In this article I am going to show the correct and incorrect way on how to do lateral raises.
I will cover the correct form and technique, as well as point out the most common mistakes and how to fix them.
The side lateral raise is in my opinion one of the best exercises to develop that round, lean, aesthetic look to your shoulders.
Unfortunately so many people end up doing them incorrectly, which leads to you not seeing the result you want to see.
With a movement like the lateral raise, you must ensure you perform it correctly, or you won’t get the benefit.
Then, you are working out for nothing, and who wants to do that?
That’s why I am going to dive right in and teach you how to do lateral raises.
You ready? Perfect. Just be sure to keep your eyes glued to the screen because seriously, I don’t want you wasting time in your workouts.
I want you to be efficient as possible to get the best results as possible, so, let’s do this.
How To Do Lateral Raises
What Does This Exercise Do?
Before we dive into the exact form of this movement, I want to quickly recap what this exercise is used for.
There are 3 heads of your shoulder muscle. The anterior, the lateral, and the rear.
You can see that by this picture here below.
In this exercise you are going to be raising your arm up and slight out to the side of you.
This exercise works the lateral head of your shoulder muscles, hence why they are called lateral raises.
This exercise is phenomenal exercise for what was mentioned above. It helps you achieve that lean, “toned”, defined look to your shoulders that so many people chase.
Whether you are a bodybuilder looking to step on stage, or a girl just trying to look better in a tank top.
Lateral raises are going to help your shoulders and arms look more defined overall.
I am first going to cover exactly how to do lateral raises by outlining step by step the correct technique and form.
But be warned, I strongly encourage you to make sure you read the entire article because I am sure you will end up making one of the most common mistakes we touch on.
As well as at the end of the article, I even give you some exercise variations for the lateral raise that in my opinion, might be 10x more effective in getting you results.
Yet for now, let’s dive into exactly how to perform this movement.
Set Up Your Stance
When looking at how to do this movement correctly, it all starts with your stance before you perform the movement.
You want to have a split stance stance. This means you have one foot in front and one foot behind.
You want to have them wide enough apart to where you can balance, but not so wide you are doing the splits here.
Next, you want to make sure you want a slight lean forward in your torso.
** this is really important. **
You don’t want to lean too far forward or you are going to put strain on your lower back.
Yet a slight lean forward is important for making sure you can have proper mechanics for this exercise.
It will also put the greatest amount of tension on your lateral delt, the muscle you are actually trying to work in this exercise.
Finally, you want to make sure the dumbbells are slightly in front of your body.
You don’t want them directly down by your side, you want to set them placed just slightly in front of you.
2. Push The DB Out and Slightly In Front
The next step is going to be now performing the concentric part of the movement.
( The concentric means when you are moving the weight up. So think like curling a bicep curl or standing up from a squat ).
You are going to want to push the dumbbells out towards the corners of the walls in front of you.
Then lead with your elbows and pinkies as opposed to leading with your thumbs or index finger.
No need to go all the way above your head or past your chin / ear level. Go to about when your arms get parallel to the ground, then come right back down.
This is where so many people completely butcher this part of the movement so please make sure you read the “most common mistakes” section a little farther down.
It is very important.
3. Pause, Then Slowly Lower The Weight Back Down
After you have performed raising your arms out the corners of the walls in front of you, I challenge you to pause there for just a second.
You don’t have to stay and make a campfire, but just for a second pause at the top.
This is because when you think about the line of force and gravity in this movement, at the top it is the hardest right?
Gravity is pulling the dumbbell straight down, but your muscle is keeping your arm up at that top position.
This means your muscle is doing the MOST work at the top of the movement, therefore spending a little bit of extra time where your muscle does the most work can help you see the best results.
Then, once you have held it up there for a second, you can then slowly lower your arms back down at the same angle you came up.
Remember, I said slowly lower your arms. A sneak peek at a big mistake is people often times just let the weight drop down with gravity.
Well, if you do that, your muscle isn’t doing any of the work, gravity is.
Be sure to control the weight down and if you can’t you are probably using too much weight!
How To Do Lateral Raises : Most Common Mistakes
Okay so there is a 3 step process on how to do lateral raises, what could be so hard about it?!
Haha, oh man. This movement is by far one of the most butchered in exercises in all of the land.
Let’s take a look at how and make sure you don’t make any of these mistakes, leading to less results or even injury.
Twisting Pinkies At Top
One of the most common mistakes I see when performing lateral raises is someone telling you to pour a glass out at the top of the movement.
You may have heard that before, and so did I. In fact, I used to do just that!
The issue is, that is incorrect and is going to lead to less work of your lateral delt.
Aka, less results for you in the long run.
When you twist your pinky and rotate your shoulder inwards, you not only take the tension off of your side delt.
You also are girding away of your humerus ( your upper arm bone ) into your shoulder joint, creating for some nasty rubbing inside of the joint.
This is going to be sub optimal for changing the way your body looks but also from a health standpoint.
Twisting your pinky at the top will lead to more injury and less results more than any better results.
To correct this, just simply think about pushing your hands out to the corner of the walls in front of you.
No twisting or turning, keeping your hands how they are, and raising your shoulders slightly out and in front of you.
2. Going Straight Out To Sides & Staying Too Upright
Another common mistake I see is people trying to raise their arms directly out to the side of their body, rather than just slightly in front shown in the picture above.
Yet again this is going to lead to decreased performance and results, mixed with increased risk of injury.
When you raise your arms directly out to the side, you are not giving your humerus any room to move inside your shoulder joint.
You also do not have a lean forward, so once more, your humerus has a decreased range of motion to move around in.
So again, this is creating a lot of unnecessary rubbing and pain within your joint, causing inflammation, possibly some tears, etc.
To avoid this, once again, make sure you have a slight lean forward in your torso and you bring your hands slightly in front of you to start.
You then need to make sure you raise at almost somewhat of an angle as opposed to directly out to your sides.
You want to work in something called the scapular plane. I can attach a picture here of what the scapular plane is.
This is the plane of motion where your body can move freely, without injury, and put maximum tension on your muscle.
Which is you stay injury free and can put the most amount of tension on your muscle, how to do lateral raises becomes a whole lot more beneficial.
3. Shrugging Shoulders Up
One thing you do not want to do when performing lateral raises is shrug your shoulders up towards your ear.
This puts an unnecessary amount of stress and tension on your upper back / neck muscles.
This can lead to injuries and strains in those muscles because you are asking them to do things they technically aren’t meant to do.
As well as yet again it decreases the range of motion that your upper arm can move through the shoulder joint, leading to injury.
To avoid this, read the next mistake and perform the correction talked about in there.
4. Keeping Scapula Retracted / Taking Traps Out Of Movement
The mistake above on how to do lateral raises talked about how some people will shrug their shoulders up towards their ears.
That is not how you should be performing the movement, but some people take that and go the complete opposite end of the spectrum.
They then make a mistake of retracting their scapula through the entire range of motion ( retracting scapula = think pinching a pencil between your shoulder blades the entire time ).
As well as trying to take their upper back and neck muscles out of it completely by keeping their shoulders shoved down into their back pockets.
While you should intentionally squeeze your upper back muscles or shrug your shoulders up towards your ears, you should not completely take the upper back muscles out of it either.
Those muscles have an important role in stabilizing the movement and making sure you can move through that range of motion freely and safely.
So what should you do?
Well, once again, I would put all of your focus on starting with a slight lean forward in your torso.
Often times people are so upright that it causes them to shrug their shoulders.
Then from there do what we have been saying which is think about pushing your hands out to the corners of the walls in front of you.
Don’t shrug your shoulders up, but don’t try to keep them down either.
Let your shoulders do what they may as you simply focus on executing and performing the movement correctly.
I have often seen your shoulders will move freely how they are supposed to and you will perform the exercise properly.
5. Too Much Momentum
If you have ever been to a gym, you have surely seen someone doing lateral raises this way.
They are using their entire body, basically humping the air, throwing their weights up as hard as they can and as fast as they can.
This, my friends, is exactly not how to do lateral raises.
Most people think they need to use crazy heavy weight for this exercise and that simply is not the case.
The lateral head of your shoulder is a small muscle group, especially compared to something like your glutes or quads.
Therefore it is not going to need extremely heavy weight in order to work it!
Using too much weight is the number one reason why people use entirely too much momentum and don’t ever get the benefits of the exercise.
If you are using momentum, not muscles, then you aren’t going to see progress.
So, make sure you slow down, use an appropriate weight ( it is probably going to be lighter than you think ) and perform the movement slow and controlled.
More control > more weight.
6. Not Controlling Way Down
This goes right along with mistake number five but I wanted to give it its separate column for a few reasons.
I think it is important to distinguish there are 3 parts of any exercise.
The concentric, the isometric, and the eccentric.
The concentric we learned above is the raising portion, so when you are actually raising your arm out to the side.
The isometric is when you are at the peak contraction of that movement, so in this case the top of the lateral raise.
The eccentric is the lowering portion, so lowering your arm back down to the side.
All 3 have their part, but that is just it.
Just because you raised the weight up, doesn’t mean you are done your rep. You still have the other half of the rep to go!
You have to also control the weight down, that is a massive part of this equation.
If you just let gravity take the weight down, you are missing out on 50% of that movement in which your muscle could have worked and gotten results.
All because you just let the weight sling back down essentially using momentum once again.
Therefore just be sure to control the eccentric on the way down. Your muscle still works here and it still has an opportunity to create tension, which will create results!
How To Do Lateral Raises : Exercise Variations
Now that you have learned a ton on how to do lateral raises, I am going to let you in on some insight.
This exercise isn’t necessarily the best exercise you could do for your side delt.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them or that they are bad. I do them and I enjoy them.
There are just some variations that are a bit more effective and let me explain why.
Without getting into too much detail, there is something in every exercise called the resistance profile.
This essentially means how hard your muscle is working through the full range of motion.
Let’s use the dumbbell side lateral raise for example.
When your arm is down by your side and as you start to raise the weight up, it isn’t really that hard. There isn’t much stress or tension being placed there.
But as you get to the top of the raise, where your arm is parallel of the ground, there is a TON of work being done there. It is hard at the top.
Then as you start to go down, once again, it starts to lose tension and how hard the movement is.
Therefore this movement is easier at the beginning range, and harder at the end range.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if we want to maximize this movement, we could look at choosing exercises that have a better resistance profile, meaning it is hard throughout a larger degree of the full range of motion.
As opposed to just being hard at the top of the movement.
This is because more tension would get placed on the muscle which would lean to more work being done. The more work a muscle has to do, the better results you are going to see.
Let’s look at a few examples here below that could be potentially better options.
Cross Cable Side Lateral Raise
The cross cable side lateral raise is a great variation because with the cable cross format, it creates a ton of resistance throughout the beginning until the end.
You are going to have more work being done by your side delt, meaning that you are going to see better results over the long term.
Since it is a cable, there is more tension the entire time, as opposed to a dumbbell which is only hard at the top of the movement.
1 Arm Cable Lateral Raise
The 1 arm cable lateral raise is another great variation that can really load the side delt throughout the entire range of motion.
It also can give you a bit more of a targeted approach by doing single arm to where you can isolate this specific muscle a tad bit more.
This can also be done with a dumbbell, but again, the resistance profile would be a bit different than a cable would be.
Cross Cable Y’s
Probably my favorite exercise for working the side delt through it’s entire full range of motion would be the cross cable y’s.
In this movement, you can get the side delt muscle fully shortened at the top.
This means it is going to contract even harder, leading to more results for you!
In any other variation, this will not be the case because your arm stops when it is parallel to the ground.
In a cross cable Y, you actually go slight above the head and make sure to get that side delt fully shortened.
This is a great exercise that if you have access to, I would highly recommend.
** you can also do this movement or any of these variations with resistance bands if you have them!
How Many Sets & Reps
When it comes to how to do lateral raises, no matter which exercise variations you pick, all of the sets and reps will generally be similar.
Since it is a smaller muscle group, generally speaking the best rep range you are going to fall within are going to 8-12, maybe pushing to 15-20 at times.
The only issue when you push to 15-20, that is going to be more of a cardio stimulus and adaptation, as opposed to a muscle growth adaptation.
If you are looking to see change in your body, you want a muscle growth adaptation.
You can perform anywhere from 2-4 sets, depending on your goal and the current program you are on.
Or at least, hopefully you are following a program! I have a great article on how many sets and reps you should be doing HERE if you want to check it out.
How To Do Lateral Raises : Final Word
Well there you have it.
Hopefully one of the most in depth articles you have read on how to do lateral raises.
Although such a simple move, you can really shoot yourself in the foot if you do not execute the movement properly.
I hope this article helped, but if you want any extra help, you can check out my membership site HERE to get all of the programs I have ever written.
I mentioned earlier I hope you are following a program. If you want it done for you so you don’t have to think about it, definitely check it out.
Other than that, hope this helped, and look to chat soon.