Lateral Raise Muscles Worked: What Muscles Do Lateral Raises Work?

With isolation exercises like biceps curls, it is pretty apparent what muscles you are working, but for other resistance training exercises, multiple muscle groups are worked at the same time, and it can become less clear which muscle groups are being strengthened.

For example, a common question is: “What muscles do lateral raises work?”

How do you do lateral raises, and are there alternatives to lateral raises that target the same muscles worked by lateral raises?

In this guide to lateral raise muscles worked, we will explain how to perform lateral raises, and then we will discuss the muscles targeted by lateral raises.

More specifically, we will look at: 

  • How Do You Perform Lateral Raises?
  • Lateral Raise Muscles Worked
  • How Much Weight Should You Lift for Lateral Raises?
  • What Are the Lateral Raise Exercise Benefits?
  • What Are Some Variations Of Lateral Raises?

Let’s get started!

A progression of a lateral raise.

How Do You Perform Lateral Raises?

You can perform lateral raises with various types of resistance, but dumbbell lateral raises are the most common.

Here are the steps for how to perform lateral raises with dumbbells:

  1. Stand upright with good posture, with a dumbbell in each hand and your arms down by your sides.
  2. Keeping your core tight, lift your arms straight out to the sides so that your body forms a giant T.
  3. At the top position, your palms should be facing the floor.
  4. Pause for 2-3 seconds, squeezing your shoulders without hiking them up to your ears (keep them relaxed).
  5. Slowly lower your arms back down to your sides.

Lateral Raise Muscles Worked

So, lateral raises work what muscles?

The basic lateral raise exercise primarily targets the lateral fibers of your deltoid muscles, which are the primary muscles that make up the shoulder.

Although the lateral raise muscles worked list includes the other two portions of the deltoids (anterior deltoids (front) and posterior deltoids (back)) of the shoulder, you will mostly target the lateral deltoids, or the middle deltoids, with lateral raises.

The lateral deltoids, also called the middle deltoids, are the bundles of muscle fibers in the center of your shoulder along the top. 

The lateral deltoids originate near the middle of the clavicle and then attach down past the acromion process of the shoulder to the top of the humerus or arm bone.

As a group, the deltoids have numerous functions, but the middle deltoids, in particular, are responsible for shoulder abduction, which is the movement that involves bringing your arms straight out to the side away from your body, like a giant T (much like how to do a dumbbell lateral raise).

A lateral raise.

Therefore, the benefits of lateral raises include strengthening the lateral deltoid for better shoulder abduction and providing more stability to your shoulders overall. 

Additionally, when lifting heavy weights and doing enough reps and sets with lateral raises for hypertrophy, you can add width to your shoulders for a broader shoulder appearance and build muscular bulk or mass.

While the primary muscles worked by lateral raises are the middle fibers of the deltoid, as mentioned, included on the lateral raises muscles worked list are the anterior deltoids and posterior deltoids.

The anterior deltoids, sometimes casually referred to as the “front deltoids,” are located on the front portion of the shoulder, though these muscle fibers are still part of the same deltoid muscle.

This means that the anterior deltoids wrap down somewhat and around along the front and still attach to the top of the humerus but a little bit more on the medial side relative to the lateral deltoids, which run down the top of the shoulder and attach to the middle of the humerus bone.

A lateral raise.

As such, the anterior deltoids are involved with internal rotation of the shoulder along with flexion and horizontal flexion.

Internal rotation is when you twist your arm and turn it towards the inside of your body, while flexion is bringing your arm straight forward in front of your body.

The anterior deltoids are heavily involved in pushing exercises like the chest press and push-ups, so they tend to be worked with chest day workouts or chest exercises. However, you will get some supplementary work for your anterior deltoid muscles doing lateral raises.

Finally, the other primary muscle found on the list of lateral raises muscles worked include the posterior deltoids, or rear deltoids, often called the “rear delts.”

As the name describes, the posterior deltoids or rear deltoids are in the back portion of the shoulder muscle.

The functions of the rear delts include external rotation of the shoulder joint, shoulder extension (bringing your arm straight back behind you), and horizontal extension.

A lateral raise.

As can be seen, the anterior deltoids and posterior deltoids have opposite functions.

Therefore, the posterior delts are often worked with back exercises like pull-ups, lat pulldowns, and reverse flys.

That said, lateral raises work muscle fibers in the posterior deltoids as well and can strengthen the rotator cuff muscles, which provide stability and mobility to the shoulder.

When performing the lateral raise exercise while standing, you will also activate some of the muscles in the upper back, including the traps, rhomboids, levator scapulae, serratus anterior, and the muscles of your core.

How Much Weight Should You Lift for Lateral Raises?

When performing lateral raises to increase strength, build up to doing 2-6 sets of 3-5 reps per set, using at least 85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for the load. 

The fewer reps you perform, the closer to 100% of your 1RM you should aim for with your weights.

If your goal is hypertrophy (muscle growth), try to perform three sets, using loads that are 70 to 85% of your 1RM for 8 to 12 reps per set.

A lateral raise.

What Are the Lateral Raise Exercise Benefits?

Ultimately, one of the primary lateral raises benefits is increasing stability in your shoulders

Because the shoulders are the most mobile joints in the body, being able to stabilize and control the highly mobile shoulder joint while trying to perform exercises like barbell rows and incline presses is exceedingly important not only for optimizing performance but also for improving safety and reducing the risk of shoulder injuries.

Given the list of lateral raises muscles worked and how you can program lateral raises into your shoulder workouts, here are the benefits:

  • Improving shoulder strength, particularly for shoulder abduction
  • Increasing shoulder mobility and stability
  • Building core strength when you perform unilateral lateral raises
  • Improving the performance in compound exercises that involve your shoulders, such as bench presses, push-ups, overhead presses, chest presses, lat pulldowns, pull-ups, chin-ups, face pulls, overhead carries, snatches, thrusters, straight arm pull-downs, pull-backs, reverse flyes, forward raises, seated rows, and bent-over barbell or dumbbell rows.
A lateral raise.

What Are Some Variations Of Lateral Raises?

The lateral raise is a great exercise to add to resistance band arm workouts because it is easy to replicate with a resistance band, unlike some shoulder exercises that are much better suited with free weights. 

Plus, a cable machine lateral raise or resistance band provides constant tension throughout this movement range.

This maximizes your time under tension for each exercise and strengthens the shoulder muscles at all angles and positions throughout the exercise.

Most people tend to lack strength in shoulder abduction (bringing your arm out to the side of your body as if forming the letter T).

Therefore, if you only have lighter resistance bands to work with for at-home upper-body workouts, you can still get a challenging workout with this move without the need for adjustable dumbbells or super heavy-duty exercise bands.

Here are the steps for how to do lateral raises with a resistance band:

A lateral raise.
  1. Stand in the center of a resistance band with both feet spaced about hip-width apart.
  2. Hold a handle in each hand, arms down at your sides, and your palms facing inward.
  3. Keeping your core and glutes tight, chest up, and back straight, lift your arms up and out to the sides, forming a letter T. Your elbows should remain straight.
  1. When your arms are parallel to the floor, pause and hold the top position for 2 to 3 seconds. Think about packing your shoulders down so that they don’t hike up towards your ears, and make sure to keep your back neutral by squeezing your glutes and abs.
  2. Slowly lower your arms back down while keeping your core tight and elbows straight.

For other great shoulder exercises and a well-rounded shoulder strengthening workout, check out our shoulder workout with dumbbells here.

A lateral raise.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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