Cable Lateral Raise 101 Guide - Proper Form, Benefits & More

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Published by James Cunningham, BSc, CPT | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: December 28, 2023
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A cable lateral raise is a fantastic shoulder workout. But you need to ensure you’re doing it correctly to avoid injury.

Having worked with numerous clients over the years as a fitness instructor, I've seen many people struggle with the correct form for cable lateral raises.

In my practice, guiding clients on the proper technique for cable lateral raises has been crucial to preventing injuries and maximizing workout efficiency. Here's my expert advice on how to do it right.

Quick Summary

  • To effectively perform cable machine lateral raises, it's crucial to use proper form and technique, as they target the lateral deltoids and offer biomechanical advantages over other exercises.
  • Proper technique in cable lateral raises is vital for preventing injuries and maximizing workout efficiency, focusing on controlled movement and tension.
  • A 2020 study in the Journal of Human Kinetics found that lateral raises are highly effective, achieving 30.3% of maximum isometric voluntary contraction for lateral deltoids.
  • In my experience as a fitness instructor, the versatility and adjustable resistance of cable lateral raises make them a standout choice for comprehensive shoulder development and injury prevention.

One-Arm Cable Lateral Raise: Step-by-Step Instructions

Cable Lateral Raise
  • Type: Isolation exercise
  • Muscles worked: Lateral deltoids
  • Equipment: Cable pulley machine

A 2020 study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics demonstrated that the lateral raise is the most effective exercise for lateral deltoids (among others tested), achieving 30.3% of maximum isometric voluntary contraction (the level of muscle activation) [1].

The cable lateral raise, with its constant tension from the cable machine, provides a unique biomechanical advantage, ensuring controlled muscle engagement and effective shoulder joint and deltoid muscle activation compared to dumbbell raises.

Cable lateral raises, with their controlled movement and adjustable resistance, are great for building shoulder strength and preventing injuries. They also boost rotator cuff strength and shoulder stability, minimizing the risk of future injuries.

First up, I'll guide you through the one-arm cable lateral raise, followed by the two-arm version and other variations.

So, let's dive right into the exercise!

Step #1: Starting Position

  1. First, select the weight you want to lift. Don’t overdo it since you’ll be lifting with one shoulder only.
  2. Now stand next to the cable machine. Place your feet shoulder-width apart. Slightly bend your knees.
  3. Grip the stirrup with your outside arm. Keep your arm fully extended, your back straight, and your feet facing forward.
  4. You can grip the machine with your free hand for added support.

Step #2: Raise the Cable

  1. Form a slight bend in your working elbow (10- to 30-degree angle).
  2. Raise your outside arm away from the machine and up to shoulder height (use your strength; don't cheat by using momentum).
  3. Pause here for 1-3 seconds (or 3-5 to get most of it).
  4. Slowly lower the attachment. Control your movement and avoid relying too much on your inside arm.

This completes one rep. We recommend doing up to 15 in one set.

Want a visual demonstration of the exercise? Watch this video:

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The Do’s and Don’ts of Cable Raises

man using a cable machine in a gym

There aren’t many disadvantages to this exercise.

The only risk you should be cautious of is hurting your shoulders by raising your arms too high.

In my career, I've unfortunately encountered several instances where gym-goers have sustained permanent shoulder damage due to incorrect form in their raises.

Still, in the best-case scenario, you won’t get the results you want if you’re not performing this workout correctly.

That’s reason enough to get familiar with the do’s and don’ts of this exercise.

Follow this checklist for the best results: 

  • Keep your arm parallel to the ground
  • Squeeze your muscles at the highest point
  • Maintain a strong core and lift with your body
  • Don’t rely on momentum to lift the weight
  • Don’t raise your arm above your shoulders
  • Don’t bend your elbow too much (shoot for a 10- to 30-degree angle)

Variations Of The Exercise

Based on my extensive training and experience, while a cable raise is a top pick for shoulder workouts, there are other effective alternatives.

We’ll walk you through such exercises. It’s up to you how much weight you’ll lift and how many reps you’ll do.

Behind-the-Back Cable Lateral Raise

This variation addresses the limitations of dumbbell lateral raises by providing constant tension throughout the full range of motion, specifically loading the medial delt at the bottom range, where dumbbells are less effective.

Equipment: Cable pulley machine

  1. Adjust the cable machine's pulley to the lowest setting and grab the handle with the opposite hand (right hand if the machine is on your left, and vice versa).
  2. Stand so the cable runs behind your back, keep a slight bend in your elbow, and palm facing down.
  3. Lift your arm to the side until it's level with your shoulder, then hold briefly.
  4. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat for the desired number of reps before switching arms.
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Two-Arm Cable Lateral Raises

Are traditional one-arm cable raises too easy for a seasoned pro like you? Then try this variation that will work both of your shoulders at the same time.

Equipment: Cable crossover station

  1. Stand straight in the middle of a cable crossover station. Adjust two stirrups to the lowest pulleys and grab one with each hand.
  2. Place your arms in front of your body, cross them, and keep your elbows slightly bent.
  3. Raise your arms to both sides of the machine. Stop once you reach shoulder height and pause here for 1-3 seconds.
  4. Return to the starting position and repeat for the desired number of times.
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Dumbbell Lateral Raises

Unfortunately, you’ll need access to a cable pulley machine to do a cable raise. But don’t despair if your gym doesn’t have one. Try this variation instead.

Equipment: Two dumbbells

You can either stand or sit on a bench for this exercise:

  1. Grab one dumbbell with each hand. Pull your shoulders slightly back and keep your core tight.
  2. Raise both of your arms at the same time to shoulder height. Make sure they’re parallel to the ground.
  3. Pause here for 1-3 seconds and slowly bring your arms down. Do a few more reps for better results.
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Elevator Lateral Raises

You’ll also need just a couple of dumbbells to perform this exercise.

However, you’ll spend more time lifting them than in the previous variation. And enduring resistance for a longer period of time helps you build your muscles faster.

Equipment: Two dumbbells

  1. Stand up and place your feet shoulder-width apart. Keep your back straight. Grab a dumbbell with each hand.
  2. Raise the dumbbells to shoulder height.
  3. Lower your arms halfway down and bring them back to the top.
  4. Now lower your arms to three-quarters down. Bring them back to the top from there.
  5. Slowly lower your arms and return to the initial position. This completes one rep.
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Alternative Exercises

Through my years of coaching, I've learned that while other exercises might not be as effective as cable raises for building delts, variety in your workout routine is key for overall shoulder development and staying motivated.

So, instead of doing the same exercise every day, try these alternatives:

  • Side plank with arm raise
  • Barbell upright row
  • Seated Arnold press
  • “W” raises
  • Lying side laterals

FAQs

How Many Times a Week Should You Do Lateral Raises?

You should do lateral raises two to three times a week.

How Much Weight Should I Use for a Lateral Raise?

You should use light to moderate weight for a lateral raise.

Why Do Lateral Raises Hurt?

Lateral raises usually hurt because you’re lifting too much weight. However, in some cases, the pain may signal damage to your rotator cuff.


References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7706677/
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