If the only thing that you achieve by cranking out endless sets of dumbbell lateral raises is broken down and achy shoulders, chances are you are training this movement totally wrong.
Before you throw away the lateral raise for good deeming it an “inherently dangerous” movement for the shoulders, you better do your homework and clean up your technique, execution and general mindset when training this movement. You’re likely making at LEAST one of these five cardinal mistakes with this commonly butchered movement.
Here’s how to revolutionize the way you execute the dumbbell lateral raise to make this movement a staple in your training that will fuel muscle, strength and injury prevention for the long run.
#1 Allow The Shoulder Blades To Move Authentically
If your goal is to develop muscular delts, you must first focus on keeping your shoulders healthy for the long run. To develop and maintain pain-free shoulders, it’s an absolute necessity to allow your shoulder blades to move authentically during the lateral raise movement.
A common practice, especially in the old-school traditionalist bodybuilding community is to pin the shoulder blades against the back side of the thoracic cage and keep them isolated while the shoulder raise is completed. While this may theoretically place more isolation on the middle aspect of the delt during the lateral raise movement, there’s also a pretty significant downside.
By breaking up the kinetic chain and disassociating the synergistic function of the upper quadrant, comprised of the four shoulder joints, shoulder blade and thoracic spine, there is a likely chance of placing undue stress over the front side of the true shoulder (gleno-humeral) joint, aka common chronic front sided shoulder pain. This is especially true as training volume and relative intensities are increased to achieve a training effect.
If you’re experiencing pain during pressing and other direct shoulder training exercises, check out THIS article to intelligently train around the pain.
To avoid over-stressing the front side of the shoulder, allow your shoulder blades to move freely against the thoracic cage. This authentic scapular movement during the lateral raise will consist of slight upward rotation, elevation and protraction of the shoulder blade upon raising the weights, and downward rotation, depression and retraction upon the eccentric descent. You can see these movements in the video above featuring a posterior view of the dumbbell lateral raise.
Without making this a movement based anatomy lesson in shoulder biomechanics and function, you can easily perfect this movement by thinking “smooth and controlled” in both the raising and lowering portions of this lift. Keep your movements smooth, synergistic and stabilized, and optimal shoulder mechanics will take care of themselves.
#2 Position Your Body In A “Slight” Bent Over Athletic Stance
Though many lifters attempt to execute the lateral shoulder raise properly, one of the limiting factors that many unknowingly run into is the proper positional setup for this movement.
It’s common place to see a lifter stand straight up with no core, hip or lower body engagement and start swinging around heavy dumbbells fueled on the compensatory momentum generated from the torso from the lack of spinal stiffness.
Not only does the swing prove to be hard on the fulcrum point at the lower back in which the momentum is generated, but it can also increase sub-acromial impingement syndrome, once again eliciting a pain response deep into the front side of the shoulder.
Due to the fact that the lateral raise is viewed as a simple isolated shoulder movement, it’s easy to brush off the importance of the position of the rest of the body during this movement. But when placing an emphasis on mastering movements and achieving a maximal muscular training effect while minimizing joint stress, we must depend on a proper setup to set the stage for proper dynamic execution.
Before the initiation of the lateral raise, we must first ensure that our body is positioned with perfect tension throughout. The “athletic stance” works perfectly to initiate full body tension that will translate into more isolated movements at the shoulder, and a safer, less stressful environment at the lower back and shoulder joints.
Hinge the hips back slightly (around 10-20 degrees), squeezing your glutes and spiraling your feet into the ground. From this position, ensure that your core is braced and spine is in neutral. Maintain this full body tension throughout all reps of the lateral raise and enjoy a cleaner, crisper movement pattern minus the common aches pains associated with poor setups.
If you are struggling staying tight at the core and hips, you may want to look into your thoracic spine posture and mobility. HERE is a great article teaching my go-to t-spine mobility drills to alleviate shoulder pain.
While nearly every loaded movement in the weight room can be improved by tapping into the power of the “irradiation effect” which transmits force and activation throughout the kinetic chain during a movement to enhance stability and dynamic strength, the lateral raise is not your average movement.
The coaching cue “squeeze hard” during the dumbbell lateral raise can actually take the emphasis away from the middle delts in which we are attempting to isolate with this movement, and placing it into the bigger, stronger muscles of the upper extremity.
Again, this is an important point and worth mentioning again; isolation movements like these are literally some of the only times where we want to avoid tapping into the irradiation effect of the body that recruits tension and links up body segments. Isolated movements programmed to strengthen specific weak links like the shoulders for example, are considered “feel based movements”, so many times adding more weight or bringing in more secondary movers to perform the lift is less than ideal.
Remember, though we don’t want too much tension through the upper extremity and shoulder during the lateral raise, leaning to generate torque and tension at the shoulder can be very helpful for many other lifts. Clean up your shoulder packing mechanics HERE.
So if you can set your ego aside, use lighter loads and avoid gripping the hell out of the dumbbells during the lateral raise, this will create a more powerful muscular training effect at the delts. But as you’ve most likely seen, not squeezing is easier said than done.
For those of you who struggle to activate the delts in the lateral raise, and instead have this movement taken over by the traps and upper back, here’s a nice little quick fix for your woes. Grab two dumbbells in each hand, one heavier and one smaller rubber dumbbell. This will open up the hand and reduce the hands ability to grip hard, which is exactly what we want to target the shoulders in this movement more directly.
Using two dumbbells in each hand during these smaller movements is also a highly effective way for lifters to actually load up their movements precisely instead of laying slave to 5 pound increments off the dumbbell rack. In this video, Lindsay Bloom is combining 5 pound traditional dumbbells with 3 pound blue rubber bells to load 8 pounds per hand which is exactly where she wants to be for 12 pristinely executed reps.
#4 Tempo & Rhythm Are The Keys To Strong Deltoid Activation
The effectiveness of any movement in the gym is dependent on the tempo and rhythm of an exercise, not just moving a weight from point A to point B. This is what I like to call the “feel” of a movement that is hugely important, especially for isolated movements like the lateral raise.
To get the very most out of the lateral raise, we must key in on the detailed execution of each aspect of the lift. First, the concentric raising portion of the lift needs to be dynamic and explosive in order to ensure that we are tapping into as many motor units as possible. The only problem with exploding up the weights on the lateral raise is an inherent risk of injury at the top of the range where joint stability is lost and unwanted range of motion is extended.
The quick fix to this problem has traditionally been to add more weight, but as we have reviewed in other sections in this article, maximally loading the smaller structures of the shoulder is less than ideal for long term shoulder health. To achieve a dynamic raise without placing your shoulder in a position that risks injury, the addition of banded accommodating resistance can be an absolute game changer.
Find the lightest band in the gym, preferably the bands with the plastic handles at the ends, and complete dynamic lateral raises against the accommodating resistance that will naturally decelerate the movement at the top of the range. You can also add external weight in the form of dumbbells to this movement to create the perfect loading environment for activation.
Another key advantage that bands play in this movement is to peak each contraction at the top of the range, bringing in as many muscle fibers as possible to “flex” the top, increasing shoulder activation. If that weren’t enough, the bands will try and throw your hands down to the ground, so naturally resisting the lowering phase of the lift with control will overload the delts once again in a safe and effective manner.
Even if you don’t have bands, think about completing each rep with a dynamic concentric raise, a split second hard flex at the top, and lowering under control to keep tension in the delts throughout. For more great shoulder activation drills, check out THIS killer dynamic warm up superset.
#5 You Don’t Need To Load Heavy To Get A Maximal Training Effect
The sooner you appreciate that the shoulders should NOT be trained with heavy ass weight and ultra high intensity, the healthier your shoulders will become. But don’t you need maximal loading to grow and get strong? No, and here’s why max loading on the shoulders may even leave you injured…
The deltoid are made up of three distinct heads that surround the true shoulder joint also known as the gleno-humeral joint. Simply put, the middle and posterior aspects of the deltoid are highly “slow-twitch” in terms of fiber type, which means they will respond optimally to more reps, more volume and a metabolic pump effect. Well, what about the anterior delts?
Since we all love bench pressing so damn much, the anterior delts are actually loaded hard and heavy secondary to many pushing based exercises including the bench and push ups. That means that little, and even no extra emphasis should be placed on this muscular region. Oh yeah, and placing too much volume and load here is one of the easiest ways to piss off those shoulders.
So here’s what to do instead, train the shoulders for a nasty pump using smart exercise choices and intelligent pairings like this banded over and back / dumbbell lateral raise superset that increases time under tension and cumulative fatigue, all while minimizing load and increasing training effect.
Getting creative with your programming using both pre and post fatigue based sets around the lateral raise can be a game changer for your your shoulder health and aesthetics. When using a pre-fatigue like the video above, focus on constant tension movements executed in a slow and controlled manor before the lateral raise. For post-fatigue, execute pristine reps of the lateral raise followed by a more volume based movements.
The options are endless if you program with the right mindset. Need some more ideas for superset pairings with bands? Check out THIS article.
Remember, it’s not always about loading heavy and going balls to the wall with sloppy reps. The smaller the muscle group and the more isolated the movement, you’ll need to control, setup and activate with more focus to get the most out of your pain-free training.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and writer, whose published over 300 articles in some of the most widely regarded media outlets in the industry like Men’s Fitness, Testosterone Nation, Mountain Dog Diet, Bodybuilding.com, and Muscle and Strength, to name a few.
Along with an impressive laundry list of publications, Dr. John works with some of the world’s most elite athletes, including Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pro Quarterbacks, MLB All-Star Pitchers, Professional Bodybuilders and World Class IronMan Triathletes.