Lateral Raises For Beginners: How To Do Them Correctly

Lateral raises are a cornerstone exercise for sculpting strong, well-defined shoulders, especially for beginners focusing on form and technique.

Below, we reveal the essentials for performing lateral raises correctly—keep reading for a detailed breakdown on mastering this foundational move.

The Fundamentals of Lateral Raises

Lateral raises aren't just another item on your workout checklist; they're a pivotal move for anyone aiming to build balanced, strong shoulders.

Here’s everything you need to ensure your lateral raises are not just done, but done right.

Detailed Step-by-Step Guide on the Starting Position and Movement

  1. Find Your Starting Position: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, creating a stable base. Hold a light dumbbell in each hand with an overhand grip, letting them rest gently at your sides. This initial stance is crucial for balance and ensuring the right muscles do the work.
  2. Begin the Lift: With a controlled motion, lift the dumbbells outward to your sides. Ensure your wrists remain straight, aligning with your forearms. The dumbbells should move in a slight arc, guided by your shoulders, not your hands.
  3. Mind Your Elbows: As you lift, keep a slight bend in your elbows. This isn’t about locking your arms; think of cradling the weight as you elevate it, protecting your joints and focusing the effort on your deltoids.
  4. Reach Parallel: Continue lifting until your arms are parallel to the floor. Picture a straight line running through your shoulders, extending outwards—this is your target alignment. Going higher shifts the load to muscles we’re not targeting right now.
  5. Pause and Lower: Once at the top, take a brief moment to ensure you’re not swinging or leveraging momentum to lift. Then, lower the weights back to your starting position with the same controlled, deliberate movement. Avoid letting gravity do the work; resist on the way down to maximize gains.

The Importance of Maintaining a Slight Bend in the Elbows

Keeping your elbows slightly bent throughout the exercise is non-negotiable.

This bend acts as a buffer, safeguarding your joints from undue stress and potential injury.

Moreover, it ensures the deltoids are the stars of the show, isolating and engaging them effectively throughout the lift. Locking your arms shifts the focus and can lead to strain, undermining the exercise’s benefits.

How to Engage Your Core During the Exercise

Engaging your core is your secret weapon for stability and efficiency during lateral raises. Here's how:

  • Activate Your Core: Before you lift, take a deep breath and tighten your abdominal muscles as if preparing for a punch. This engagement should be maintained throughout the exercise.
  • Check Your Posture: Keep your spine neutral, and avoid arching your back or leaning forward. A solid core keeps you upright and ensures the movement isolates the shoulders.
  • Stabilize Your Lift: A strong core prevents you from using momentum to swing the weights up. This means each rep is more effective, targeting the intended muscles without cheating the movement.

Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Navigating the path to perfect lateral raises means being aware of pitfalls that can hinder your progress and lead to injury.

While enthusiasm and effort are commendable, precision in execution is key.

Overlifting: The Risks of Lifting the Dumbbells Above Shoulder Height

Lifting your arms above the parallel line to the floor, or higher than your shoulders, redirects the focus from your deltoids to your trapezius muscles.

This not only dilutes the effectiveness of the exercise for its intended purpose—sculpting your deltoids—but also puts undue stress on your rotator cuff muscles and joints, increasing the risk of injury.

To avoid this:

  • Visual Cues: Always lift in front of a mirror when possible. This allows you to monitor your form and ensure your arms stay parallel to the floor.
  • Mind-Muscle Connection: Focus on feeling the deltoids work; this can help prevent you from going too high as you'll be more attuned to the targeted muscle's engagement.

The Temptation to Go Heavy: Why Lighter Weights Are More Effective

Lateral raises are not about showcasing your strength via the amount of weight you can lift.

Using weights that are too heavy often leads to compromised form, reducing the exercise's effectiveness and increasing injury risk.

Lighter weights allow for:

  • Better Control: You can maintain proper form throughout the exercise, isolating the deltoid muscles effectively.
  • Increased Muscle Engagement: Lighter weights enable a full range of motion and better engagement of the deltoid muscle, crucial for muscle growth and definition.

The Issue of Momentum: Keeping the Body Stable to Focus on Muscle Engagement

Using momentum to ‘swing' the weights up detracts from the exercise's effectiveness, as it shifts the work from your deltoids to other, unintended muscles.

To maintain focus on muscle engagement:

  • Core Engagement: Tighten your core throughout the exercise to stabilize your body, preventing it from swinging.
  • Paced Movements: Lift and lower the weights in a controlled, deliberate manner to ensure the deltoids are doing the work, not momentum.

Hand and Elbow Positioning: Ensuring Proper Alignment to Avoid Injury

Incorrect positioning of the hands and elbows can lead to ineffective muscle targeting and potential injuries.

To ensure proper alignment:

  • Elbow Height: Keep your elbows slightly higher than your wrists during the lift. This positioning helps engage the lateral deltoids more effectively and reduces the risk of impingement or strain in your shoulder joint.
  • Wrist Alignment: Avoid bending or twisting your wrists. Keep them in a neutral position, in line with your forearms, to prevent strain.

Exercise Variations for Beginners

Diving into the world of lateral raises, beginners might find the traditional dumbbell variant a bit challenging at first.

Understanding this, exploring variations of the exercise can not only enhance engagement and effectiveness but also ensure a safer introduction to shoulder training.

Resistance Band Lateral Raises: A Beginner-Friendly Option with Benefits

Starting with resistance bands for lateral raises is a fantastic way for beginners to get acquainted with the exercise's form and mechanics without the intimidation of weights.

The resistance band lateral raise introduces a different kind of tension compared to dumbbells—the resistance increases as the band stretches, providing a unique challenge for the shoulder muscles.

This variation is particularly beneficial for those working on establishing a solid mind-muscle connection, as the consistent tension from the bands helps highlight the muscles being worked.

Moreover, bands are versatile and can be anchored at different points to experiment with angles and resistance levels, making this variation adaptable to various fitness levels and preferences.

Cable Machine Lateral Raises: Offering Stability and Continuous Tension

The cable machine presents another excellent variation for beginners, particularly because of the stable, constant tension it provides throughout the exercise.

Unlike dumbbells, which can create uneven resistance due to gravity, cable machines ensure that muscles are under consistent load during both the lifting and lowering phases of the exercise.

This continuous tension can lead to more efficient muscle activation and growth over time.

Additionally, the cable machine allows for adjustments in weight increments smaller than those typically available with dumbbells, enabling beginners to progress at a more tailored and gradual pace.

The fixed path of the cable also helps in maintaining correct form, making it easier for beginners to focus on engaging the right muscles without worrying about balancing the weights.

Seated Lateral Raises: How Sitting Down Minimizes Momentum and Focuses on Form

Performing lateral raises while seated is an excellent way for beginners to minimize the use of momentum and ensure a greater focus on form.

Sitting down restricts the body's ability to sway or use leg drive, compelling the deltoids to do the heavy lifting, quite literally.

This position encourages lifters to maintain a more rigid torso, thereby enhancing core engagement and stability throughout the exercise.

Seated lateral raises are particularly useful for individuals who are learning how to isolate their shoulder muscles effectively, as it reduces the likelihood of engaging other muscle groups inadvertently.

This variation not only hones in on technique and muscle activation but also offers a safer environment for beginners to explore their range of motion and control.

Tempo Lateral Raises: The Impact of Slowing Down the Exercise for Muscle Growth

Integrating tempo changes into lateral raises can significantly impact muscle growth and endurance, making tempo lateral raises a noteworthy variation for beginners.

Slowing down the exercise—specifically during the lowering phase—increases the time under tension for the shoulder muscles, a key factor in muscle development.

This slower, more deliberate approach to the exercise not only enhances control and form but also intensifies the workout, encouraging muscle fibers to adapt and strengthen.

Beginners will find that incorporating tempo into their lateral raises can accelerate their progress by improving muscular endurance and increasing the exercise's overall effectiveness.

Tempo training also teaches beginners the value of mindfulness and precision in their workouts, laying a strong foundation for more advanced training techniques in the future.

Incorporating Lateral Raises into Your Workout Routine

Incorporating lateral raises into your workout routine is a strategic move for anyone looking to develop strong, balanced shoulders.

These exercises not only enhance muscle definition but also contribute to overall shoulder health and function.

Understanding how to effectively integrate lateral raises can make a significant difference in your fitness journey, especially for beginners eager to see progress.

How Often to Perform Lateral Raises for Optimal Results

  • Frequency: Aim to include lateral raises in your workout routine 1-3 times per week. This frequency ensures adequate stimulus for growth and strength gains while allowing sufficient recovery time for the shoulder muscles.
  • Recovery: Ensure at least 48 hours of rest between sessions targeting the same muscle group to prevent overtraining and encourage muscle repair and growth.

Pairing Lateral Raises with Compound Exercises for Overall Shoulder Strength and Balance

  • Combine with Overhead Presses: Incorporating overhead presses in your routine targets the anterior and overall deltoids, complementing the lateral raise's focus on the side deltoids for balanced development.
  • Follow Up with Pull Exercises: Exercises like rows and pull-ups will target your back and posterior deltoids, promoting shoulder stability and preventing imbalances.
  • Incorporate Push-ups: Adding push-ups can help engage the chest and triceps along with the shoulders, offering a comprehensive upper body workout.

Sample Beginner Workout Incorporating Lateral Raises

  1. Warm-Up (5-10 minutes): Start with dynamic stretches focusing on the upper body, such as arm circles and shoulder shrugs, followed by light cardio (e.g., jumping jacks) to increase heart rate.
  2. Compound Exercise – Overhead Press (3 sets of 8-12 reps): Begin with a compound movement to engage multiple muscle groups, preparing the shoulders for more isolated work.
  3. Lateral Raises (3 sets of 10-15 reps): Move on to lateral raises with a focus on form and controlled movements. Opt for lighter weights where you can complete all sets and reps with good form.
  4. Front Raises (3 sets of 10-15 reps): Target the anterior deltoids to ensure balanced development across the shoulder region.
  5. Seated Rows (3 sets of 8-12 reps): Work the back and posterior deltoids to support shoulder health and posture.
  6. Cool Down (5-10 minutes): Finish with static stretches focusing on the shoulders, chest, and back to aid recovery and flexibility.

Safety Tips and Best Practices

Understanding and implementing safety tips and best practices is crucial in any fitness routine, especially when it comes to exercises like lateral raises that target the delicate structures of the shoulder.

These practices not only help in maximizing the benefits of your workouts but also significantly reduce the risk of injury.

Importance of Warming Up the Shoulder Muscles Before Exercising

Warming up before engaging in any form of exercise, particularly those targeting the shoulder, is non-negotiable.

The shoulder joint is incredibly mobile, offering a wide range of motion, which also makes it susceptible to injury if not properly prepared for physical stress.

A comprehensive warm-up increases blood flow to the muscles, enhances flexibility, and prepares the joints for the movements to come.

Incorporating dynamic stretches that mimic the exercise movements, such as arm circles, can effectively engage the rotator cuff muscles, deltoids, and scapular stabilizers.

Additionally, light cardiovascular activity like jumping jacks can raise the overall body temperature, ensuring the muscles are more elastic and responsive, thus reducing the risk of strains or tears.

How to Listen to Your Body and Adjust as Needed

Listening to your body is an invaluable skill in preventing injuries and fostering long-term fitness progress.

It involves paying attention to the signals your body sends before, during, and after workouts.

If you experience discomfort or pain beyond the typical muscular fatigue, it's a clear indication to stop and reassess your form, the weight you're using, or possibly the exercise itself.

Discomfort localized in joints or sharp pain should never be ignored, as these could be early warnings of overuse injuries or improper technique.

Adapting your workout to how your body feels can mean modifying exercises, reducing weight, or even allowing extra rest days for recovery.

The key is to balance pushing yourself to achieve progress while ensuring you do not cross the line into potential harm.

When to Progress to More Challenging Variations or Increase Weight

Progression in any workout routine is essential for continued improvement, but knowing when to advance, especially with exercises like lateral raises, requires careful consideration.

As a general rule, if you can complete all sets and reps of an exercise with proper form and without significant fatigue, it may be time to increase the challenge.

However, progression does not always mean adding more weight.

For lateral raises, advancing could involve shifting to more challenging variations of the exercise, adjusting the tempo to increase time under tension, or incorporating instability elements like using a balance board.

When you do decide to increase weight, a modest increment is advisable—usually no more than 5 to 10 percent—to maintain form and prevent injury.

Always prioritize control and the quality of movement over lifting heavier weights, as this will yield better results and minimize the risk of setbacks due to injury.


Incorporating lateral raises into your workout routine with proper technique and an understanding of safety best practices is key to achieving strong, well-defined shoulders.

By focusing on form, listening to your body, and progressively challenging yourself, you can maximize the benefits of this exercise while minimizing the risk of injury.

Embrace the journey of strength training with patience and persistence, and let lateral raises be a cornerstone in building balanced and resilient shoulders.