Lateral raises are like a box of goodies for the shoulders. It targets the medial deltoid which is critical to achieving the boulder-shoulder look.
But even if you don’t fancy broad shoulders, we are sure that good posture is part of your priority list. Lateral raises will ensure that you are able to maintain an erect and correct posture, without drooping like ‘The Hunchback Of Notre-Dame’.
Lateral raises also provide some functional benefits, which we will touch upon in a bit. But if there’s one exercise which a majority of recreational fitness buffs perform with poor form, it is the lateral raise.
The moment someone in the gym starts to do lateral raises, drop whatever you are lifting and take a good look.
You’ll find them lifting weight that’s too heavy for the lateral raise. Most of them will have their arms bent at the wrong angle.
A lot of them won’t complete the range of motion. Almost all of them will swing their arms around wildly, thrusting their hips as they lift.
Which one of these boxes do you tick, when you perform the lateral raise?
Despite all the benefits, this is an exercise that relies heavily on good form. The margin of error practically does not exist here. That’s why we are going to talk about some lateral raise alternatives.
We have been there, done it wrong, learnt it the hard way, tried alternatives and now, mastered good lateral raise form. That’s why we are going to share some great tips with you, along with some equally good substitutes for the lateral raise. Stick around.
What Is the Lateral Raise Exercise?
The lateral raise is a shoulder isolation exercise that’s generally performed with a pair of dumbbells. Although there’s one version which you can perform with a cable, the shoulder one is ubiquitous and that’s what we will be covering today.
You essentially grab some weight in both hands, raise your arms out to the side, and lower them again, as if you were flapping your arms to fly.
When performed with good form, the lateral raise is one of the most effective shoulder isolation moves. You are able to isolate the lateral head of the deltoid muscle, with very little involvement from secondary upper body muscles, which is a rarity.
The keyword here is ‘Good form’. One of the reasons why people struggle to achieve good form with the lateral raise, is because it’s deceptive. You take a look at your coach perform the move and you feel that it’s easy-peasy.
But trust us when we tell you this, it’s not. Even if you pick the lightest weight, you will feel this by the time you are at your 7th or 8th rep.
Equipment Required to Perform Lateral Raise Exercise
The lateral raise can be performed anywhere because there’s no special equipment required to do this exercise, except for the weight that is.
You can choose dumbbells or kettlebells or sand bags or water buckets à la ‘The 36th Chamber of Shaolin’. Please don’t strap knives on your arms though.
Here’s a great pair of dumbbells to get started.
Proform Select-a-Weight – 10-50 lbs
The Proform ‘Select-a-Weight’ is a weight-adjustable pair of dumbbells that lets you go from 10 to 50 lbs. in small weight increments. Made from a blend of steel and plastic, these are incredibly durable. They come with their own storage trays too. Just remove or add a plate to increase the weight as necessary. It’s as good as buying an entire set of dumbbells.
TopMade Kettlebell Set 4-45 lbs
In case you prefer a kettlebell, then here’s a great option from TopMade. This is a weight-adjustable kettlebell that’s 6-cast iron plates stacked and bound together. A simple knob under the handle allows you to select the weight and go from 4-45 lbs. without breaking a sweat. This is one kettlebell though, not a pair. If you wish to do the lateral raise with both hands, you’ll have to buy two of these.
How to Do the Lateral Raise Exercise?
We have been hammering on ‘good form’ being critical while performing the lateral raise. Time we addressed what we mean by good form. Here’s a great example of Scott Herman performing the exercise.
Here is a video of how to do lateral raises:
Here are step by step instructions
Stand with an upright chest and erect spine, a dumbbell in each hand by your sides. Your palms will be facing inwards and your feet should be about shoulder width apart. Double check your shoulder and spine position. No sulking and no hyperextending.
Roll the shoulders backwards while bracing the core and glutes as you ready yourself for the move.
Inhale and raise the arms simultaneously and slowly. Lift your arms about 30-35 degrees in front of the body. This is called the ‘Scapular Plane’, a more natural range of motion. When you raise the arms to the side and not front, as we mentioned, the range of motion is limited and you risk stressing/injuring your rotator cuff.
The arms must be maintained straight until your palms are lined with your shoulders. You should resemble a T at this point. Do not bend the arms at the elbows like you are trying to pour beer. That’s the biggest myth that’s almost become gospel on the internet these days.
At the topmost position, pause for a second and lower the arms again to the sides. This is one complete rep.
You can also perform this exercise while seated. It is a more challenging version though, because you eliminate your entire lower body, which sort of stabilizes your core when you lift.
So, we recommend the standing lateral raise until you have enough stability and balance to shift to the seated version.
What Muscles Are Worked with Lateral Raise Exercise?
The lateral raise is one of the best exercises for isolating the lateral deltoid. If you do this with strict form, you are isolating this with a small bit of help from the other muscle heads of the deltoids.
There are three primary muscle heads in the deltoid. The lateral shoulder raise targets the lateral head of the deltoid, but will also work the anterior and posterior deltoids.
The support for the shoulder adduction (raising the arms to the sides) comes from the trapezius muscle, including the upper and middle trapezius.
Pros and Cons of Lateral Raise Exercise
The lateral raise is one of our favorite shoulder exercises of all times. It offers a plethora of benefits from an aesthetic and functional perspective. If you are involved in any kind of sports training, the injury-prevention alone is reason enough to add this to your routine.
Here’s a look at some of the pros and cons of the lateral raise.
- It’s a very easy exercise to learn. Ironically, most people aren’t able to, because of various reasons. But if you can keep your ego out of the door and lift a light weight, there’s no reason for this to be a poor choice of exercise.
- Can be performed anywhere. You don’t even need dumbbells, as long as you have even weight distribution on both sides. How about resistance bands? You still get the same benefits.
- There are ample clinical studies that show that the lateral raise can promote hypertrophy, increase shoulder strength and prevent injury. That’s three reasons to add this to your workout routine.
- You can do this seated or standing.
- There’s only one way to do this right, without involving muscles that you don’t need to. No bend in the elbow, none in the wrists. Just maintain a straight arm and stick to the scapular plane.
- You cannot lift heavy weight with this. Read this again and repeat it every time you are tempted to haul a metric ton of weight with the lateral raise. Not required. Stick to light weight that lets you maintain form. Quality over quantity.
- Great potential to mess this up if you try to lift heavy weight. You will realize that it’s not as easy as you thought it would be. Then you try to compensate by using your body to lift the weight anyway. Hips, back, everything comes into the exercise. That’s a shortcut to an injury.
If we earned a dollar every time someone did this exercise wrong, we’d be millionaires by now. That’s exactly why we are going to take a look at some substitutes for this exercise that have a slightly broader margin for error, and is less likely to cause injuries.
Best Lateral Raise Exercise Alternatives
The lateral raise is predominantly, a lateral (side) deltoid exercise, recruiting the other two muscle heads to a lesser extent. That’s why the alternatives we have listed below also target the lateral deltoid.
Substitute #1 – The Seated Arnold Press – My Personal Favorite
There are many exercises from Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding that we use since the first day that we started to lift iron. The Seated Arnold Press is one of our favorites. It’s pretty close to a seated shoulder press with one key difference. It takes the deltoids through a complete range of motion, which means that it hits the side deltoid head hard.
How to perform this exercise:
Step by Step Instructions
- Grab two dumbbells and sit on a flat bench or one with the backrest set at slightly more than 90 degrees. If you sit upright, you need stability in your core to maintain it in a neutral position. It’s very easy to hyperextend the spine with this exercise.
- Raise the dumbbells to your eye level, with the palm facing your face and an underhand grip. Think of it like the chin up when your eye is at the same level as the bar. This is your starting position.
- Rotate the wrists and raise the dumbbells overhead, at the same time, maintaining your back position. At the top position, your palm will face outwards and it will resemble an overhead shoulder press.
- Pause for a second and return to your starting position. That’s one rep.
Substitute #2 – Behind the Neck Overhead Press
We picked this over the upright barbell row, which when performed with a wide grip is a great substitute for the lateral raise. But just like the lateral raise, upright rows have all the potential in the world to mess up your shoulder joints.
That’s why we pick the behind the neck overhead press. Unlike the conventional overhead press, the focus veers heavily towards the medial head of the deltoid, when you press behind the neck. Some modifications are necessary though. Go light with the weight and spread your grip out a little more. Lastly, ensure that your neck is steady and allows enough room to move the bar through the full range of motion.
Here is a video of how to perform this exercise:
Step by Step Instructions
- Start light. Cannot emphasize on this enough. This is not a conventional OHP. It takes time to master.
- Rack the bar in a cage, or a smith machine. Get under the bar and place it behind your neck, on the shoulders.
- Grip the bar slightly wider than a standard OHP. Your elbows should be at 90-degrees or slightly wider than that.
- Lift up smoothly. There should be no wayward jerks when you move the weight.
- At the top position, pause for a second. Your core and back must be maintained throughout. Now, slowly lower it back until its a few inches above the shoulders. There’s no need to lower it all the way.
- That’s one rep.
#3 –Side Plank with An Arm Raise
The side plank seems puny in comparison to the bars stacked with plates and the grunting bodybuilder in front of the mirror. But this underrated exercise can hit the side deltoids like none other. Also, if your form is up to the mark, you can add weights to the other arm which you raise.
This hits both the deltoids equally well.
How to perform this exercise:
Step by Step Instructions
- Lie down on a mat and grab a light dumbbell with one arm.
- Now tilt your body and get into the side plank position, where you are resting the body weight on the elbow.
- The elbow must be in one line with the shoulders. The dumbbell will now be by your side as if you are standing with the weight.
- Now maintain the plank position, erect spine, no slouching, & slowly lift the dumbbell until the arm is straight above the ear, almost 90 degrees.
- Pause for a second and lower the weight to the side again.
FAQS about lateral raise exercise
Here are some general questions that fitness buffs have about the lateral raise.
Q. What Are the Biggest Benefits of The Lateral Raise Exercise?
A. There are three primary advantages of doing the lateral raise exercise. It increases strength in the deltoids, it increases size and it helps prevent injury. It is a very important exercise even from a functional point of view.
Q. How Many Lateral Raises Should I Do?
A. Lateral raises are generally performed with much lighter weight as compared to other shoulder exercises. If you are lifting at 40-50% of your 1RM, it is recommended that you perform at least 8-12 reps per set.
Q. How Many Reps and Sets Should I Do?
A. That depends on why you are doing it and when. Some people do this as a hypertrophy move on shoulder day. Others, do it as a supplementary move for increasing strength and preventing injuries. Hypertrophy programs generally recommend 3 sets of 8-reps with medium heavy weight. Functional fitness programs recommend up to 5 sets with 12-reps at light weight.
Q. Are Side Lateral Raises Necessary?
A. If you are looking to build strength and size in the side deltoids, then this is one of the best moves. But if you have pre-existing issues with the shoulder, or your shoulders pop every time you perform this move, skip it.
Q. Why Lateral Raises Are Bad?
A. The only situation in which lateral raises are bad, is if you are not doing it with correct form, or if you have underlying issues with the shoulder joint that restricts your range of motion.
Q. How Do You Do a Lateral Raise without Traps?
A. There are two ways. Stand upright with your shoulders drawn backwards slightly. Lift to the scapular plane, which is about 30 degrees to the front of the body. This takes the traps out of the equation.
Q. Is Dumbbell Seated Lateral Raise Effective?
A. Sure is. You are taking the hips and any potential thrust out of the equation by sitting instead of standing. That said, it’s also more challenging. We have seen users swing their arm more when they are seated.
Q. Is Bent Over Lateral Raise Hard to Do?
A. Yes it is. The bent over raise requires you to hinge at your hips, maintaining an erect spine and flat back. With weights in your hands, it’s not the easiest of moves to execute. There are far too many variables at play.
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