The Complete Guide to Side Lateral Raises (and Wider Shoulders)

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In the bodybuilding world, side laterals are seen as king when it comes to building shoulder width and ‘capped’ shoulders. 

This is largely due to the EXTREMELY common misconception that side lateral raises are an effective isolation exercise for the lateral deltoid (the middle part of your shoulder). 

They’re not. Not the way the vast majority of lifters perform them, anyway. 

Some Background On the Shoulder and the Side Lateral Raise

shoulder anatomyThe shoulder is comprised of three main muscle groups, or ‘heads’ of the shoulder. They are the anterior head (front), lateral head (side), and posterior head (rear). 

The lateral head of the shoulder is primarily responsible for any increases in width of the shoulders. However, most traditional shoulder exercises actually heavily stimulate the anterior part of the shoulder, leaving the lateral head largely untouched in comparison.

Evidence of this comes from some rather interesting data that tells us that, on average, bodybuilders have front delts that are 5 times bigger than sedentary people. Compare this to their lateral delts, which are only 3 times larger than sedentary people, and their posterior delts, which are a measly 10-15% bigger than sedentary people on average. 

Is this due to a lack of desire to build larger, wider, more visible shoulders? Hardly. Shoulder width is the key to the coveted ‘v-shape’ that most fitness professionals (and amateurs) strive for. Shoulder work and, more of interest to us in this particular article, side laterals, are an extremely common sight in any gym and there’s no shortage of well-meaning articles and advice on the topic online. 

The problem is that most of the advice, even (and maybe especially) from mainstream and ‘reputable’ sources, is more often than not simply ineffective when it comes to adequately building shoulder width. 

Does this sound familiar? Think about your own training. In comparison to other muscles, do you find it exceedingly difficult to get good contractions in your lateral heads from side lateral work? Can you pump out 4 sets of side lateral raises and still not really feel like you effectively worked your lateral heads? Have you failed to see significant gains in shoulder width despite concentrating on this aspect of your training?

You’re not alone.The unfortunate truth is the vast majority of trainees have extremely unbalanced shoulders. Click To Tweet

The anterior heads (front) of the shoulders are major movers in any horizontal (chest work) and vertical (shoulder press) pressing movements. That means every time you work your chest, you’re hitting the front (anterior) of your shoulders. Not only that, but the majority of shoulder work that people perform, like shoulder pressing in its various forms and traditionally performed side lateral raises, actually heavily target the anterior deltoids. 

The result of this unbalanced training is the results I touched on above. Massively overbuilt anterior deltoids compared to lateral and posterior deltoids amongst bodybuilders and amateurs alike. If you do any form of overhead pressing work, then any direct work, like front shoulder raises, are largely unnecessary and only serve to further contribute to an unbalanced shoulder joint. So if that’s you, stop doing them altogether and reap the reward of a more balanced and rounded off shoulder. 

But what about the side lateral raise? Why don’t they work as advertised? I’m glad you asked. 

The Problem with Traditionally Performed Side Lateral Raises

Bad form. Bad, bad, bad.

Bad form. Bad, bad, bad.

The majority of side lateral work is performed while standing. People raise their arms until their arms are roughly parallel to the floor and lower the weight down to their sides.

Sometimes they lean forward slightly, sometimes they have a bit of a bend in the elbow, sometimes they raise their arms above parallel. Sometimes they lift in the scapular plane (about 30 degrees out in front), as it’s slightly safer on the shoulder joint.

They’re all variations of the traditional side lateral and when you see someone doing them, they’re trying to build shoulder width. 

Unfortunately, none of them are particularly effective at isolating the side lateral head of the shoulder. 

Let’s say that during a side lateral raise, we arbitrarily assign a value of 100% to the muscular force of your lateral head of the shoulder during the movement. During this same side lateral raise, your anterior deltoid force would be approximately 75% of that, and the supraspinatus force (a rotator cuff muscle) would be about 25%.

What does this mean? It means that your anterior deltoid and supraspinatus are together performing just as much force as the prime mover (your lateral deltoid) during the exercise. Hardly the numbers of an isolation exercise.

Factor in how easy and common it is to perform small mistakes in execution of the side lateral raise, and you can see how this just doesn’t translate into a great way to isolate the lateral deltoid. 

The problem with the traditional standing side lateral raise, and the reason why it fails to adequately target the lateral head, is that the weight doesn’t extend in a straight line from your lateral deltoid as it’s lifted. This results in too much help from the anterior head and ultimately an ineffective workout followed by frustration at your lack of shoulder width. 

In order to more effectively target the side lateral, we need to enlist the help of a bench. By putting the bench between 60-15 degrees and leaning on it face first, we’re able to take the anterior deltoid almost completely out of the equation so we can isolate the lateral and/or posterior head(s) of the shoulder. The angle allows us to extend the weight in a straight line from the lateral deltoid as it’s lifted. The lower the angle, the more you recruit the posterior deltoid in the movement. 

How to Perform Side Lateral Raises to Effectively Target the Lateral Deltoid

Let’s make sure that from now on you ALWAYS perform a side lateral raise correctly and reap 100% benefit from the movement when it comes to shoulder width and size. 

1. Grab a bench and set the incline to between 15 and 60 degrees, depending on how much posterior deltoid involvement you’d like to incorporate.

2. Sit (or kneel) face first against the bench with a dumbbell in each hand. 

3. Lift each dumbbell until your arms are parallel to the ground. Try to keep your arms as straight as possible throughout the movement, as this keeps the focus on your deltoids. 

4. Lower the dumbbells back to the starting position. That’s one rep. 

bench side lateral raise

Notes About Side Lateral Raise Form

• Aim for 99% extension of the elbow throughout the movement. While it’s true that this puts a little more stress on the elbow joint, it also ensures that you’re putting the majority of focus on your deltoids, which is the real goal with this movement. 

• It’s important to move the bench forward to an angle that allows you to isolate your lateral deltoid. Failing to do so will bring in an unnecessarily large amount of anterior deltoid recruitment that, as discussed, is generally something the majority of lifters should be avoiding when trying to build the lateral delts.

• The more you internally rotate your shoulder during shoulder flexion and abduction, the more you involve the lateral and posterior heads of the shoulder. This is something we’re after, so the way we’re able to increase internal rotation of the shoulder during the side lateral raise is to point our pinkies, instead of our thumbs, towards the ceiling throughout the movement. Think of how you’d hold a can if you were trying to empty it out. Your thumb would be lower than your pinky in order to pour the liquid out the top. That’s roughly how you want to have your hands throughout the movement. 

• The lateral and posterior heads of the deltoids are actively involved in maintaining posture throughout the day and stabilizing the shoulder joint during nearly every upper body movement. As such, they have a high work capacity and are slow-twitch dominant. Slow-twitch muscles respond best to medium to high repetitions and should therefore be used with relatively light weights. It’s very rare that someone would need to use more than 25lb dumbbells to sufficiently hypertrophy their lateral deltoids.  

• Focus not on lifting the weights up, but rather, pushing your arms outwards using your shoulders. Imagine that the lateral deltoids are the only muscles you have, and that they alone are responsible for getting the weight to the top. This results in a greater contraction of the lateral deltoid and greater mind-muscle activation. 

• Pause for a moment at the top of the movement and squeeze your deltoids as tight as you can before lowering them back down. 

Common Bench Side Lateral Raises Training Mistakes

• Some people, in an effort to protect their shoulders from injury, favor doing side raises in the scapular plane. While this is a little easier on the shoulder and can help prevent impingement of the nerve in some individuals, this is an ineffective way to target the lateral head of the shoulder.  When doing side raises in the scapular plane, instead of lifting the weights straight out to your sides, you lift them about 30 degrees forward than you would during a proper side lateral raise. In essence, this is a front raise, not a side lateral raise, and this primarily targets your anterior abdominal muscles. If you’re after wider shoulders, this won’t help you. 

• Bending your elbows too much. Try your best to keep your elbows as extended as possible. Think 99% extension here. The more fully extended, the harder you hit the delts.

• Swinging the weights and using momentum to get the weight up. As with many lifts, using momentum to get the weights where you want to go is cheating and the only person you’re hurting is yourself. Doing this will steal the focus off the intended muscle group that you’re trying to hypertrophy and with it your intended gains. Move the weight in a controlled manner up, pause for a moment at the top, and lower it back down in a slow and controlled fashion. Slow-twitch dominant muscles like the shoulders are better worked with a greater time under tension than fast-twitch dominant muscles.

• Don’t Yank and duck. What is yanking and ducking you say? It’s when you lift the weights up part way and then, usually because the weights are too heavy, duck your head under them to complete the rep. People who do this are unknowingly completely missing the boat when it comes to hitting their laterals at all. You see, the first 30 degrees or so of the side lateral raise primarily works the supraspinatus, not the lateral head of the deltoid. It’s not until you reach the 30 degree point that the laterals take over. If the first 30 degrees don’t even work the the intended muscles and you duck under the weights at the top of the movement, you’re pretty much just doing a yuppy dance in the gym. Needless to say, by yanking and ducking you’re not really doing the lift properly and you won’t be seeing any gainz anytime soon. Control the motion at the top of the movement and you won’t have this problem.

• This brings me to my next point. DON’T bring your ego into this exercise. This is one exercise where you shouldn’t be using heavy weights. If you do, you probably will be cheating yourself in one way or another when it comes to form and subsequently, your results will suffer. 

• Lifting your arms above parallel to the floor. Lifting your arms past the parallel point does little to further activate the lateral deltoid and instead shifts the focus to your trapezius muscles instead. Since we’re concerned primarily with targeting the lateral delts, this is an unnecessary  portion of the exercise. 

Can't I Perform a Standing Side Lateral Raise While Bending Over?

You can do a bent over standing side lateral raise, but the angle of incidence you can effectively achieve doing this versus using a bench is smaller. This may or may not be an issue for you depending on how much posterior delt recruitment you’re looking for. However, the main reason I recommend using a bench over standing is actually because it forces you to isolate the lateral deltoids by removing your ability to swing and sway and use momentum to get the weight up. 

Side Lateral Raise Variations

The ball and socket configuration of the glenohumeral joint allows for more motion at the shoulder than any other joint of the body. This translates to there being a large variety of different ways we can target the lateral head of the deltoid. While the bench side lateral raise is the most effective way to target this region and should constitute the bulk of your side lateral training, the following exercises can be thrown in from time to time for some variety in your routine. 

Behind the Back Cable Side Lateral Raise

I personally love this variation of the side lateral raise. By using a cable you’re keeping tension on the muscle throughout the movement in a way that can’t be matched by the dumbbell. In addition to that, by doing the raise behind the back, you’re isolating the lateral deltoid in a more efficient way than you would be if you were doing it in the front. 

1. Stand sideways next to a pulley machine with a D-handle. Grab the D-handle (from behind) with the hand further from the pulley and take a half step forward and away from the pulley to establish some tension.

2. Brace your abs and keep your chest up while optionally bracing yourself with your opposite hand. 

3. Maintain a very slight bend in your elbow during the movement and make sure this angle doesn’t change at all from start to finish.

4. Lift while concentrating on your deltoid and continue until your arm is parallel to the floor or just above it.

5. Hold and squeeze your delt at the top of the movement and lower it back slowly. For a visual demonstration, have a look at the following video. 

 

 

Lying Side Lateral Raise

A long lost exercise, the lying side lateral raise was a favourite of #Arnold. Click To Tweet

These days, it’s very rare to see someone lying down to work on the lateral deltoid. That said, it’s a wonderful exercise that lost popularity for no identifiable reason in particular. It’s time to bring it back, because, well, Arnold. 

1. Lie on your side and brace yourself so your body is in a firm position. 

2. Grasp a dumbbell with the hand opposite side the side touching the bench and, starting from your thigh area, lift it up in an arc until it’s nearly above the shoulder. Try to keep the arm straight with only a slight bend. 

To illustrate this let’s look at a rare clip of the man himself performing the exercise… Because… Arnold. 

 

 

 References

PRESSING ISSUES: BUILDING BETTER SHOULDERS WITH OVERHEAD PRESSES. M GUNDILL. IRONMAN 2002 AUGUST; 8: 42.

SHOULDER MUSCLE ACTIVITY AND FUNCTION IN COMMON SHOULDER REHABILITATION EXERCISES. R F ESCAMILLA, K YAMASHIRO, L PAULOS, J R ANDREWS. SPORTS MED. 2009; 39(8): 663–685.

MUSCLE HYPERTROPHY AND FAST FIBER TYPE CONVERSIONS IN HEAVY RESISTANCE-TRAINED WOMEN. R S STARON, E S MALICKY, M J LEONARDI, J E FALKEL, F C HAGERMAN, G A DUDLEY. EUR J APPL PHYSIOL OCCUP PHYSIOL. 1990; 60(1): 71–79.

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COMPARATIVE EFFECTS OF HIGH- AND LOW-INTENSITY RESISTANCE TRAINING ON THIGH MUSCLE STRENGTH, FIBER AREA, AND TISSUE COMPOSITION IN ELDERLY WOMEN. D R TAAFFE, L PRUITT, G PYKA, D GUIDO, R MARCUS. CLIN PHYSIOL. 1996 JULY; 16(4): 381–392.

DATA ON THE DISTRIBUTION OF FIBRE TYPES IN FIVE HUMAN LIMB MUSCLES. AN AUTOPSY STUDY. F G JENNEKENS, B E TOMLINSON, J N WALTON. J NEUROL SCI. 1971 NOVEMBER; 14(3): 245–257.

DATA ON THE DISTRIBUTION OF FIBRE TYPES IN THIRTY-SIX HUMAN MUSCLES. AN AUTOPSY STUDY. M A JOHNSON, J POLGAR, D WEIGHTMAN, D APPLETON. J NEUROL SCI. 1973 JANUARY; 18(1): 111–129.

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