This Dynamic Duo of Dumbbell Exercises Targets Your Shoulders

What forms the foundation for the strength that Superman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk all use to fight evil? Strong shoulders. Plus, well-developed delts are also the key behind their superhero silhouette.

Both lateral and forward raises are needed in your routine.
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Two of the main exercises to help you get those strong shoulders are the lateral and forward raise. While you may be under the impression that one is better than the other for building better delts, they're actually both part of a well-developed shoulder routine, says Jereme Schumacher, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in San Diego, California.

While neither deserves priority over the other, proper form and optimal weight for the lateral and front raise differs. To maximize your gains (superheroes don't have time to waste), consider the more nuanced differences between the lateral and front raise.

What Makes Lateral Raises So Effective

Lateral raises are a common shoulder isolation exercise that targets the deltoids. Your shoulders actually have three parts (or heads): your front, middle and rear deltoid. Lateral raises mainly target your middle delt, Schumacher says.

While lateral raises are generally easier to perform than forward raises (read more on that below), keeping good form is essential to reaping the most benefit.

How to Do a Lateral Raise

Lateral raises are an important part of your shoulder routine.
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  1. Stand with a slight bend in the knees, core engaged.
  2. A dumbbell in each hand, let your arms hang extended at your sides with a slight bend in your elbow, palms facing toward you.
  3. Raise your arms out to the side of your body to about shoulder level, keeping your elbows slightly bent throughout the movement.
  4. With control, lower the weights back down to the starting position.

Tips for Performing Lateral Raises

For lateral raise, a common miscue is to 'turn your thumbs down' or 'pour the pitcher of water,' says Matt Cheng, CSCS. But this adjustment can cause shoulder issues over time. "A better way to engage the [middle] deltoid without causing pain over time is to lean forward and keep palms facing the floor while performing the movement."

And you'll want to keep a slight bend in your elbows throughout the motion. This decreases the stress on the shoulder joint, Schumacher says. "I you were to straighten your arm while you do lateral raises, you increase the length of the lever (your arm), which creates significantly more stress on the focal point, which is your shoulder."

Keeping a slight bend also limits the amount of triceps activation, which happens when you straighten your arm. "One main cue when performing lateral raises is to lead with your elbows," Schumacher says. "This will ensure you are actually moving at your shoulder joint and targeting the appropriate muscles."

Avoid These Lateral Raise Mistakes

As you fatigue or if you choose a weight that's too heavy, the tendency is to use other muscles to help you lift the weight — and you don't want that! "A common compensation we see when using higher weight is shrugging your shoulders when raising your arms," Schumacher says. "[That's] increased recruitment of your upper trapezius muscle [aka traps]."

Similarly, you may find yourself bouncing your legs slightly to assist with the lateral (or forward) raise, which takes the work out of your shoulders. If you catch yourself cheating, perform the exercise in a seated position to isolate the shoulder. This will make the move more difficult but will also target the correct muscle.

Tip

For both lateral and forward raises, select a light set of dumbbells (think 2.5 to 5 pounds) to develop the proper movement pattern. Then, as you grow stronger and more comfortable with the exercise, gradually increase your the weight.

Why You Also Need Forward Raises

As mentioned above, forward raises generally require more stability to perform with proper form, Schumacher says. For this reason, forward raises can feel like a more challenging shoulder exercise.

They also recruit more muscles along your ribs as you lift the weights out in front of your body, Schumacher says. These muscles are often overlooked in standard workout programs, which is why you'll want to use a lighter weight in comparison to lateral raises.

Unlike with a lateral raise, your arms stay straight throughout this movement, placing greater stress on the shoulder blade. To stay safe, select a weight that's at least five pounds smaller than your lateral raise dumbbells, Cheng says. Or if you're seated, you may need an even lighter set.

"A common mistake people make is selecting a weight that is too heavy," Cheng says. "When selecting a weight, keep in mind how it effects your posture throughout the movement. If you're unable to keep good form throughout then the weight is too heavy for the isolation exercise."

How to Do a Forward Raise

Forward raises and lateral raises have a lot of similarities but are also very different.
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  1. Stand with a slight bend in your knee, core engaged.
  2. Let your arms hang in front of your body, holding a lighter pair of dumbbells, palms facing you.
  3. Keeping your arms straight, raise the arms in front of you to about eye level, palms facing each other.
  4. With control, lower the weights back down to the starting position.

3 Ways to Incorporate Raises Into Your Shoulder Workout

1. Traditional Reps and Sets: The simplest way to do these as part of a workout is to pick a number of sets and rep range you're comfortable with and that helps get you to your goals. According to the American Council on Exercise:

  • Beginners can start off with sets of 8 to 15 reps at a lower weight for general fitness.
  • For muscle gains, aim for sets of 6 to 12.
  • And to build strength, go for sets of about 6 reps.

2. Supersets: One of the most effective ways to pair these two exercises is by supersetting them. Essentially, you'll do both back-to-back without a break. For example, you could do 10 lateral raises followed by 10 forward raises (dropping to a lower weight in between if needed). This burns out your muscle and leads to greater gains over time.

3. Combine Them: Another option is to combine both moves into a single move. Start with both dumbbells down by your side, then raise one out to the front and one out to the side. Lower back down, then switch which one goes forward and which one goes to the side.

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