With 16 years in the trenches and having coached hundreds of clients, I’m not shy to admit that the dumbbell lateral raise is my favorite exercise.
Although relatively simple, the lateral raise is one of the most abused exercises in the gym. Not a day goes by when I don’t see people performing the lateral raise with an incorrect form.
Swinging back and forth while performing this exercise removes tension from the target muscle. The bigger problem with using so much momentum is that it can strain your shoulder rotator cuffs and significantly increase injury risk.
In this article, I’ll take you through 10 dumbbell lateral raise alternatives to help you build round and capped deltoids.
10 Best Lateral Raise Alternatives
Alternate between these exercises to add variety to your workouts and avoid plateau:
No shoulder guide can be deemed complete without a mention of the Arnold press. This exercise targets all the deltoid heads — anterior, medial, and posterior. I have my clients do this exercise at the beginning of their workouts before the onset of fatigue.
- Sit upright on a utility bench with your knees bent at 90 degrees and feet placed flat on the floor.
- Hold a pair of dumbbells at shoulder level with your palms toward you.
- As you raise the dumbbells overhead, rotate your wrists internally so they face the wall in front of you at the top of the range of motion.
- Stop shy of locking out your elbows at the top.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells to the starting position.
- Repeat for recommended reps.
Pro Tip: I feel the best lateral delt head recruitment on this exercise using a slow eccentric rep tempo. I recommend spending at least three seconds on the lowering phase to achieve a muscle-ripping pump.
Resistance Band Lateral Raise
Resistance bands are an incredibly potent tool for performing lateral raises as they limit the use of momentum. Plus, you must fight the band’s pull on the eccentrics for an optimal pump. This lateral raise alternative increases the time under tension and promotes hypertrophy. (1)
Since this exercise involves resistance bands, most people I train jump to the heaviest bands from the beginning. It is when they can’t control the movement that they look at me for answers. The moral of the story — keep your egos in check, ladies and gents.
Remember, the point of this exercise is not to get through the recommended reps as quickly as possible. You must load the deltoids to maximize muscle stimulation.
- Grab the ends of a resistance band with an overhand grip.
- Place the center of the resistance band on the floor and stand on it with a shoulder-wide stance.
- Lift your arms slightly to the side so the band is taut at the starting position.
- While maintaining a slight elbow flexion, raise your arms to the slides until they are parallel to the floor.
- Pause at the isometric contraction point at the top.
- Slowly lower to the starting position.
Pro Tip: Avoid letting your arms crash to the bottom from the top. You must remain in total control throughout.
Machine Side Lateral Raise
The machine side lateral raise is a staple in my shoulder training routine as it completely eliminates the use of momentum and ensures the target muscles are moving the weights.
Maintain an upright torso while performing this exercise. Leaning forward can transfer the tension from the medial to the posterior deltoids.
- Adjust the pads of the machine so they are just above your elbows.
- Place your chest flat against the machine’s pad.
- While restricting the movement to the shoulder joint, raise your elbows until your upper arms are parallel to the floor.
- Pause and contract your delts at the top of the ROM.
- Rinse and repeat.
Pro Tip: If your gym has a standing lateral raise machine, I recommend standing as close to the weight stack as possible. This minimizes the potential of using momentum.
Next Read: The ultimate guide to machine lateral raise!
Cable Lateral Raise
Unlike dumbbells and barbells, cables and machines maintain constant tension on the target muscle throughout the range of motion, which can help promote hypertrophy.
This is also an excellent lateral raise alternative if you don’t have a dedicated lateral raise machine at your gym.
- Connect a D-handle to the cable pulley and adjust it to the lowest setting.
- Stand with your side toward the pulley.
- Grab the handle with the hand farther from the pulley with an overhand grip. Hold onto the pulley with the closer hand for better stability.
- Engage your core and glutes and raise the handle until it is at shoulder height.
- Hold the isometric contraction for one second.
- Return to the start position with a slow and controlled motion.
- The weight should not touch the stack at the bottom. This ensures constant tension on the target muscles.
Pro Tip: I love performing the cable raise while leaning to one side, as it limits momentum and better isolates the lateral deltoids.
Plate Lateral Raise
Most people must limit themselves to the 25-pound weight plates while performing plate raises. This limits the possibility of using momentum and improves shoulder activation.
I recommend picking the 10-pound weight plates to drill the movement mechanics before moving to heavier weights.
- Insert your middle, ring, and index finger through a weight plate’s center hole and grip the plate on the other side.
- Stand upright with your arms at your sides.
- Maintaining a slight elbow flexion, raise your arms until they are perpendicular to your torso.
- Rotate your palms externally at the top for a deeper medial deltoid stretch.
- Lower and repeat.
Pro Tip: I have seen people hold the weight plates at the grip handles and complain of wrist strain after performing a single set. Holding the plate at the centers ensures equal weight distribution and alleviates wrist strain.
Lateral Raise Hold
Contrary to what most people believe, you don’t always need to be moving to train your muscles. Isometric exercises are incredibly potent at developing strength and promoting hypertrophy. (2)
The lateral raise hold combines isometric and isotonic training. It involves lifting the weights to a position where your shoulders are flexed and then holding the position for as long as possible. I recommend holding the peak contraction for at least 5 seconds for the best results.
- Stand upright while maintaining your spine’s natural curvature.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand with a neutral grip (palms facing each other) and place them at your sides.
- While maintaining a slight elbow flexion, raise the dumbbells until your arms are parallel to the floor.
- Hold this position for as long as possible (5 seconds at least).
- Slowly return to the starting position.
- Repeat for recommended reps.
Pro Tip: To achieve a muscle-ripping pump, superset this exercise with resistance band lateral raise holds. Pausing at the top with a resistance band can be more challenging than holding the position with dumbbells.
Kettlebell Lateral Raise
Since the weight of a kettlebell is under the handle, it has completely different dynamics compared to a dumbbell, which places the weights in line with your hands.
Using kettlebells for lateral raises leads to a greater downward pull on concentrics. Most people can’t go as heavy on this exercise as while using dumbbells.
I have my clients wear wrist wraps while going heavy on this exercise. Remember, wrists are delicate joints, and you don’t want to put them under more stress than they are ready for.
- Stand upright while holding a kettlebell in each hand at your sides.
- Brace your core and raise your arms to your sides until they are perpendicular to your torso.
- Squeeze the life out of your delts at the top of the ROM.
- Return to the start position using a slow and controlled motion.
Pro Tip: Increase the difficulty of this exercise by performing it while standing with one side next to a wall. It reduces the chances of using momentum, leading to greater deltoid recruitment.
Landmine Lateral Raise
When I started training, I discounted the effectiveness of barbells for lateral raise exercises. This was until I discovered the landmine lateral raise. In my experience, you must grab onto the bar’s sleeve real tight while performing this exercise.
Not only does this lead to an intense shoulder pump, but it also fires up your entire arm. Expect a nasty forearm and bicep pump in addition to a delt pump while performing this lift.
- Place one end of an Olympic barbell in a landmine position.
- Ensure the landmine end is secure and won’t move during a heavy set.
- Load an appropriate weight onto the bar’s other end.
- Grab the end of the bar’s loaded sleeve with an overhand grip.
- Stand upright with a hip-width stance so your hands are at the side of your thigh.
- Brace your core and raise your arm to your side.
- Pause and contract your shoulder at the top.
- Repeat for recommended reps before switching sides.
Pro Tip: I highly recommend using a landmine attachment for this exercise. Conversely, you could position one end of the bar in a corner and place a weight plate on top of it. If the barbell slips mid-set, it can throw you off balance, increasing your risk of injury.
Why is this exercise called the Y raise, you ask? That’s because your upper body will resemble a “Y” at the isometric contraction point.
The Y raise is an incredibly effective lateral raise alternative for working the medial and anterior deltoids. Perform this lift on an incline bench set at 45 degrees for the best results. Ensure that you don’t bend your elbows too much for optimal medial delt engagement.
- Set an incline bench at 45 degrees.
- Lie supine on the bench while holding a dumbbell in each hand.
- Your arms should be perpendicular to the floor at the starting position.
- Lift your arms overhead while maintaining your spine’s natural curvature, forming a Y.
- Position your left arm to point towards 11 o’clock and your right towards 1 o’clock.
- Pause at the isometric contraction at the top.
- Return to the starting position.
Pro Tip: If you are like most people, you cannot lift as heavy on this exercise as the conventional dumbbell lateral raise. Pick an appropriate weight to avoid straining your shoulder rotator cuffs.
Barbell Upright Row
Although the barbell upright row primarily trains the traps, the line of pull of this exercise also loads the medial deltoids.
There is much more to this exercise than meets the eye. Many people have approached me, sharing their experiences of shoulder impingement from performing upright rows.
You must master the movement mechanics of this exercise before lifting heavy to develop your traps, medial, and posterior deltoids without risking injury.
- Stand upright with a hip-width stance.
- Grab a barbell with a shoulder-wide overhand grip.
- While staying upright, lift the barbell to your nipple level while driving your elbows toward the ceiling.
- Stop the concentric movement when your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Going any higher than this increases the risk of shoulder impingement.
- Squeeze your shoulders at the isometric contraction point.
- Rinse and repeat.
Pro Tip: I recommend beginners avoid dumbbell upright rows as they demand more stability, control, and balance. Once you’ve drilled the upright rows using a barbell, you can progress to using dumbbells.
The medial deltoids are a relatively small muscle group, which makes them even more challenging to develop. Add all the lateral raise alternatives listed in this article to your exercise arsenal to build round and capped deltoids and ensure you’re training this small but stubborn muscle group from all angles.
If you have any questions about training the lateral deltoid head or need more exercise suggestions, drop them in the comments below, and I’ll be happy to help!
- Watanabe, Y., Madarame, H., Ogasawara, R., Nakazato, K., & Ishii, N. (2014). Effect of very low-intensity resistance training with slow movement on muscle size and strength in healthy older adults. Clinical physiology and functional imaging, 34(6), 463–470. https://doi.org/10.1111/cpf.12117
- Oranchuk, D. J., Storey, A. G., Nelson, A. R., & Cronin, J. B. (2019). Isometric training and long-term adaptations: Effects of muscle length, intensity, and intent: A systematic review. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 29(4), 484–503. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.13375
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February 8, 2024
Fact Checked By
Tom Miller, CSCS