Lateral Raises – How To Use Them In Your Workouts


Lateral Raises

You hit the gym to not only feel good but to look good. Sure, you probably do your do diligence for leg workouts, but you love the feeling of a great upper body workout, knowing it’s making you stronger and improving your physique at the same time.

With so many different upper body lifts, what works best?

You don’t have time to hang out at the gym for hours at a day, so every lift needs to count. Lateral raises are lifts that don’t take special machines or fancy equipment. In fact, you may be able to do it at home with just a few minor investments. Wherever your gym of choice though is, lateral raises may be the perfect addition to your upper body workout.

You just need to know a bit more about what the lift does.

What is a Lateral Raise?

A lateral raise is primarily only performed using dumbbells.

It is possible to perform the workout using two individual cable stations, but the dumbbell method is more desirable as it increases the number of stabilizing muscles used during a lift. With the lift, you stand upright, feet shoulder width apart (or a bit further out if you feel a bit wobbly performing the lift). Each arm is then lifted directly outward as if pointing towards the walls to your side.

When the arms are parallel to the floor, hold this for a moment, then slowly lower the arms back down to the starting position.

The lift primarily works the shoulders and triceps when lifting up, but when slowly moving the weights back down the lift also works some of the inner biceps as well (more on the muscle groups later).

When performing the lift with a cable machine, the floor pulley is directly in line with your legs and spine. Depending on room within a gym, you may perform the lateral raises one side at a time.

Now, it is possible to perform lateral raises with workout bands.

These resistance bands are great when you are on the go and just don’t have access to a gym on a regular basis. Resistance bands come in different strengths, so you can invest in a few different options. When performing lateral raises with these bands, you’ll want to have the middle portion of the band on the floor.

Step on the band to create the point of resistance.

If you find the resistance is not enough, take away some of the slack and push it in between your feet to make the bands more taught. As you do not likely need extreme weight for lateral raises, resistance bands are excellent for the routine. Just make sure to inspect the connection point between the bands and the handles. Often times the connection point is simply a knot tied in the band and slipped through a hole in the handle.

If resistance is too tight it may cause the knot to slip through the hole. This causes the elastic band to slip backward and it can prove dangerous (if not suddenly jarring).

Variations of Lateral Raises

When performing lateral raises, you generally see individuals standing for the lift.

This usually is done out of convenience, although it also opens up the body to possible “cheating,” so lifters may feel like they can lift more than they actually can. This is because while standing, the upper portion of the trapezius and the serratus anterior may kick in to assist. The trapezius is the muscle group running down the neck, over the shoulder blade and down to the middle of the back, while the serratus anterior is the small muscle group right below the armpit.

In order to reduce possible cheating, sitting down on a bench while performing the lift helps target the desired areas further. When using a bench, the bench should have the back rest engaged. This prevents your back and neck from moving, and by doing so the shoulders are targeted specifically.

You may also prefer to bend slightly at the waist in order to reduce cheating, should this prove to be a problem.

Other Fly Options

The shoulder fly (lateral raise) is not the only fly lift available. There are many other popular lifts using the fly like motion of each arm opening up part of the body. The chest fly (also known as the pec fly) is a common lift where you lay on a bench press holding two dumbbells. Starting with the weights held above your chest, you pull each to your side, as if opening a giant magazine. This puts most of the weight onto the pectorals and biceps. At your local gym, the Butterfly machine is a common device used to replicate a chest fly.

The beauty of the chest fly lift is you can also perform it in an incline and decline position. By shifting the angle of the bench, you’ll target slightly different areas of the chest and arms. You can also lay chest down on the bench and perform the same magazine opening lift. As you are pulling up instead of down and out, you work more of your back and arms. Needless to say, with the simple fly lifts, you can work just about your entire chest and upper back, making the lateral raises and other fly movements some of the most beneficial and simple moves to perform at the gym.

Muscles Targeted With Lateral Raises

Ideally, when performing lateral raises you are going to keep your shoulder in neutral position. This means it is not leaning back or forward. To keep it in this neutral position you may need to reduce the amount of weight you lift with initially. A common mistake by many is attempting to lift too much early on. This puts more weight on the arm, causing it to push forward or backward and taking much of the pressure off of the shoulder and onto the neck and interior chest. Incorrectly lifting may lead to potential injuries, which is why it is important to lift correctly (Inner Body, 2017).

When you lift your arms, maintaining a neutral position, the majority of the training is directed at the deltoid muscles. The deltoid muscles stretch over the shoulder bone and connect with the biceps, triceps, and traps. The deltoid muscles are made up of three different regions. The Anterior portion of the muscle group is in the front. The Posterior portion of the muscle group is in the back, and the Lateral portion of the muscle group is right in the middle of the shoulder (Muscle and Fitness, 2017).

Some of the biceps and triceps is worked slightly, but these muscle groups function more for stabilizing the arms while lifting, so little of the weight is actually directed at these areas of the arms.

Lateral Raise Workout Example

Whether you call it a shoulder fly, lateral raises or lateral flys, this is not an area of the body where you want to use massive weight.

A good amount of pressure is applied to the joints not only in the shoulders but in the wrists and elbows. Due to this, it is recommended to start off with a lighter amount of weight and slowly work your way up. Additionally, make sure you focus on maintaining excellent form. Form here is crucial in targeting your deltoids. Failure to do so shifts the weight to your chest and back, which are targeted in most other upper body workouts. Once you feel comfortable with the proper form and lift, you can then begin increasing the amount of weight you perform during the lift. 

During a lateral raise, you want to aim for 10 reps. On the 10th rep, try to keep the arm extended outward for another 10 seconds.

This helps take the muscle group to complete exhaustion, which is desirable.

As it is a lighter weight it will recover faster, so by the time you reach the second set you should be ready.

On the second set, go for the same routine. Aim for 10 reps and then hold the 10th rep for 10 seconds.

If you are able to complete both reps of 10 with a 10-second hold, the next time you do upper body add on weight.

Due to the nature of the lift, you may not be able to add as much weight quickly, so go slower. Add the 2.5-pound weights onto the dumbbells.

Your Guide to Killer Shoulder Workouts

The Benefits of Strong Shoulders

Beyond the physical attraction of having large, strong shoulders, there are plenty of other benefits associated with improving the strength of your shoulders. Nearly every upper body workout uses the shoulders to some extent for example shoulder shrugs, so improving the strength of your shoulders will in turn help improve the strength of every other area of your body.

Having strong shoulders will reduce your risk of injury, whether it is a sporting activity, daily life or even from other lifting exercises. Stronger shoulders will help reduce injuries such as rotator cuffs. Rotator cuff injuries can prevent you from performing in nearly any sport, especially baseball, basketball, and hockey. However, you can injure your rotator cuff and other areas of the upper body from simply lifting a trash can incorrectly or pulling on the lawn mower too hard (Dummies, 2017).

When You Should Avoid Lateral Raises

Performing a lateral raise is an excellent addition to your workout routine.

However, as is the case with any workout, there are individuals who should avoid performing this kind of exercise.

Realistically, if you have suffered any kind of shoulder, arm or wrist injury recently, you will want to hold off until your doctor says it is fine for you to begin working the area of the body again. They may recommend you to start off with a very light weight, or even just with the bar of the dumbbell in order to check your pain threshold. It even is possible to begin any kind of rehabilitation program in a pool with pool weights. The pool water will reduce the amount of tension placed on the shoulders while performing the lift (Web MD, 2017).

If while performing the lift on your own you feel any kind of pain or discomfort, it is important for you to stop the lift right away. Watch yourself in the mirror during the lift and make sure your posture is correct. This is also where sitting on a bench with the back of the bench up can help as it reduces the chance of any kind of inferior posture. Should the discomfort continue even after monitoring yourself (consider asking someone to spot you and have them identify any issues you may be encountering during the lift), discontinue and consult your doctor.

Workouts with dumbbells are some of the best exercises you can perform.

With a free weight, you activate stabilizer muscles you would not use with a machine. That is why it is highly recommended for you to perform lateral raises with dumbbells over a machine whenever possible.

By combining lateral raises with other fly lifts, you are able to hit the majority of your upper body, targeting each muscle group as you go. Just make sure to perform the weighted workout routine properly with correct posture. Do not worry about going for big weights right off the bat. Aim for posture and correct lifting technique first. You may find you do not lift as much as you assumed.


This is common as your stabilizer muscles are not used to performing the certain moves (it is also why many people at the gym prefer to lift with a machine because machines give the false sense of lifting more when in fact the machine is aiding in the lift).

By adding the lift to your workout routine, you’ll not only increase the strength of your shoulders but you’ll see the rest of your major lifts (should as bench press) increase in performance as well.

-Terry Asher

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Terry Asher

Owner & Founder at Gym Junkies LLC
After changing his best friend’s life by helping him lose over 70lbs, dropping him down to an amazing 7% body fat, Terry was inspired to be a full-time internet trainer knowing he could do the same for many more. In 2010, Terry published his own diet and fitness e-book that can be purchased on this website. Let Terry help you change your body for the better!
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