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What Muscles Do Dumbbell Lateral Raises Work?

author image Lisa Mercer
In 1999, Lisa Mercer’s fitness, travel and skiing expertise inspired a writing career. Her books include "Open Your Heart with Winter Fitness" and "101 Women's Fitness Tips." Her articles have appeared in "Aspen Magazine," "HerSports," "32 Degrees," "Pregnancy Magazine" and "Wired." Mercer has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the City College of New York.
What Muscles Do Dumbbell Lateral Raises Work?
Make sure not to lift your shoulders up to your ears. Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/lunamarina

The dumbbell lateral raise enhances your physique's appearance by creating size contrasts between your shoulders, waist and hips. Building your shoulders creates an aesthetic effect similar to wearing shoulder pads on a blouse or jacket.

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By making your shoulders appear wider, your waist and hips appear slimmer. The dumbbell lateral raise also works the muscles that support and stabilize your shoulders.

Read more: Free Weight Shoulder Exercises

Prime Mover

A prime mover performs the main muscle action involved in an exercise. During a dumbbell lateral raise, the lateral deltoids, located on the side of the shoulder, work as prime movers. The lateral deltoid abducts, or moves the arm away from the center of your body.

Several training errors diminish lateral deltoid efficiency during the dumbbell lateral exercise. When the elbows drop below the wrists, for example, the anterior deltoids become the prime movers, thereby diminishing the exercise's benefits. Some people use momentum to bring the dumbbells to shoulder height. The spine becomes the prime mover in this situation.


Synergistic muscle groups assist the prime mover in performing the exercise. The anterior deltoid, the supraspinatus and the trapezius muscles assist the lateral deltoids during the dumbbell lateral raise. The anterior deltoids sit at the front of your shoulders. The supraspinatus, located in the rear deltoid, initiates the abduction movement.

Your trapezius, responsible for shoulder elevation, forms a triangle from the neck to the base of your shoulders. If you feel the lateral raise exercise in your neck, you may be using too much weight, which causes the trapezius to take over the movement.


Stabilizers play an important role in all types of weightlifting exercises. They take responsibility for keeping the joints surrounding the working muscle groups in a stable position. Stabilizers also prevent the action of nearby muscles, which may attempt to overcompensate for the prime movers.

The wrist extensors, for example, keep the wrists straight during the dumbbell lateral raise, and the levator scapulae, which start at the top of your shoulders and extend up the sides of your neck, stabilize your shoulder blades.

Read more: The Best Dumbbell Exercises for the Shoulder

Rear Lateral Raise

The rear lateral dumbbell raise works the back of the shoulders. Its performance method resembles the technique used in the upright lateral raise, with one main difference. Instead of standing or sitting upright, bend forward at the waist, and lift your arms to the side from a flat back position.

The rear deltoid lateral raise also works the rhomboids, responsible for pulling the shoulder blades toward each other and improving posture. Personal trainers often prescribe this exercise to clients with muscle imbalances between their chest and upper back muscles.

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