you should perform according to your anatomy, you must see for yourself. Experiment with the position of your torso and your arms, with weights and possibly with different variations.
If you feel a good pump in your side delts, you’re in the right place. Then it’s just a matter of continuing to do the exercise and gradually using heavier weights.