Shoulder exercises are crucial to any well-planned weight training routine; and yet, surprisingly, lateral raises, or more specifically, its technique has been an overlooked element in the execution of the exercise. I am certain that once you have read this you too will understand why I put so much emphasis on shoulder training technique.
Good shoulder development is one of the most striking features to one’s physique. I preach this over and over to my clients and fellow bodybuilders and lifters; because, not only is proper shoulder development essential for good posture, but it resonates strength, and also makes your waist look smaller, giving one that desirable V- shape and hey, let’s face it, we all want that; right! Haven’t you ever noticed when someone looks at you, their eyes automatically drop to your shoulders – especially when they are well developed. I don’t know about you, but I sure do enjoy a visual kudo once in a while for all my hard work in the gym!
Bodybuilding aficionados worldwide describe one’s ideal physique as an “X”, meaning you have to have good shoulders and good calves to create good balance in your overall physique development. Case in point, think of some of our professional sports athletes such as the NBA’s, Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic) or Maria Sharapova (one of the world’s top tennis players), they both have great delts (and calves), giving them that overall balanced physique; and this in itself makes them look even more athletic on their perspective courts.
In order to help you achieve the ideal “X” physique, let’s revisit a few shoulder basics. When it comes to shoulder weight training exercises there are two fundamental types we rely on: the shoulder press and lateral raises. Shoulder press exercises develop more strength while lateral raises develop the shape or detail – you know; that amazing v-cut between your delts and biceps! For the hardcore lifter, lateral raises are a means of ‘widening’ his shoulders (there is some truth to this).
For the purpose of this article, I want to zero in on the different types of lateral raise shoulder exercise(s) and the bio-mechanics that make up these exercises. The ages old issue of lateral raises and its’ technique has caused a great deal of confusion between the physical therapists, coaches/trainers and those of us who feel we must train our delts to perfection. For years, fitness experts have put range of motion limitations that, in the long run, shortchange us by limiting the success and ability to build the shoulder muscle to maximum capacity. Text book instruction has taught us not to raise our dumbbells over 90 degrees of shoulder abduction while performing either the lateral raise exercise or the side lateral raise. This simply means, once your arm is raised out away from your body and parallel to the floor. If you raise your arm any higher you could pinch (impingement) the shoulder and cause injury. This is Baloney! Secondly, they claim the shoulder muscles are no longer being used beyond the parallel position! Baloney again! As with some “experts”; in exercise technique, they look at bio-mechanics one dimensionally or rather to a limitation.
For a moment, let’s look at the anatomical analysis of the shoulder function. The shoulders abduct (move away) away from the body to 90 degrees (parallel to the floor position) with no other muscle involvement. True function of the shoulder without any assistance; however, if the arm is raised any higher toward your head the scapula (shoulder blade) becomes involved- this is a key principle in body mechanics. Once this happens, the shoulder is no longer in the impingement zone; hence, no risk of injury. Again, when the shoulder moves away from the body beyond the parallel position, i.e. performing a lateral shoulder exercise; as long as your shoulder blade is function properly, the scapula will sync with the shoulder allowing the shoulder action to perform in a more proficient manner.
“Why would i want to raise my dumbbell lateral exercise further than 90 degrees?” Good question. Some claim that raising the arm above 90 degrees is not necessary because beyond that, the deltoids are no longer activated. False, False, False! EMG studies (study of muscle activation) reported by Basmajian (Basmajian, J.V., muscles alive, 4th Ed., 1979, p.p.189-212), have proven that the deltoid muscles are more active when the arms are above shoulder level! Secondly, you will find there is a mechanical advantage to the deltoid muscles being above this level position – they are in their strongest position!
Therefore, it is more beneficial to perform lateral raise exercises beyond the ‘normal’ range of 90 degrees (arms parallel to the floor) because you can increase the stimulation of deltoid muscle work all the way up to 180 degrees (over your head). The delts are stronger from 90 degrees and higher. So what does this say about your shoulder development? You will achieve better development in the shoulders at beyond 90 degree ranges!
Trainer Tip #1 – When performing a lateral raise exercise with an increased range of motion of more than 90 degrees; make certain you position your hands in the ‘neutral’ position (hand shake position). By making this simple adjustment; you further reduce the risk of shoulder impingement. This will also aid in the activation of the front muscles of the shoulder (anterior deltoids) making the exercise more effective.
Trainer Tip #2 – When performing what I call the “standard or common” lateral raise with arms out to the sides at a 90 degree angle parallel to the body; the key is to keep a slight bend in the elbow even though your arm is extended. This allows more leverage from the arm and more axis rotation from the scapula. I intuitively created this technique some years back as a result of my own journey through this issue. During one of my seminars, I shared these techniques with other trainers and they later confided to me that they were impressed with my level of detail to such a “low skill exercise”.
As a committed lifter you will notice you have to use less weight while performing the lateral exercise. This is okay because the first principle of bio-mechanics is that range of motion has a greater effect on muscle development than the actual weight itself. To this day, I only use 20-35lb dumbbells to perform lateral exercises.
In conclusion, when performing lateral exercises do not limit the potential of the exercise. Practice raising the dumbbells above the parallel to shoulder position going higher up towards your head. Believe me when I tell you that other lifters will wonder why you are doing this. If they observe closely they will notice that your deltoid muscles are still working and flexing the more you raise your arms! To achieve optimal deltoid development and have those massive shoulders, this is most definitely the key in the lateral raise exercises!
Ramsey Rodriguez, NSCA, CSCS, CISSN
Kimberley Vega – Fitness Editor