As someone who’s lifted weights for years, the lateral shoulder raise has been a part of many of my upper-body workouts…kind of. It’s a basic, staple shoulder exercise, and I knew I should be doing it, but oftentimes it didn’t feel quite right—so I’d end up skipping.
Here’s what’s going on: When many people think about doing a lateral shoulder raise, they think about bringing the weights up. “When you have the intention of lifting upward, that’s going to involve your traps a lot more,” Boyce, a strength coach based in Toronto, tells SELF.
That’s what I’d been experiencing during lateral raises. I’d been feeling the lateral raises in my upper trapezius, the muscles that cover your upper back, extending to your neck and shoulder. Your upper traps tend to get a lot of work when you strength train, which can leave them feeling tight and uncomfortable, as SELF previously reported. I’d often feel this a day or so after my upper-body workouts that included lateral raises—and my actual shoulder muscles, or my deltoids, would feel like they didn’t do much work at all.
But Boyce suggested a ridiculously easy tweak: Rather than thinking about bringing the weights up, think about bringing them as far away from each other as possible. The force should be moving the weights laterally to each side, not up toward your shoulders. This takes the work into the medial head of your deltoid, or the middle part of your shoulder muscle, he says. (And that’s the muscle you should be primarily working with lateral shoulder raises.)
The first time I tried this, I was humbled. The weight I had been using when I was bringing my traps into the mix was now much too heavy. So I swapped out my 10-pound dumbbells with 5-pounders and really focused on bringing them as far apart from each other as I could with each rep. The result was a serious burn concentrated right smack in my shoulders—with nary a twinge in my traps.
I was finally working the muscles I wanted to be working, which was enough of a win for me, but Boyce mentioned one more benefit of this simple mindset tweak: It sets your shoulders up for a safer lift, reducing the risk of impingement (a cause of shoulder pain caused by pinching of tendons). If your upper traps come into play, they can end up elevating your shoulders, which reduces the amount of space you have underneath your acromion process, or where your collarbone meets your shoulder blade.
“And when there is not a lot of space there, you can start pinching on tendons, muscles, and bursae—all those kinds of structures under there—because of the limited space you’ve got when you’re doing that lateral movement,” Boyce says. With his recommended tweak, though, you’re not elevating your shoulders with your traps, so you have a little more space to work with, he says.
How should you use lateral shoulder raises in your routine?
If you’re looking to build strength in your shoulders, you need to focus on moves that work your entire shoulder—not just overhead pressing work, says Boyce.
“Your shoulder joint has 360 degrees of motion, and abduction movement, which is what your arms do in a lateral raise, is part of the function of the shoulders,” Boyce says. “So we’re going to stimulate the deltoids a whole lot by doing that pattern with load.”