How to Perform Lateral Raises Using Dumbbells

The lateral or side raise is a basic isolation arm exercise. You do it with dumbbells or machines at the gym.

Your arms hold dumbbells at the sides of your body. The movement is out to the side while maintaining a slight bend in the elbows to provide support for the shoulder joints.

The lateral raise recruits several muscles during the exercise. As you begin, the supraspinatus, a small stabilizing muscle that is part of the rotator cuff, is activated. As the arms are raised, the deltoid—primarily the middle deltoids—are engaged to continue the movement until the arms are parallel with the shoulders, or slightly below this point.

Find out more about weight training terminology and exercise description if you need background information before you try this exercise. 

The Starting Position

Matthew Leete / Stone / Getty Images

For this exercise, you do not want to select weights that cause undue stress to the shoulder joint. You should select a weight that allows you to do 8 to 12 lifts in one set without too much strain at the shoulder. Aim for 2 to 3 sets.

  1. Stand upright with feet about shoulder width apart or a little less depending on your personal comfort.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at the sides or in front.
  3. Brace the abdominal muscles and inhale ready for the movement.

Performing Lateral Raises

woman holding dumbells out to her sides
Moof / Getty Images
  1. Raise both arms upward while bending the elbows just a little; don't lock your arms into a straight position at the elbows.
  2. Raise the weights no higher than level with the shoulders—a little lower is fine—then lower to the starting position at the sides or in front of the body.
  3. Remember to breathe out on exertion (the lift) and in on the return phase, as you lower the arms.

Variations of the lateral raise include:

  • Performing the exercise in a sitting position.
  • Lying face down on a bench.
  • Lifting slightly above the horizontal in the standing position, engaging the trapezius muscles.
  • Starting with the weights in different positions: at your sides, in front of you, or even behind.
  • Performing the exercise with a single arm, holding a secure and stable anchor with the free arm while leaning toward the lifting arm, which focuses more on the middle deltoid and reduces exertion of the supraspinatus.
  • Using an incline bench to lean away from your lifting arm, which focuses the exercise on the supraspinatus while reducing middle deltoid engagement.