I did 30 lateral raises every day for 2 weeks — here's the results

Man performing a lateral raise with dumbbells
(Image credit: Getty Images)

When my editor asked me to try dumbbell lateral raises for two weeks, I thought he was kidding. He was not. Luckily, I enjoy a challenge, so I fixed him with a steely gaze — hard to do over email — and replied, "Sure."

I wasn't too worried initially, as I've done lateral raises in the past — they're a great gym exercise you can do with dumbbells (or adjustable dumbbells at home) — so I was fairly sure I'd nail the form and go from there. 

Still, I wasn't sure how much more I'd learn about a move in two weeks that I could not learn in one or the extra benefit I'd gain, but, as with each of these challenges, there's always something, and it's usually something surprising. And positive. 

What is the lateral raise?

The lateral raise is a straightforward isolation exercise that builds strength and definition in the shoulders, specifically the deltoids, those muscles that wrap around the top of your shoulder.

They are responsible for moving your arm up and down, back and forth, and out to the side. In short, they're pretty useful. Shoulders are incredibly flexible but this very flexibility makes them easy to injure — strong delts can help stabilize the area, offering protection from injury. 

Anybody who's ever had shoulder pain (which afflicts up to 26% of the population, according to a paper published in Best Practice & Research: Clinical Rheumatology) knows how seriously it can impede daily activities. 

The lateral raise primarily works the medial or lateral deltoids (which you use to lift your arm out to the sides) but also hits the anterior (front) and posterior (back) delts, though to a lesser extent.

Working all three parts (or heads) of the muscle is important because they work in harmony to do the job we thoughtlessly ask of them every day. And, while predominately an arm workout, you'll also engage your core to keep your body steady as you raise and lower. 

How to do a dumbbell lateral raise

The lateral raise is an effective, but quite straightforward, exercise, making it great for beginners and experienced lifters. The key is to lift the weights with perfect form, every time. So make sure you're using a weight that'll challenge your muscles, but not affect your technique. 

And if you have shoulder pain before you try this exercise, don't do it. Heal first. If you feel shoulder pain during the move, stop, because you could do serious and lasting damage. If you have any doubts, consult a medical professional.

  • Stand tall with a dumbbell in each hand. Your arms should be by your sides, palms facing in.
  • Roll your shoulders back and down slightly, engage your core, and raise your arms out to the sides, keeping a slight bend in your elbow until your body forms a T shape. Breathe in as you raise.
  • Pause for a second at the top of the move, then lower the weights to your side, taking about twice as long as you did to raise. Breathe out as you lower.
  • That's one repetition. Aim for 10-15 and complete three sets.

So, with two dumbbells ready to go by my side, I steeled myself for the two-week challenge. Here's how I got on. 

My body adapted

My body is stronger than it lets on. I decided to use 10lb dumbbells, just to be on the safe side, and do three sets of 10. This was fine, so I added two more reps to each set on the third day. And I added another rep to each set the day after that.

I had genuine concerns about what I could learn in the second week, so I decided this would be my challenge: How many reps could I add to the original 10 per set without risking injury? To my great surprise — and delight — on the final day, I completed one set of 20 and two of 25.

Once again, my body had responded to a challenge, become used to the movement and the effort needed, and showed me what it could do if I asked politely. As I increased the reps, I paid careful attention to my form, to ensure I wasn't using my lower back to help generate upward movement in the final set, as I began to tire.

But no, I remained steady and smooth, and my breathing was regular. On a couple of days in the second week, I noticed a pinch in my right elbow, but this was because I had bashed it while coming down the stairs with a plate and mug in my hand. Damn you, tiny upstairs office that used to be a glorified wardrobe.

Over the 14 days, I added 10 reps to each set. I didn't believe I could have completed three sets of 20 on the first day, but it seems clear that this was just my mind being cautious. My body had other ideas, but since the brain does the driving, I started in low gear on the quiet streets.

Then, by adding just one rep here and one rep there, I became convinced I had more to give. My body had the strength all the time, but my mind needed to be sure of that. 

I found inner peace

There is something wonderfully relaxing and meditative about this move: arms smoothly up, hold, arms down, and repeat. It's graceful and quiet, and I began to look forward to this part of my day.

Concentrating on the movement made me aware of my breathing (as you would during yoga stretches), of the roll and flex of muscles in my shoulder, and of my core, as it went about the vital business of keeping me steady.

Straight back, head up, eyes forward. And then I'd listen to the rustle of my top as I raised and lowered. The sensation of simple movement was strangely calming, and I say that as a man with little experience in yoga and none at all with tai chi.

On two days, I did the move in a gym, in front of a mirror, while trying to tune out the sounds of other people, the infernally bouncy music, the whirr of rowing machines, the pounding of the treadmills, and the clang of wilfully dropped weights.

I felt intruded upon and noticed I was lowering the weights quicker than when I did the move at home. Gyms are great but they are no place to find yourself, which is one of the reasons my editor ditched the gym for home workouts

My verdict on the dumbbell lateral raise

Even if you have no interest in achieving a zen-like state of contentment, this is a terrific exercise. By concentrating on good form, you will safely build strength and develop shape in your shoulders. 

You can also adapt the lateral raise; you can slow down the raising phase, pause for longer at the top of the move, or slow down the lowering phase. Each will add considerably to the effort involved and increase muscle stimulation.

It takes longer than two weeks to build strength, of course, but this challenge has made me determined to take greater care of the muscles in my shoulder because, although they are sensitive souls, they do a remarkable job. 

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John Carroll

John is a writer and editor based in London. He was worked for magazines such as Runner’s World, Men’s Health, Women’s Health and Cosmopolitan. A keen runner, what he lacks in ability he makes up for with enthusiasm and excuses.