I’ve already written an article called “The Only Dumbbell Lateral Raise Article You Need.” What more could I possible have to say about this movement? Plenty.
As I said in that article, lateral-raise variations are essential for shoulders that are strong, healthy, and pain free. Plenty of people manage one of those standards at a time, but achieving all three is far more rare, even though it should be the goal for all of us in the gym.
You can go a long way with nothing more than dumbbell raises and the supersets I offered up in my last article. But when you’re ready for a new brutal form of the same old pump, try these three variations.
Variation 1: The Six-Way Dumbbell Raise
Effective shoulder training targets multiple aspects of the deltoid from different angles and movement patterns. Take this six-way shoulder exercise as a prime example of moving through all three planes of motion (sagittal, frontal, transverse) in every single rep. But be careful, this exercise will humble you with one hell of a pump with just a few pounds in each hand. Instead of trying to talk you through the complex execution of this exercise, do yourself a favor and study the setup and technique in the video.
I first learned about this direct shoulder-training variation years ago in traditional Mountain Dog-style programming, with the single-minded focus of hypertrophy. Because of the way it maximizes the tissue stress while minimizing shoulder-joint stress, this exercise quickly became a pain-free shoulder staple in an eclectic demographic of my clientele, including professional field and court sport athletes, bodybuilders, powerlifters, and general fitness clients.
In my honest opinion, there’s not another direct shoulder-training movement out there that’s better at targeting all aspects of this complex muscle, which makes this one an absolute game-changer if you’ve never used it.
That said, proper programming of this movement is pivotal. As mentioned above, this is used as a hypertrophy and metabolic stress-based movement, not a strength exercise. In Functional Hypertrophy Training-style programming, we use this as a finisher to chest and shoulder emphasis days, when the shoulders are already primed and fatigued, and simply need one last blast before ending the training day.
Shoot for 2-5 rounds of 8-12 reps (all directions back down to starting point is one rep) for best results.
Pain-free shoulders that perform and look great are not a given, they have to be earned. And this movement, multiple times a week, will get you closer to earning pain-free physical autonomy with your shoulders.
Variation 2: Stabilize With the Single-Arm Cable Lateral Raise
The idea that the only way an athlete can achieve big, strong, and functional shoulders is by overhead pressing the barbell is just plain wrong. Sure, if you have the capacity to overhead press with pristine pain-free movement, have at it. This movement pattern is at the apex of overhead pressing functionality—which is not to be mistaken as the best way to build that functionality. For the other 90 percent out there who struggle with this lift, there are absolutely smarter and safer ways to build strong and resilient shoulders.
Multidirectional lateral-raise variations, like the ones showcased above, are staples in my pain-free hypertrophy programming for a reason: they produce results while keeping my athletes healthy. From traditional side lateral raises to bent-over rear delt raises, hitting the delts from different angles is hugely effective.
But yet there are still athletes out there who struggle to feel a mind-muscle connection when using dumbbells for lateral raises, even with the modifications and fixes I explained in “The Only Dumbbell Lateral Raise Article You Need.”
One way that I’ve helped fixed this with athletes in the past is by implementing lateral raise variations using cables instead of free weights. The cable offers more constant tension through the entire range of motion, making it advantageous for achieving higher degrees of muscular activation in the hypertrophy rep ranges.
In order to maximize stability, check out this setup on the cable tower with the single-arm cable lateral raise, with the opposite hand driving into the tower to maximize tension and stability through the non-working side.
Get your body in an athletic stance with tension through the hips, core, and shoulder synergistically. Drive the opposite hand into the rack and contract the pecs and lats hard to maintain this position. This will kick on key stabilizers in the core and upper back.
This variation is a surefire way to limit compensations and the momentum that is commonly used in lateral raise variations, and will help activate the delts more authentically, which is exactly what we want.
Train the muscles and spare the joints: that’s my motto. Multiple sets of 8-12 quality reps will do just that.
Variation 3: Band-Resisted Dumbbell Lateral Raises
Last, but not least on this list of lateral-raise fixes is the banded dumbbell lateral raise. The simple addition of a band to the dumbbell lateral raise makes it a powerful movement for activating the delts and creating a passive pain-free pump.
Using an extra-light band with handles on each end, get the band set up with even length and tension from left to right. Determine the midline of the band on the floor and step on it evenly with both feet. Once the band is stabilized under the feet, place the handles in each hand, then add lighter dumbbells to each hand. This means that you’ll be holding the band handle and dumbbell handle simultaneously.
Ensure that you create full-body tension with a slight hinged-over hip position, glutes firing, core strong, and shoulders pre-activated at the pecs and lats. From the starting position, explode the weights up against the band to around parallel with the ground and flex the top of the movement hard to peak each contraction.
The mechanism that makes this such an awesome variation is pretty simple: the bands overload the top of the range of motion, while deloading the bottom. That puts the most where we want it, and the least at the point where the rotator cuff is usually the limiting factor of initiating the raise.
Bands also allow you to drive up into the weight with more explosive action, since the bands naturally decelerate the movement. This allows you to actively engage the delts in an extended range of motion.
If you are new to banded dumbbell lateral raises, these will quickly light up your shoulders, so load intelligently. Shoot for multiple sets of 8-12 quality reps to build bulletproof shoulders. Keep those dumbbells light—don’t be afraid to even pick up some pink ones for this movement.