How to Do Lateral Raises

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on July 08, 2022
4 min read

Lateral raises are great exercises to build up your shoulder muscles! They involve a simple movement typically done with weights. 

As with any exercise, of course, you must take care to learn proper lateral raises form and avoid common mistakes.

Lateral raises add width and definition to your shoulder area if done consistently and correctly. This exercise is extremely effective in building muscle, and there are a wide variety of adaptations for you to choose between. This will allow you to exercise the muscles from different angles with different types of equipment.

This is an isolation exercise meant to make your deltoids and trapezius muscles stronger. The most basic variation includes lifting weights up and out from your body in a rotating movement. You can do lateral raises with resistance bands, cables, weight plates, dumbbells, or anything that is heavy or provides resistance. This is a common part of upper body workouts when done in conjunction with push-ups, pull-ups, or presses.

Raising your arms to the side in a plane-like position is also called a shoulder abduction. Lateral raises muscles worked primarily include the lateral deltoid muscles. Because of the rotating movement, you’ll use your front deltoids and upper traps a little bit, too.

Lateral raises also minimally use the posterior (back) deltoid, the supraspinatus (rotator cuff muscle), and serratus anterior (muscle above your ribs and under your armpit).

In order to gain true muscle growth, you need to work muscles on the front, side, and rear of your shoulder. This is why the rotating motion of lateral raises is so effective. Trying different variations of lateral raises will help you target each of these sides in different ways.

Learning how to do lateral raises is quick and simple. The standard lateral raise involves dumbbells and is described here:

  1. Your starting position will be standing with dumbbells (or another piece of equipment) in your closed fists. Your thumbs should be around the handles with your palms facing your body. Set the dumbbells alongside your thighs with your elbows barely bent. Your feet should be set about hip-width apart or in a split-stance position.
  2. Tighten your core to brace yourself, pull your shoulders down and back, and maintain this position during the entire exercise. Your head should be aligned straight with your spine.
  3. Breathe out as you slowly bring your dumbbells up and out to the side. Your elbows and the upper part of your arm should lift together and stick out slightly in front of your lower arm and the dumbbells. 
  4. Once your arms reach shoulder level, rotate them upwards a bit so that the front edge of the dumbbells are now pointed slightly up. Keep lifting the weights up until your shoulders and arms are level with each other and parallel with the ground. Make sure that your core is still braced so that your lower back doesn’t arch and that your wrist position is comfortable so you don’t overextend or injure your wrists.
  5. Breathe in and slowly lower the dumbbells down to your starting position. Your elbows should still be extended a little bit, and your feet, core, shoulder, and wrist positions shouldn’t change as you release the weights down and rotate them back to where you started.

You can adapt the traditional lateral raise with dumbbells in a number of ways. The basics of the lateral raises form stay the same. A few lateral raise adaptations include:

  • A one-arm side lateral
  • A band-side lateral raise
  • A landmine lateral raise
  • A barbell lateral raise
  • A three-way lateral raise
  • A dead-stop lateral raise
  • A Y raise
  • A wall press lateral raise
  • A kneeling lateral raise
  • A rear lateral raise

When it comes to lateral raises benefits, the main thing to consider is their effectiveness in building the outer areas of your shoulders. The isolating nature of lateral raises means that it only concentrates on your lateral deltoids and optimizes growth in this area.

Lateral raises help you achieve defined shoulders and upper arms that have a rounded appearance. 

Other than benefits to your appearance, lateral raises will help increase your shoulder mobility, range of motion, and stability. This helps you become better at activities like lifts and presses. Another benefit is that you can work each side of your shoulders independently. This allows you to figure out if you have muscle imbalances between your right and left side and correct them with focused training.

In order to avoid hurting yourself or not making progress on your fitness journey, avoid these lateral raise mistakes:

  • Don’t swing your arms. Using momentum to lift weights will not bring desired results. Focus on slow, controlled motions while you keep your core engaged.
  • Don’t lead movements with your hands. If your hands are being raised higher than your elbows, you’re doing this exercise incorrectly. This error removes tension from your deltoids and decreases your range of motion. Lead with your elbows instead!
  • Don’t let your thumbs point down. This is potentially dangerous for your rotator cuff. Letting your thumbs turn up a bit at the top of the movement will allow for external shoulder rotation and open a space between your clavicle and shoulder bone.
  • Don’t lift your weights too high. Lateral raises are designed to target your deltoids with support from nearby muscles. Lifting your arms above your shoulders will take tension off of your deltoids and engage your traps instead. This isn’t dangerous, but it isn’t the purpose of the exercise.

As with any exercise, you should consistently incorporate lateral raises into your fitness routine. Use weights that are heavy enough to challenge you but not so heavy that you can’t complete your sets or reps. Consult with a healthcare provider or fitness professional if you need advice or think you may have injured yourself.