10 Lateral Raise Variations For Bigger Shoulders


If you care about creating an aesthetic physique, then you have engaged in the quest of the coveted v-taper — broad shoulders and a wide back leading down to a slim but hardened midsection.

The “swimmer’s look” is often admired, and if you want to achieve it, you need well-developed shoulders. In particular, the lateral head of the deltoid gives your shoulders visible width.

Credit: Nejron Photo / Shutterstock

The trick is that this particular body part is easily overlooked and there aren’t many exercises that directly focus on it. The lateral raise is the prime boulder-shoulder builder, but the basic movement is often poorly performed. This useful exercise is great for improving your shoulders’ size, strength, and joint health, but you can take things even further.

Here are 10 lateral raise variations to refresh your workouts and provide your muscles new stimuli to help you get rounded delts.

Best Lateral Raise Variations

Cable Lateral Raise

The cable lateral raise provides constant tension and shifts the hardest part of the range of motion from the top position — in a dumbbell lateral raise — to the bottom, stretched position.

Switching the equipment from a dumbbell to a cable pulley also changes the stimulus of the exercise and delivers a serious deltoid stretch, which is almost nonexistent with the dumbbell variation.

When to Do It

This is a great movement for working on your general technique and your mind-muscle connection, improving muscle-growth at the same time. (1) Program this exercise the same way you would do dumbbell lateral raises — at the end of a shoulder workout or “push” workout. Keep the reps relatively high, use pristine form, and focus on the muscle burn.

How to Do It

Stand next to a cable station set to the lowest point. Grab a single handle with the hand farthest from the station and flex your abs. Keep a rigid upper body and raise your arm out to your side while keeping your shoulder blade down and your wrist lower than your elbow. 

Stop around shoulder-level, when you feel the load shifting away from your shoulder and to your traps. Exhale and lower with control to the starting position. Start light and avoid using momentum. If the cable station is big enough, you can do the exercise with both arms at the same time.

Leaning Lateral Raise

The leaning lateral raise emphasizes the shortened position or peak contraction. Because of the leaning position, a portion of the side delt’s range of motion is not trained because gravity’s pull doesn’t significantly affect the weight, but this allows you to use a relatively heavier weight and trigger new growth. (2)

Along with the lateral head of the deltoid, this differently emphasized range of motion also works the rotator cuff muscles, notably the supraspinatus.

When to Use It

Even though you can use more weight than the standard lateral raise, this variation is best performed after your heavier compound (multi-joint) lifts of the workout. Use it as your primary lateral deltoid exercise of the day or in a spicy superset combining this exercise, which targets the peak contraction, and a delt exercise focusing on the stretched contraction, like the cable lateral raise.

How to Do It

Grab a sturdy power rack with one hand, place your feet near the support, and lean away at an angle supporting yourself from a locked arm. Hold a dumbbell in your free hand and lift the weight sideways from a straight hanging position. You can raise the weight higher than shoulder-level without worrying about muscle recruitment, because the goal is to emphasize the shortened range of motion which means your traps will be recruited no matter what. Make sure you control the movement speed to optimize time under tension. Don’t swing the weight from the bottom position.

Seated Lateral Raise

This variation is for the “accidental” cheaters out there or anyone who has trouble controlling a strict movement. The stable, upright position makes it almost impossible to swing your torso without noticing.

The bench support ensures strict form for better muscle tension and a complete range of motion to trigger hypertrophy (muscle growth).

When to Use It

The seated lateral raise is a great way to learn the standing variation without interference from the rest of your body. It prevents involuntary cheating, as well as helping to focus with laser precision on your lateral delts. Perform it in lieu of standing raises until you feel your form is impeccable or when you want to go heavier while still avoiding any cheating.

How to Do It

Sit on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand and assume an upright torso position. Raise your hands out to your sides, near shoulder-level, without succumbing to the temptation of swinging your torso or shrugging your traps to compensate for this more challenging execution. Lower the weights with control to avoid momentum in the bottom position.

Machine Lateral Raise

Some exercise machines can be scoffed by experienced gym goers for their simplicity or design, but the fact is that they can often be as efficient as free weight exercises for building muscle. (4)

Certain machines might not be as useful for improving strength or coordination, but as long as your primary goal is building muscle, you’re covered with a well-designed machine. It might be even better in some cases. For instance, beginners can find some machine exercises easier to perform that with barbells or dumbbells. Many machines are also designed to minimize interference from non-target muscles.

When to Do It

If you’re a beginner or advanced lifter, or just want to change things to refresh your workouts and prime new growth, give this variation a try. For beginners, machines are usually very easy to use and they can ensure proper form, so you’re training the desired muscles. Advanced lifters will appreciate the fact that machines will isolate and fatigue a specific head of the deltoid, more easily accumulating quality training volume for a body part.

How to Do It

Sit down in the machine and place your elbows under the pads. Raise your elbows to your sides until they are parallel to the ground, then lower them with control. The machine lateral raise can serve as a great teaching tool for learning to “lead with your elbows” and not your wrists, focusing more on the lateral head of your shoulders and less on straining the joints of your shoulders, elbows, and wrists.

Partial Lateral Raise

You’re used to light weights when you perform lateral raises, right? It’s time to shock your muscles into growth. Research has shown that using a limited range of motion can be useful for promoting strength and hypertrophy under the right conditions. (3)

Use a shortened range of motion to your advantage and provide the lateral delts something they never experienced to promote hypertrophy — very heavy weights and super-high tension.

When to Do It

Partial movements and “calculated cheating” can be beneficial, but should be reserved for experienced lifters who’ve already mastered the full movement with good form. If you’re using heaving weights just for the sake of it, and start swinging the dumbbells like a monkey with a pair of cymbals, you might trigger injuries instead of growth.

If you’re a gym veteran that has lagging shoulders, give this high-intensity variation a go. You can use it earlier in your shoulder or upper body push workout without trouble, because it’s a heavy-duty exercise.

How to Do It

Just because it’s a partial range of motion doesn’t mean you can just whack away at it without care. Stand up holding a pair of relatively heavy dumbbells. Keep your torso stable and rigid without swaying your hips. Raise your arms to your sides, similar to performing regular lateral raises. Stop at roughly half of your usual range of motion, when your arms are at an angle toward the ground.

Even though you’re using heavier weights, it’s still an isolation exercise. To prevent trap activation and emphasize you shoulders, think about pushing the weights to the side walls and not up in the air. Avoid shrugging your shoulders with the heavy weights. Do not be afraid of trying longer duration sets of 15 to 20 repetitions to compensate for the shorter time under tension.

Landmine Lateral Raise

The landmine is a versatile tool which can provide countless exercise variations, and the lateral raise is no exception. The thick handle will challenge your grip and the unique barbell path will train your core to a greater extent than other lateral raises.

If you’re concerned with athleticism or being functional while also increasing shoulder size, this variation will provide an effective upper body stimulus.

When to Do It

This unique single-arm movement can be used either at the start of a workout to prime you for a heavy pushing exercise, during a circuit combining different athletic attributes, or at the end of your session to focus on hypertrophy.

How to Do It

Set a barbell in a landmine unit and grab the sleeve with a palm-down grip. Stand tall with the weight around pelvis-level. Brace your core, briefly hold your breath, and lift your arm “up and out” to the side. Lead with your elbow to ensure maximum deltoid engagement and keep your arm straight. In the top position, your palm should be facing forward. Slowly lower the weight to its initial position. Perform all reps with one arm before switching to the other side.

Y-Raise

This exercise is often used in rehab or “prehab” because it is restorative and not strenuous on the shoulder joint, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used for building muscle.

The Y-raise is an effective deltoid-builder and it will also reinforce other key muscles responsible for shoulder health, such as the middle and lower trapezius and the supraspinatus.

When to Do It

This variation is relatively harder than many others on this list, so you’ll have to refrain from using heavy weights. As such, use it at the very beginning of a workout, to warm-up your shoulders, or at the end of your session to finish the lateral head of the deltoid.

If you have a history of joint pain, or if basic lateral raises leave you feeling achy (in a bad way, not simple muscle soreness), then make the Y-raise your middle-delt builder of choice. It’s one of the least stressful movements on your joints.

How to Do It

Get an adjustable bench and set it at a low incline, around 30 degrees. Lay face down on it with a dumbbell in each hand, hanging your arms down toward the ground. Keep your arms mostly straight as you raise your arms up and out. At the top of the motion, your body should resemble a giant “Y” if viewed from above. If you can’t lift your arms until they’re in line with your head, reduce the weight. This exercise is not meant for moving heavy weight, so aim for sets of 10 to 20 repetitions.

6-Way Raise

The 6-way raise takes the basic lateral raise up a notch by increasing the range of motion and recruiting even more muscles.

This exercise, popularized by late bodybuilding legend John Meadows, is a combination of shoulder raises in various directions. It’s designed for complete development of the deltoids and trapezius. This is the variation you want to employ if you desire to build an impressive “yoke” — the muscles of the shoulders, upper back, and neck.

When to Do It

Consider this exercise if you have a bit of experience under your belt, after you’ve mastered standard lateral and front raises. It is a great finisher, performed as the last exercise of your workout. Try this exercise at the very end of a shoulder or push session, to provide a burning session and terminate the deltoids. It’s also the perfect fit when you don’t have time or energy to perform several shoulder exercises after your main work.

How to Do It

Sit on a bench holding relatively light dumbbells and perform a strict lateral raise, bringing the weights from your sides your to shoulder-levels. From there, bring your thumbs together while keeping the weights horizontal to the ground. Next, raise your arms over your head. Then, you have to execute all of these motions in reverse — lower your arms in front of you, then bring them to your sides, and lower them down straight. That’s one single repetition.

You can understand why it would be nearly impossible to use heavy weights. Each repetition is very long, so you can’t go crazy with the load, but it provides a very long time under tension for your whole shoulders and upper traps, which is amazing for muscle growth.

Barbell Upright Row

The upright row isn’t technically a lateral raise variation, but the exercise follows the same anatomical motion — humerus abduction, or lifting your upper arm out to the side — and it trains the same target muscles in pretty much the same fashion. Using both arms to lift a barbell will also allow you to use a heavier weight, triggering more muscle growth. 

This movement does have a reputation as a “shoulder wrecker,” but it actually depends upon the individual and the context. It may put stress on your shoulders and wrists, but avoiding a close-grip movement and adjusting the range of motion can help reduce the risks.

When to Do It

If you want to embark on a muscle-building, bulking phase while lifting some heavy weights, this movement is perfect for you. The barbell upright row will recruit slightly more muscles overall, but it is still focusing on the side deltoids and upper trapezius. As such, you can perform it in a full-body workout, or during your shoulder or push sessions. More weight and more muscle recruited means that you’ll trigger a greater anabolic response from the body, leading to better growth.

How to Do It

Grab a barbell or EZ-curl bar with a shoulder-width, palm-down grip and stand tall with your arms straight down in front of you. Raise your elbows to the sides to lift the barbell while keeping it close to your body. Lead the movement with your elbows, like you would do with a lateral raise. Stop when your upper arms are around parallel to the ground or near shoulder-level.

You can often go heavier with this movement, but that doesn’t mean you should shift the focus of the exercise away from the key muscled. Don’t start swinging the weight up or excessively shrugging your shoulders. Keep your shoulder blades down and think of your elbows as the prime movers. Don’t get too crazy with super-heavy weights. Sets of eight to 12 reps will do the trick for building size and strength.

Rope Upright Row

If you have persistent joint problems and can’t find a way to safely or comfortably perform the barbell upright row, try this cable variation to enjoy the same feeling and benefits.

The rope handle allows more freedom of movement in your wrists and shoulders, while the constant tension from the cable allows a good training stimulus without heavy weights.

When to Do It

With this exercise, you can’t and shouldn’t go as heavy as with a barbell. So perform it at the end of your shoulder sessions, to finish off your delts. If you’ve been afraid of the barbell upright row, or if you have generally painful joints, think about giving this exercise a go. You should be able to trigger hypertrophy with a longer range of motion and with less pain.

How to Do It

Stand in front of a cable station set at the lowest point. Attach to it a rope, grab it with your thumbs pointed down and your palms facing your body. Drive your elbows up and out, as high as you comfortably can without feeling pain. Keep your elbows higher than your wrists during the movement. 

Do not specifically think about your hands, just let them move freely so you can focus solely on your deltoids. If you want to get spicy, pause at the top for several seconds.

Muscles Worked by the Lateral Raise

The lateral raise is an isolation movement focusing on the lateral head of the deltoid, but other muscles also contribute to the exercise. In fact, no exercise can technically “isolate” a single muscle, it just emphasizes one. Here are all the muscles trained by these variations.

Deltoids

The deltoids, or shoulder muscles, are composed of the three heads, all attached to the humerus (arm bone). The anterior head is on the front of the shoulder, attached to the clavicle, and shares function with the pecs — internally rotating the arm, raising it forward, and adducting it (bringing the arms together).

The lateral head is located on the middle of the shoulder and its fibers arise from the acromion process of the scapula (shoulder blade). This is the prime mover during the lateral raise, because it is responsible for arm abduction (raising it to the side). Finally, the posterior deltoid, also attached to the scapula, can be found at the rear of the shoulder and is involved in externally rotating and extending the arm.

shirtless person in gym performing dumbbell shoulder exercise
Credit: Paul Aiken / Shutterstock

When you perform a lateral raise, all three heads will contribute to the movement, but the focus should be on the side delts. Rotating your arm internally or externally will make the front or rear delts contribute a bit more, so you can also use that to target your weakness.

Trapezius

This big and strong back muscle, going from the base of your neck to the middle of your spine, is a big contributor to the lateral raise. The traps are composed of several regions having slightly different functions, but they’re all responsible for scapular motion and stability. 

Your middle and lower traps hold your shoulder blades back together and down, while the upper traps are recruited extensively because the motion of raising your arm also involves raising your scapulae, to allow full range of motion. Unless you don’t move your scapulae at all, which is almost impossible, you will feel the exercise in your upper traps.

Supraspinatus

This tiny shoulder muscle is one of the four members of the rotator cuff. It’s located on the scapula in a cavity between the acromion and clavicle and it attaches to the humerus. The supraspinatus assists the deltoids in arm adduction and will be involved during the lateral raise. Having a strong and healthy rotator cuff is key for injury prevention, strength, and longevity. (5)

Lateral Raise Form Tips

The lateral is often butchered for the sake of ego-lifting and moving more weight. This creates the typical blunder of shrugging the weight up as your arms are raised, which uses the traps assist the delts.

The problem is that the traps will then overshadow the shoulders, because they are a relatively stronger muscle, which leaves the shoulders undertrained. Keep your shoulder blades down and limit scapular motion to a minimum. A good cue is to try to lift the weight outward, not upward. This will cue your lateral delts to be recruited first.

person in gym doing cable shoulder exercise
Credit: Kzenon / Shutterstock

Hand and arm position can also be difficult. If you’re not careful, you can very easily ask for the assistance of a closely related muscle: the anterior deltoid. The front delts are already overstimulated by many pressing movements, so it’s often best to focus on your side delts with this exercise. To do that, drive the weight with your elbows and have your wrists lower than your elbows at all times. You can even slightly rotate your arms internally (forward) to focus more on the outer delts. And keep your elbow close to in-line with your shoulder, not far in front of your body.

Finally, another mistake caused by ego is to employ excessive momentum. This increases the risk of injuries, recruits the traps too much, and diminishes the range of motion. Flex your abs hard to stabilize your upper body and prevent swinging. Use your shoulders, not your lower back, to lift the weight.

Raise Your Shoulders to the Next Level

The lateral raise is a must for any lifter who desires broad shoulders. Focusing on your side delt is the best way to get there and achieve the coveted v-taper look. If the simplicity of the classic dumbbell lateral raise isn’t enough and you’re ready for more challenges, include one of these variations in your training plan to get your delts to the next level.

References

  1. Calatayud J, Vinstrup J, Jakobsen MD, Sundstrup E, Brandt M, Jay K, Colado JC, Andersen LL. Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2016 Mar;116(3):527-33. doi: 10.1007/s00421-015-3305-7. Epub 2015 Dec 23. PMID: 26700744.
  2. Peterson MD, Pistilli E, Haff GG, Hoffman EP, Gordon PM. Progression of volume load and muscular adaptation during resistance exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011 Jun;111(6):1063-71. doi: 10.1007/s00421-010-1735-9. Epub 2010 Nov 27. PMID: 21113614; PMCID: PMC4215195.
  3. Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J. Effects of range of motion on muscle development during resistance training interventions: A systematic review. SAGE Open Med. 2020 Jan 21;8:2050312120901559. doi: 10.1177/2050312120901559. PMID: 32030125; PMCID: PMC6977096.
  4. Schwanbeck SR, Cornish SM, Barss T, Chilibeck PD. Effects of Training With Free Weights Versus Machines on Muscle Mass, Strength, Free Testosterone, and Free Cortisol Levels. J Strength Cond Res. 2020 Jul;34(7):1851-1859. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003349. PMID: 32358310.
  5. Schwanbeck SR, Cornish SM, Barss T, Chilibeck PD. Effects of Training With Free Weights Versus Machines on Muscle Mass, Strength, Free Testosterone, and Free Cortisol Levels. J Strength Cond Res. 2020 Jul;34(7):1851-1859. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003349. PMID: 32358310.

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