Lateral deltoid exercises: Grow your shoulders

Your shoulders are one of the most prominent muscles in your upper body. For most people, lateral deltoid exercises are the star of their shoulder routine with all of the lateral raise variations that can be done with dumbbells, resistance bands and the cable machine using one or both arms.

standing dumbbell lateral raises

Adding these exercises into your routine can help improve your shoulder strength, shoulder muscles and overall appearance. 

Anatomy of your shoulders

The deltoids are a triangular-shaped muscle that sits over the shoulder. It is made of three parts or heads:

  • Anterior deltoids: The front delts that help move your arm forward. You use your front delts if you reach for an object on a shelf and when you push things away.
  • Lateral deltoids: The side delts help move your arm out to the side and up and down. You use your side delts in jumping jacks and give your shoulder a capped look.
  • Posterior deltoids: Rear delts help move your arm backward. They connect to the flat surface of your shoulder blade. You use your rear delts for throwing.

The importance of the lateral deltoid

The deltoid muscle is one of the most important muscles in the upper body, as it is responsible for several key shoulder joint movements. Developing the deltoids helps improve shoulder strength and stability and contributes to an overall well-rounded physique.

Strong deltoids are important for various activities, such as lifting heavy objects, pushing and pulling movements, and even everyday tasks like reaching and lifting objects overhead.

In addition, a well-developed set of deltoids can enhance the appearance of the shoulders, giving the upper body a more defined and sculpted look.

Strengthening your shoulders also can help prevent injuries and shoulder pain, as weak deltoids can lead to imbalances and poor posture, resulting in shoulder impingement, rotator cuff injuries and other shoulder problems.

Primary lateral deltoid exercises

Seated dumbbell lateral raise

Targets: Lateral deltoid and traps. Activates: Lateral deltoid and posterior deltoid

seated lateral shoulder raise
  • Hold a pair of dumbbells in each hand.
  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Your hands should be hanging down by your sides with your palms facing inwards.
  • Raise your arms out and up towards the side until shoulder level.
  • Pause for a moment before returning to starting position at the side of your body.
  • Repeat.

Standing cable lateral raise

Targets: Lateral deltoid Activates: supraspinatus, traps, subscapularis, and serratus anterior.

woman in black tank top doing cable lateral shoulder exercises
cable lateral shoulder raise
  • Start by attaching a handle attachment to the low end of a cable machine.
  • Stand shoulder-width apart next to the machine.
  • Grab the handle with your right hand and use the other arm to hold the pulley for support.
  • Your arm should be parallel to your side.
  • Raise your right arm out to the side up to shoulder level.
  • Your elbow should only have a slight bend in it to maintain good form
  • Keep your arms stationary as your shoulders do all the heavy lifting
  • Slowly lower to starting position.
  • Repeat.

Bent-over dumbbell lateral raise

Targets: Posterior deltoid and lateral deltoid Activates: Traps, rhomboids

bent over lateral raise with dumbbells
bent over lateral raise with dumbbells
  • Sit at the end of a bench with a pair of dumbbells.
  • Bend forward and let the dumbbells hang on your sides.
  • Lift the dumbbells, raising them on your sides to a level slightly upper more than your shoulders.
  • Lower the dumbbells back to your sides.
  • Repeat.

Lying dumbbell lateral raise

Targets: Lateral deltoid Activates: Traps

lying dumbbell lateral raise exercises
lying dumbbell lateral raise exercise
  • Lie down sideways on a flat bench with your knee against the bench bent. 
  • Bend the arm closest to the bench across the top to stabilize your body. Hold a dumbbell in your other hand down by your side.
  • Slowly raise your arm until it points toward the ceiling.
  • Slowly lower to the starting position.
  • Repeat

Tip: Use a light to medium weight to control the weight and maintain good form. 

Face pulls

Targets: Lateral deltoid and posteior deltoid Activates: Traps and Rhomboids

  • Stand facing the anchor point of the cable machine with both hands using an overhand grip on the rope attachment.
  • Pull the rope toward your face by contracting your shoulder blades together. As the rope comes closer to your face rotate your shoulders outward while raising your forearms.
  • Hold briefly at the top of the movement.
  • Slowly return to starting position.
  • Repeat.

Tip: Use lighter weight so you can focus on form to control the weight

Additional shoulder exercises 

The lateral deltoid also is activated when doing other exercises where the focus might be on another part of the shoulder. Including different shoulder exercises into your shoulder routine will help you develop a strong upper body and prevent shoulder injuries.

Incline Y-raise

Targets: Traps Activates: Lateral deltoid 

woman on incline bench doing dumbbell y raise for shoulder workout
  • Lie chest-down on an incline bench with a 30-degree angle. 
  • Allow your arms to hang straight down with your palms facing each other.
  • Brace your core and raise your arms to a 30-degree angle in relation to your torso until they’re in line with your shoulders. 
  • Make sure to keep your arms straight the entire time. 
  • Pause, and then slowly lower your arms back to the starting position.
  • Repeat

Front raises

This is an isolation exercise that you can do seated or standing.

Targets: Anterior deltoid and upper chest. Activates: Lateral deltoid and posterior deltoid

  • Sit at the end of the bench with the dumbbells down by your side.
  • With a soft bend in your elbows, lift the dumbbells to shoulder height in front of the body. 
  • Make sure they stay shoulder-width apart and your palms facing downward. 
  • Slowly lower the dumbbells in a controlled manner.
  • Repeat

Variations: Underhand front raise, cable front raise

Overhead presses

Targets: Anterior deltoid. Activates: Lateral deltoid, anterior deltoid and biceps

  • Stand with your entire body tight and rigid. Hold a barbell just above your upper chest, hands slightly wider than shoulder width. 
  • Press the bar up til your elbows are extended.
  • Slowly lower the bar back down to the starting position.
  • Repeat.

Variations: Seated overhead press, seated dumbbell shoulder press, Smith machine overhead press, Arnold press

Barbell upright rows

Targets: Traps. Activates: Lateral deltoid and posterior deltoid

woman in all black preparing for dumbbell upright row
strength training lateral deltoid exercise
  • Grab a loaded barbell with an overhand grip, and hold the weight in front of your thighs with your palms facing your body. 
  • Keeping the weight as close to your body as possible and pull the barbell up towards your chest.
  • Your elbows should remain flared out during the movement. 
  • When the barbell is at chest level pause before lowering the bar back to the starting position.
  • Repeat

Variations: Wide grip row and narrow grip rows

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