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The Lateral Raise: How To Do It And Five Top Form Tips

Lateral raise
(Image credit: Getty Images / Viktorcvetkovic)

The lateral raise is one of the best shoulder exercises for those looking to build shoulders like boulders. It’s also a very simple movement: essentially you just raise weights to the sides and up to shoulder level, then lower them again – though naturally we have some far more detailed advice about perfect form to follow.

However, don’t let that simplicity fool you into thinking you’re in for an easy time. The lateral raise is devilishly hard, even with very light weights. What seems incredibly simple on rep one is absolute murder by rep eight, so pick your weight wisely. If you’re doing this exercise for the first time, choose the weight you think will allow you to complete all the reps with good form – then go lighter. One set shouldn’t take much more than a minute – so why risk an injury for the sake of 12 reps with weights that are too light?

As well as stronger, larger shoulders, the benefits of the lateral raise extend to increased shoulder mobility. If you brace correctly throughout the lift, your core also benefits, and muscles in the upper back, arms and neck will also feel the strain after a few sets.

Read on for our comprehensive guide to the lateral raise, including the basics, expert form tips and a couple of variations to try that will round out your shoulder session.

How To Do The Lateral Raise

Lateral raise

(Image credit: Unknown)

Stand or sit with a dumbbell in each hand at your sides. Keep your back straight, brace your core, and then slowly lift the weights out to the side until your arms are parallel with the floor, with the elbow slightly bent. Then lower them back down, again in measured fashion – you’ll find it all the harder if you avoid speeding up. A lot of people will cheat by “shrugging” the weights up using their traps. Resist the urge to do that by not raising your shoulder blades during the rep – instead focus on the delts.

Aim for 10-12 reps with perfect form. Selecting the correct weight is key to doing lateral raises properly and safely. You’ll find that even with relatively light weights, the last few raises are a real challenge, so there’s no need to try to impress by grabbing the heaviest dumbbell. You don’t even need to use dumbbells – a resistance band works well for lateral raises. Don’t go beyond parallel when you’re raising the weights, and ensure you keep your arms out to your sides. If they start creeping forward it’s time to opt for a lighter weight.

Lateral Raise Form Tips

Here's how to tweak your form to greatness, and build shoulders like, uh, boulders. 

1. Make a small move

What Start each rep by slowly moving your hands out to the sides, then stopping.

Why Moving the dumbbells slightly places tension on your shoulders. The pause switches off your traps, which will otherwise muscle in on the move, taking emphasis off your shoulders.

How Stand tall holding a dumbbell in each hand. Lean forward from the hips then, keeping your chest up and a slight bend in your elbows, use your side delts to raise the weights about 5cm out to the side, then pause for one second.

2. Lead with your elbows

What Raise the dumbbells leading with your elbows, so that they’re the highest part of your arm.

Why Ensuring your elbows lead the move will again keep the focus on your delts and minimise the stress placed on your rotator cuffs, a small group of delicate but crucial stabilising muscles.

How From the paused position, re-initiate the move by raising your elbows up and out to the sides, maintaining that slight bend in the joint. Concentrate on how your side delts feel and contract as the weights are raised.

3. Turn your wrists

What As your hands approach shoulder height, rotate your wrist so that your little fingers are uppermost.

Why Turning your wrists as the dumbbells reach the top of the move activates more muscle fibres in your side delts, meaning each rep works the muscle even harder.

How Once your elbows are at shoulder height turn your wrists as if you were pouring two jugs of water so your little fingers are the highest parts of your hands. Reverse this movement as you lower the weights again.

4. Go down slower

What From the top of the move lower the weights back to the start as slowly as possible.

Why Taking your time to lower the dumbbells forces your shoulders to work harder to manage the weight, so you recruit more muscle fibres in order to maintain control. The more muscular damage you do, the greater your growth return.

How Keep tension on your side delts as you lower the weights under full control, maintaining focus on how your delts feel. Aim for a two-second lowering phase at first, then increase it over time.

5. Raise and stop

What? Make a strategic stop just before the top of the move.

Why? Adding a pause is great for muscle enhancement.

How? Before a set of lateral raises, hold the weights just below shoulder height for ten seconds, then do ten reps. Repeat three times… strict.

Lateral Raise Variations

Front raise

Front raise

(Image credit: Unknown)

If you get bored of lateral raises (as if that could ever happen) then you can mix things up with front raises. These involve exactly the same movement, but with your arms straight out in front of you, focussing on a different part of your shoulder muscles.

Hold dumbbells in front of your thighs with palms facing you. Lift to shoulder level. Lower back down under control.

Front/lateral raise

For those who really like to get a little crazy with their workout, you can even do lateral and front raises at the same time, if you have the coordination required to raise your arms in different ways simultaneously.

Hold one dumbbell by your side and one in front. Lift to the side and front simultaneously. Lower back down under control.

Alternate sides with each rep.

Resistance band lateral raise

Resistance band lateral raise

(Image credit: Getty Images / Luis Alvarez)

The lateral raise is a great exercise to use resistance bands for, because you don’t need much weight to get great results and the bands will provide more of a challenge at the top of the lift. It’s also a gentler option on your joints if you’re worried about any shoulder niggles and, of course, using easily-portable bands mean you can get a spot of lateral raising in whenever the mood takes you. Stand on the middle of the band holding one end in each hand, then raise your arms out to the sides until they are parallel to the ground. Lower slowly, working against the pull of the band.

Bent-over lateral raise

Also known as the reverse lateral raise, this variation puts more focus on the muscles in your upper back because of the change in the angle the movement is performed at. Stand with dumbbells by your sides. Hinge at the hips and bend over until your torso is parallel to the floor, or close to that point, keeping your back straight. Let the dumbbells hang down beneath your chest. Raise the weights out to the sides until your arms are parallel with the ground, then slowly take them back down.

Make sure you don’t rock your body or move any other part of it to create momentum. If you’re struggling to stay still then try the bent-over lateral raise while lying on a bench.

Joel Snape
Joel Snape

From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.

With contributions from