Lateral Raises – Correct Form & Progressions for All Skill Levels

Lateral Raises

If you’re new to lateral raises, here are the benefits of this shoulder exercise and how to do the exercise with proper form.

What Muscles do Lateral Raises Work?

The lateral raise is considered an isolation exercise that primarily targets the deltoids. While this upper body exercise does engage the anterior and posterior delts, the side lateral raises rely most heavily on the middle deltoid muscles to get the job done. This exercise also uses stabilizer muscles around the shoulder joint and the trapezius to an extent.

While lateral raises are an upper body workout, core engagement plays an important role in executing the movement with proper form.

Benefits of Lateral Raises

The primary benefit of side lateral raises is the ability to build muscle mass and definition in the shoulders. Bodybuilders love this workout for getting shoulder boulders, especially when used in a superset.

The dumbbell lateral raise can help strengthen the stabilizer muscles, protecting the shoulder joint. This versatile workout is beginner-friendly and useful in rehabilitative workouts, as you can swap out the dumbbells for kettlebells, cable machines, or resistance bands.

The minimal equipment and space requirements also make this workout ideal for training sessions at home.

How to do Lateral Raises with Correct Form

Take your time when trying side lateral raises, focusing on form and tension. While there are several lateral raise variations with different implements, dumbbells are commonly used by personal trainers and bodybuilders. Here’s how to do a dumbbell lateral raise with proper form.

How to:

  1. Grab two light dumbbells with an overhand grip. Stand with your feet planted shoulder-width apart, allowing your dumbbells to rest at the side of your body.
  2. Engage your core, pulling your belly button toward your spine and engaging your pelvis. Keep a light blend in your elbows and inhale as you extend your arms upward to the side.
  3. When your arms reach slightly below shoulder height— parallel with the floor— twist your wrist slightly, tipping the front of the dumbbell slightly toward the floor.
  4. Pause and slowly release back to the starting position.

The slight twist of the wrist at the end will help fire the side delts and enhance your results with this isolation exercise. Take it slow, keeping your core engaged and back straight.

Common Mistakes with Lateral Raises

While lateral deltoid raises look simple, it’s easy to make mistakes with this movement. As this exercise engages the sensitive shoulder joint, it’s integral to practice proper form to prevent injury.

Locked-out elbows

One of the most common mistakes beginners make when doing a lateral raise is keeping the arms straight with locked-out elbows. You want a slight bend in the elbow while moving through your range of motion. This keeps the focus of the exercise in the deltoid muscles and protects the shoulder joint.

Swinging and momentum

“Cheating” the movement with swinging motions or momentum is another common mistake. Most lifters tend to start swinging as their upper arms get tired. Stop yourself from using momentum by pausing at the top of the movement and bottom of the movement. If your arms are getting too tired to finish the set with proper form, drop to a lighter weight.


Arching is another common mistake that becomes more prevalent as you get toward your last few reps. As mentioned before, core engagement is a must for this exercise as arching can lead to lower back pain. If you notice yourself arching, pause for a moment to tuck your pelvis and straighten your back.

Overextended range of motion

Using your full range of motion is usually a good thing, but not so much for laterals. Your arm should not come above your shoulder when doing a side lateral raise; it should stop at shoulder level or slightly below. Going too far will shift the movement to your trapezius and put stress on your rotator cuff.

To get a better idea of where you should stop, place your opposite hand on your deltoid as you do a lateral lift. You’ll feel when the deltoid muscle is adequately engaged and when it releases as you extend to high.

Going too Heavy

Lateral raises are meant to be light. Lifting with your ego will put your shoulders at risk and minimize your results. Choose light weights that allow you to complete all of your repetitions with proper form.

Lateral Raise Progressions

Lateral raises are a surprisingly versatile exercise. Here are a few lateral raise variations and progressions to play with on shoulder day.

Resistance Band Lateral Raises

Some beginners struggle with dumbbell lateral raises. Beginners can swap out dumbbells for resistance bands, using a lighter band to build the deltoids enough to support free-weight movements.

Resistance bands aren’t just for beginners, though. Bands keep the muscles under continuous tension throughout the movement, making them a powerful tool for hypertrophy and building muscle.

Kettlebell Lateral Raises

The movement for kettlebell raises is the same as dumbbell lateral raises. However, you can train the stabilizer muscles and intensify the workout by keeping the kettlebell in an active position— i.e., in alignment with your body rather than letting it hang.

When trying this exercise, choose a light weight, even lighter than you would with dumbbells. You’ll be surprised at how challenging this variation is.

Cable Machine Lateral Raises

Many bodybuilders prefer to use cable machines for lateral raises and hypertrophy. Cable machines are also beneficial for people with previous shoulder injuries, as the cables provide more stability.

For this variation, you’ll stand beside the cable machine and reach across your body to do a single-arm lateral raise. The cable should be at a low setting. You may need to hold onto the machine with your free arm and slightly tilt away while keeping your core engaged to complete the movement.

Lateral and Front Raise Super Sets

Pair your laterals with a front raise in a superset for an intense shoulder day workout. Adding this progression will help you smash your anterior deltoid and your side delts. Alternate your reps, doing one lateral then one front raise to feel the burn.

You can also swap out your front raise with a rear delt fly to hit the posterior deltoids and upper back.

Seated Lateral Raise

If you struggle with swinging or using momentum, take a seat. This progression ensures that your lower body isn’t helping your upper body as you complete this exercise. You can also use this trick for the shoulder press if you find yourself arching or push pressing.

Tempo Lateral Raise

One of the best bodybuilding progressions for hypertrophy is to use tempo movements. I.e., slowing down as you lower the dumbbells back toward your thighs. Aim for a count of 3-5 seconds, and you’ll feel the burn.

This is also a great strategy if your existing weight feels too easy, but you’re not quite ready for an additional five pounds.

How Often to do Lateral Raises

Side delt raises are an accessory movement. Incorporate them on your upper body days after you bench press or overhead press, 1-3 times per week, depending on your workout split.

Did You Know?

Did you know that many other mammals have deltoid muscles? Of course, primates have the deltoid muscle and use it similarly to us, but bats also have delts and use them to fly— the ultimate lateral raise activity.

Lateral Raises: Your Questions Answered

Still have questions? Here are the answers most people look for when adding lateral raises to their strength training program.

Are lateral raises worth doing?

This exercise is worth doing if you want shoulder definition. If you’re building upper body strength to support weightlifting or powerlifting, compound upper body exercises like rows or the shoulder press, that engage multiple muscle groups are better.

Are lateral raises bad for shoulders?

Lateral raises are bad for the shoulders if you do them wrong or go too heavy. If you have a shoulder injury, work with a personal trainer specializing in rehabilitation.

Why are lateral raises so hard?

Lateral raises are an isolation exercise that relies on a relatively small muscle, as opposed to compound movements that engage several muscle groups to move the weight.

Do lateral raises work traps?

Lateral raises will work your traps a bit. However, your trapezius should be acting as a secondary mover. If you’re feeling most of the work in your traps, you’re probably lifting too high.


The dumbbell lateral raise and its many variations are an effective way to build shoulder muscle and definition. This isolation exercise can help strengthen and rehabilitate your shoulders when done correctly. Take it easy with this accessory exercise to prevent further injury, implementing variation and tempo to intensify the workout.

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