Last updated on March 4th, 2023 at 09:38 am
The primary reason to perform lateral raises is to stimulate the lateral deltoid.
However, I know that I and many other trainees often feel lateral raises in the traps.
Here’s why this happens and how you can fix it.
The main reason you feel lateral raises in your traps is because you’re using too much weight. You will typically shrug your shoulders when trying to raise a heavy weight, which will automatically activate the traps. Lateral raises are best performed with a lighter weight and higher reps.
You’re Going Too Heavy on Lateral Raises
There’s no two ways about it, the vast majority of people go too heavy when doing lateral raises.
Unfortunately, this will impact on form, as well as which muscles are being worked.
When you’re trying to raise a heavier weight you’ll find that you will shrug to get the weight up.
You’ll probably do this unconsciously, but it does happen.
So, by performing a “shrug” you’re bringing the traps into the equation.
In fact, it is the “unconscious shrug” for feeling other exercises in your traps, such as when you perform rows.
It’s time to put your ego on hold and reduce the weight considerably.
I have always preferred to do lateral raises with a lighter weight and higher reps.
This also means that I can do lateral raises far more often without it impacting on my recovery.
I have even seen a 200+ pound monster in the gym doing lateral raises with 8kg dumbbells (17.6lbs).
And this is someone who deadlifts over 200kg (440lbs).
So, if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for the rest of us.
Your Arms Aren’t Coming Out to the Side (Lateral)
I watched plenty of videos (and in live action) of people performing lateral raises.
More often not, I see the dumbbells being raised slightly in front of the body.
In fact, I’ve even been guilty of doing this myself.
That being said, I have also seen coaches teaching that this is the correct way to do lateral raises.
However, I always remind myself of the meaning of the word.
“Lateral” basically means to, from, at, or towards the side.
Simple put, sideways.
So, for me, lateral raises should always go to the sides in perfect line with the body.
Once you start bringing the weights out in front of you different muscles will be activated, i.e. the traps.
Try Leaning Forward or Use a Staggered Stance
Most of us will perform lateral raises with our feet in line with each other and shoulder-width apart.
There’s nothing wrong with this, and this is how the lateral raise is typically taught and coached.
However, if you’re finding a little too much trap involvement it could be time for you to alter your technique.
I have found that having a staggered stance, one foot further ahead of the other seems to do wonders.
You can also try leaning forward a little, perhaps have the torso at a 30 degree angle.
You should still keep your chest up, so don’t allow your back to round.
I find that this technique provides a lot more balance and is ideal for ensuring my arms go out to the side (laterally).
You’re Raising The Dumbbells Too High
This is actually the opposite to when you’re using too much weight.
When using a lot of weight for lateral raises you probably won’t get the weights high enough and the majority of the movement is helped with a shrug.
However, if you’re using a weight that is “just right” or perhaps even a little on the light side, you may find that you’re raising the dumbbells too high.
For me, I like to take the dumbbells straight out to the side and up to shoulder height.
This ensures that it is just my deltoids that are being targeted.
As soon as the weight goes higher than shoulder height you’re no longer using the delts and the traps take over.
In fact, you are potentially shrugging again in order to get the dumbbells higher.
So, just ensure that you get the dumbbells in line with your shoulders before lowering them back down.
Flare Out Your Lats
I can honestly say that flaring out the lats is one of the best things I ever did to improve my lateral delt activation with lateral raises.
You can practice flaring the lats without weights first by mimicking a great bodybuilding pose.
Take your arms out to the sides, make a fist with both hands, and then bring your fists towards your hips in a circular motion.
This will typically puff out the chest and cause the lats to flare.
Okay, you’re obviously not going to be doing this type of “posing” while performing lateral raises.
However, this should give you an idea of what it feels like to have the lats flare out.
By using this technique you actually bring the mind-muscle connection into the equation, but in a different kind of way.
Rather than concentrating on your delts, your mind is focused on spreading your lats.
But, you’ll find that this technique, along with everything you’ve read so far, will really help to target that lateral delts.
Try One Arm at a Time
Something I like to do with lateral raises is practice and hone my technique one arm at a time.
Take a really light dumbbell, I’m talking about 2kg (5lb).
Stand in front of a mirror and place your non-working hand on the working shoulder.
Now simply raise the dumbbell focusing on bringing it perfectly out to the side.
Ensure that flare your lats and only bring the dumbbell to shoulder height.
Then lower the weight back down to your side.
You should be able to feel the various delt muscles working in perfect harmony while doing.
This will obviously help to understand the target muscles.
Performing single-arm dumbbell raise is actually all the rage.
You’ll often see people holding onto something, leaning slightly to the working side, and then raising and lowering the dumbbell.
Another extremely popular single-arm method is the cable lateral raise.
By taking one side out of the equation you can really focus on the working shoulder, thus ensuring you’re doing the movement with perfect form.
Bring The Dumbbells Down Behind You
Now this will require you to decrease the weight by a fair amount, but it definitely works.
Once again, this may not be “standard” protocol when it comes to lateral raises.
However, by bringing the dumbbells down behind you there is a far greater focus on shoulder activation and stimulation.
I’m not entirely sure why this works so well, but I’m sure there’s some profound physiological explanation for it.
As I say, you will need to reduce the weight considerably, but you’ll notice that the delts get a massive pump from doing raises this way.
If you use dumbbells that are too heavy for this technique there is a tendency to use momentum and body English.
So, once again, leave your ego in check, grab a pair of really light dumbbells and focus on a slow, controlled movement and higher reps.
Your shoulders will thank you for it.
Key Learning Points
- If you use too much weight with lateral raises your traps tend to take over.
- Lateral raises are better performed with lighter loads and higher reps.
- Ensure the dumbells come out to the sides (laterally), as opposed to slightly in front of you.
- Try a staggered stance and leaning your torso forward at approximately 30 degrees to better isolate your delts.
- Ensure you’re not raising the dumbbells too high.
- Flaring out your lats, raising one arm at a time, and bringing the dumbbells down behind you are all viable options to isolate your delts to greater effect.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.