Lateral Raises (Why They Aren’t Enough for Rear Delts)

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A left side view of a pale man performing dumbbell lateral raises.

When I think of lateral raises, I envision them being performed upright with the torso vertical. This primarily works the side delts as the arms raise out to the sides in the frontal plane.

Lateral raises do not stimulate the rear delts enough to spark muscle growth. This exercise moves the arms through vertical abduction, which is not a function of the rear deltoid.

However, the bent-over lateral raise places the torso horizontally with the floor and raises the arms laterally using horizontal abduction.

This shoulder movement is a prime function of the rear delts.

Read on to see how you can better target them by utilizing this simple form adjustment.

Limitations of Regular Lateral Raises for Rear Delts

No matter how many reps and sets you spam on regular lateral raises, your rear deltoids won’t develop to a significant degree.

Here’s a list comparing the movement pattern/anatomical motions of the lateral raises with the functions that primarily activate the rear delts.

Lateral raise movement pattern:

  • Frontal plane
  • Vertical abduction
    • Primary muscle used: Lateral (side) deltoid

Rear delt movement functions:

  • Horizontal (transverse) abduction
  • External shoulder rotation
  • Shoulder extension

As you can see from the lists, there aren’t any matching anatomical motions that would make the lateral raise worthwhile for rear delt training.

However, you could perform the lateral raise using an underhand grip (palms facing the ceiling) to emphasize external rotation.

This may contract the rear delts slightly more, but it would be very awkward and difficult to overload.

Instead, you can bend your torso parallel to the ground while raising your arms laterally, which will train horizontal abduction.

The motion will be much safer on the rotator cuffs and more comfortable than solely relying on extra external rotation.

Do Bent-Over Lateral Raises for Rear Delts

Just like the regular version, bent-over lateral raises can be performed using dumbbells or a low-pulley cable machine.

Dumbbells may be a more convenient option, however, cables will provide a more constant tension on the rear delts.

You can either start standing upright or sitting on a weight bench.

From there you’ll:

  • Hinge through your hips to lean your torso parallel to the ground.
  • Grab the weight handles using a neutral grip (palms facing each other) with your pinkies against the inner portion.
  • Hang your arms underneath your chest, maintaining a slight elbow bend.
  • Swing the dumbbells out and up to the sides of your chest.
  • Squeeze for 1 second at the top.
  • Lower under control before repeating another rep.

Form Tips

Hand placement: A neutral grip utilizes a slight external rotation for more rear delt tension. However, you may find that an overhand grip allows you to activate them better.

Shoulder blades: Allow your shoulder blades to protract toward the floor when your arms are hanging under your chest for a better mind-muscle connection.

Line of pull: Pull the weights directly out and up using an arcing motion to maximize horizontal abduction.

Common Mistakes

  • Lifting the dumbbells toward the hips rather than out to the sides:
    • This uses less horizontal abduction, which shifts tension from the rear delts onto the upper back muscles.
  • Squeezing the shoulder blades at the top:
    • This retracts the scapula, emphasizing the traps and rhomboids.
    • Make sure to arc the dumbbells out and up rather than straight up and stop when your lower arms are parallel to the floor.
  • Letting the dumbbells touch at the bottom:
    • Tension on the rear delts will be reduced even more at the bottom if you clang them together.
    • Leave a few inches of space between the dumbbells when stopping at the bottom of each rep.

When to Use Bent-Over Lateral Raises for Rear Delts

I’ve always had trouble feeling my rear delts engaging with compound movements.

That led me to start doing “feeler” exercises with bent-over lateral raises as one of my go-to’s.

Basically what this means is I do them at the beginning of my shoulder workouts to pre-exhaust the rear delts.

This makes it so much easier to activate them during heavier exercises like Arnold presses.

So, if you have underdeveloped rear delts or have trouble engaging them, try doing 3-4 quick high rep sets of bent-over lateral raises before any other exercise.

Alternatively, you can place them at the end of your workout to absolutely decimate the rear delts.

Still utilize high-reps, but tone it down to 1-2 sets with rest in between.

Set and Reps for Lateral Bent-Over Raises

The bent-over lateral raises are anatomically optimal for the rear delts.

However, this stubborn muscle is still hard to grow and many trainees have a hard time activating it in general.

That’s why sticking to light weights and high-rep working sets is key for development and practicing form.

Here are a few example rep/set schemes:

  • Drop set: x20 reps, x15 reps, x10 reps, x5 reps (start of a session as a “feeler”).
    • Perform each set one after the other without breaks, decreasing the weight if needed.
  • 2 sets x 12-15 reps (use toward the end of a pull day).
  • 5 sets x 8-12 reps (utilize moderately heavy weights).
  • 3 sets x 15-20 reps (perform as the final exercise in a shoulder workout or as a “feeler”).

By training your rear delts 2-3 days per week, alternating between one or two of these schemes you’ll see a significant size increase.

Lateral Raise Workout for Rear Delts

This workout includes both side and rear-focused lateral raises and a compound movement for complete deltoid development.

  1. Bent-over lateral raises: 3 sets x 15-20 reps
  2. Shoulder Press: 4 sets x 8-12 reps
  3. Upright lateral raises: 3 sets x 10-12 reps

If you’re new to training only do this workout once per week as the shoulder press is a high-fatigue exercise.

However, you can do the lateral raises one or two more times per week on their own or after back day since they’re not as taxing.

Are Rear Delt and Lateral Raises the Same?

Lateral raises are a popular shoulder exercise in the gym bro community. They’re performed from a standing position with the torso vertical in relation to the floor.

The lateral, or up and down arm movement targets the side delts through the frontal plane.

Vertical lateral raises are not the same as rear delt raises. However, rear delt raises are considered a horizontal variation since the arms move laterally through the transverse plane.

So, if you’re looking for an exercise to hit those posterior deltoids adequately, consider bent-over lateral raises a go.

Want a more detailed comparison of the two? Go read my article covering all of the differences between rear delt flys (raises) and lateral raises.

Eric De Cremer
Eric De Cremer

Eric is an NCCA-accredited Certified Personal Trainer and competitively trained powerlifter. Feel free to contact him anytime at!