How to do a lateral raise correctly, according to a fitness trainer

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A staple move if you want strong and stable shoulders, lateral raises are an integral part of any upper body workout. 

When it comes to weight training, it’s essential to nail the big lifts such as deadlifts, squats and overhead presses. But we also need to do some of the isolation moves in order to target the smaller muscles of the body and ensure that we’re creating balanced, sustainable strength. That’s where exercises like lateral raises comes in. 

Easily incorporated into an upper body workout, all they require is a couple of dumbbells and good form to build strength in your shoulders. When done regularly, lateral raises can benefit everything from your core to your neck and upper back, making them a great exercise to do if you want to improve your technique elsewhere in the gym.  

Do not be fooled. Lateral raises may seem fairly simple, but technique is everything if you want to see results and avoid injury. Particularly when it comes to your shoulder joints, it’s important to make sure you take everything slow and ensure you’re engaging the right muscles. 

What muscles do lateral raises work?

Lateral raises work the shoulder muscles, known as deltoids. This group of muscles is made up of three heads: the anterior deltoid (front), medial deltoid (side), and posterior deltoid (back). Lat raises will also engage your upper traps and rotator cuff muscles.

As this is a unilateral exercise, “it can really help target any discrepancies in terms of strength between the right and left side of your body,” explains Strong Women ambassador Emma Obayuvana. So, while you’re isolating key muscles in each shoulder, you are also ensuring that they remain balanced, which will help to keep you from overworking one side while underworking the other during your workouts.  

Form to remember during lateral raises

Take it slowly

They may look straightforward, but plenty can go wrong with a lateral raise if you don’t get your technique quite right. So keep your reps nice and slow. Lateral raises are all about engaging those key muscles and controlling the movement from your shoulders, which you can only do if you take your time.

Push, don’t pull

“Avoid trying to ‘pull’ the weight up as that will use your lat muscles in the back rather than your shoulder muscles” says Strong Women ambassador Alice Rose-Miller

“Think about your shoulders pushing the weight and keeping your shoulders back and down.”

Be careful choosing your weights

Lateral raises are tricky, and they get notably more difficult with each rep. Choose a weight that’s lighter than you would expect to use for shoulder workouts to avoid injury and work through a full range of motion.

When to avoid lateral raises

“It is important to avoid lateral raises if you have a shoulder injury,” says Emma Obayuvana, because of the potential for overworking your delicate deltoid muscles. 

How to do lateral raises correctly

1. Stand with your arms by your sides, palms facing inwards, and dumbbells in each hand.

2. Keeping your core engaged and your shoulders back, slowly raise both arms outwards.

3. Make sure you keep your arms straight with a slight bend in each elbow, and stop when they are extended straight out from your shoulders. Your body should form a “T” shape.

4. Pause for a couple of seconds in this position to give yourself more time under tension.

5. Then, slowly lower your arms back down to your side. Do three sets of up to 12 reps

Variations

Bent-arm lateral raises

A fairly straightforward way to vary this staple exercise is to bend your elbows before starting your lift. With your upper arms down by the sides of your body, bend your elbows at a 90 degree angle, so that the dumbbells are at chest height with palms facing inwards. Keeping your elbows bent throughout, raise your arms out to the side and stop at shoulder height. Your palms should be facing downwards at the top of the movement.

Hold for a couple of seconds, then return to the starting position. Repeat 12 times.

Kettlebell lateral raise

For those who have mastered the lateral raise, a more advanced variation involves switching out the dumbbells for kettlebells. With kettlebells, the weight is distributed below the handles, giving your muscles more of a challenge as they work through the lift.

Holding a kettlebell in each hand, slowly and carefully start to move your arms out to the sides, keeping them straight. Again, stop when your arms are at shoulder height and hold for a second or two. Repeat eight times.

Curtsy lunge lateral raises

If you wanted to work your delts while also giving your lower body a workout, try combining your lateral raises with a curtsy lunge. Stand straight, with a dumbbell in each hand and your feet hip-width apart. Now, raise your arms out to the sides, as you would with a normal lateral raise. At the same time, step your left leg behind your right, and squat down so both your knees are at a 90 degree angle. Hold for a second or two, then return to standing. Complete eight to 12 reps, then swap legs.

You can also try this while doing front raises, to target your anterior delt muscles. 

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Image credit: Getty.

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