If you are looking to build up some serious ‘boulder shoulders’ in order to achieve the ultimate X-shape powerlifting physique, then upright rows and lateral raises are two exercises that you should definitely know about.
Both exercises help to develop your lateral deltoid muscles and your upper traps, and will help you carve out a shoulder stack that will put fear in the eye of any enemy! This is because both help to develop hypertrophy (that is gym speak for muscle growth) in the shoulder area.
However, the two exercises are not entirely interchangeable and have crucial differences that are worth knowing about so that you can pick the exercise that best serves your training goals.
The upright row is a compound exercise which engages multiple muscle groups with just one movement, and it involves using a barbell. The lateral raise is an isolation exercise that only targets one key muscle group, and it requires the use of dumbbells.
Both are great exercises, when done well, will be a great addition to any lifting routine or training session. Which exercise you prefer will depend on body type and personal preference. So, read on to find out more about the upright row, the lateral raise, and the differences between the two of them.
Differences In Detail
Because they target the same muscle groups, in particular working on the delts and traps and stimulating hypertrophy in the shoulders, upright rows and lateral raises are often compared.
But it is important to realise that these exercises engage different supporting muscles and also use very different gym apparatus, so they are certainly not interchangeable, and you will achieve different results (and perhaps not the results you are after) if you accidentally confuse the two.
The three key differences between upright rows and lateral raises include the equipment required, load and reps, and the muscles that are involved. Let’s look in more detail...
1. Equipment Required
Upright rows are performed using a barbell. However, if you don’t have a barbell available you can use sandbags instead.
Lateral raises are performed using dumbbells. Alternatively, if you don't have the equipment at hand you could use continuous loop resistance bands or a cable machine.
In fact, it is a good idea to try the exercise with these alternative implements as they might actually be preferable to dumbbells and help you feel the burn more acutely.
2. Muscles Involved
The lateral raise really focuses on the lateral deltoid muscles, and very slightly on the front deltoids. These are the muscles in the shoulder that lift the arm up and away from the body. Every time you lift your arm to wave you engage the delts.
Lateral raises also engage the upper traps (trapezius muscles) at the very top of the movement as there is some shoulder blade rotation involved. The traps are a large group of muscles which extend from the neck to the mid back and across to the mid shoulder blade.
The upright row requires much more elevation in the shoulder blades as the bar is drawn up towards the chin, and it therefore works the upper traps, rhomboids, and biceps as well as the side and front delts.
The biceps are the muscles at the front of the upper arm which help to bend the elbow in the first instance. The rhomboids are a small muscle group that extend from the spine to the mid shoulder blade and help to lift the arms.
3. Load And Reps
In general, you should opt for light weight dumbbells of between 5-20 pounds per hand when you are performing lateral raises.
If you get ambitious and load the exercise too heavily you will use leg and hip drive to propel the dumbbells upwards, and that will reduce the effectiveness of the exercise. Use less weight but do many reps.
By contrast, it is possible to load the barbell up with plenty of weight when performing upright rows because the bar moves up and down inside the column of your centre of gravity and so it is less tempting to use leg drive. Do less reps but with more weight to get the most out of this exercise.
So now that we’ve covered the differences between these two exercises we can look at them individually for more detail...
The Lateral Raise
Due to the fact that the lateral raise is an isolation exercise, it is very effective at building the lateral delts. Sure, the front delts and traps may be engaged ever so slightly, but they're just incidental. The star of the show is definitely the lateral deltoids.
Step-By-Step Break Down Of A Lateral Raise
- Choose suitable dumbbells that aren’t too heavy (between 5-20 pounds per hand)
- Take up dumbbells with an overhand grip
- Stand up straight and let your hands hang by your sides
- Pull your shoulder blades down and together
- Lift the dumbbells up and out, like a bird lifting their wings
- Think of lifting the elbows first but keep the arm extended not bent
- Once the dumbbells reach shoulder height, lower them with plenty of control
- The rep is complete when your hands are back by your sides
Top Technique Tips For A Lateral Raise
- For this exercise it is better to use lighter weights but do a higher number of reps. As it is an isolation exercise you could be tempted to want to load the reps up pretty heavy, but this will end up encouraging assisting muscle groups to wade in and won’t help you build wide shoulders effectively. Keep the weight low and aim for 10-30 reps instead.
- Make sure your grip encourages internal rotation so your elbow is on top as you lift the dumbbells up. A good idea is to point your thumbs towards the ground as you lift.
- Grip the dumbbell at the front, with your index finger brushing the front weight and your pinky finger positioned in the middle of the bar handle. This way your delts will have to work harder to keep your arm from twisting forward with the weight, so you will have a more effective exercise and maximise the results
- Use a range of different apparatus at first, not just dumbbells. You could try lateral raises with kettlebells, a cable machine and resistance bands. It is a great idea to try them all and see what feels best for you, because you may find that your body responds better to a different apparatus.
Common Errors In Lateral Raises
- Going too heavy too soon. It is extremely hard to maintain good technique on an isolation exercise, even for pros, so put technique before pride and work with less weight until you are strong enough to take on more.
- If your dumbbells float more than 15 degrees in front of your body as you lift your arms the exercise becomes a front raise not a lateral raise. This is no bad thing, but you won’t get the same results on your lateral deltoids.
- Momentum. Many people drive from the hips in lateral raises, using the hip motion to propel the dumbbells upwards. This is not correct - you should try to keep as still and straight as possible during the exercise so as to isolate the lateral deltoids.
- Hip drive can, on rare occasions, cause lifters to accidentally bash their balls with the dumbbells as they lower them down! To combat this you should use maximum control on the descent and you should keep your hips tilted gently backwards to maintain a straight spine.
Muscles Involved In Lateral Raises
When you lift your arms out to the side in a bird-taking-flight position you are performing what is known as shoulder abduction, and this is aided primarily by the lateral deltoid muscles.
There will inevitably be some forward flexion which will cause you to use your front deltoids a little bit too and your upper traps become engaged at top of the movement due to the slight upward rotation of the shoulder blades when your dumbbells are at peak height.
However, these muscles are only minimally activated and really the lateral delts are the main event.
- The major benefit of lateral raises is that they are very effective in helping to build up the outer area of shoulders for that ultimate X-frame silhouette. Sure, compound exercises rely and recruit several muscle groups to perform one movement, yet this is an isolation exercise so it concentrates only on the lateral deltoids and therefore has a maximizing effect in that area.
- One drawback of lateral raises is that some lifters experience clicking in shoulders as they reach the height of the motion which can be unpleasant and a bit disconcerting.
- A second drawback of lateral raises is that you will not see the same benefits to the front delts and traps as you wll with a compound exercise. This is lateral delts only, so there is no killing more than one bird with one stone when you do this exercise.
Having covered all there is to know about lateral raises lets take a closer look at upright rows…
Step-By-Step Break Down Of The Upright Row
- First, take up the barbell using an overhand grip
- Keep your hands shoulder width apart (or thereabouts)
- Stand up straight and let the bar hang in front of your thighs
- Next, engage core and biceps to draw your elbows up and back
- As the barbell moves up your body it should skim your chest
- When the barbell reaches your collarbone you can start lowering it down again
- One rep is complete when the bar rests in front of your thighs again
Top Technique Tips For The Upright Row
- Because it is a compound exercise, it is better to do a moderate amount of reps but with a heavier weight load. Between 8-15 reps is a good ballpark to help you achieve a balance of volume and intensity.
- Always try to keep the bar close to your torso as you lift and lower it as this will help you keep a prime upper arm angle. A good arm angle concentrates tension on lateral delts and maximises the use of your traps, so you will get the maximum return for your efforts.
- Think ‘out and up’ not just ‘up’ because pulling through your elbow allows the traps to take over.
- Taking a slightly wider grip will create a greater EMG, or electromyography which is the active muscle response to nerve stimulation. This is desirable because the more activated the muscles are the more effectively they develop and grow - which is the ultimate aim of any lifting exercise.
Common Errors In Upright Rows
- A very common mistake that people make when performing upright rows is that they don’t lift the bar high enough up their chest, but instead stop when it reaches mid chest height. This is not dangerous and will help build some muscle, but it will not be nearly as strengthening and muscle defining as a collarbone height lift. It sounds obvious but the greater the range of motion, the more muscle fibers that are stimulated and engaged, therefore a full height upright row will produce much more return for your hard work in terms of visible definition and muscle growth.
- Another common error is that people accidentally turn an upright row into a front raise by letting the barbell swing out in front of the body too much. When this happens you engage the front deltoids and take the pressure of the lateral deltoids. It's no bad thing but it won’t help you achieve the wide shoulders you are after.
- And finally, lots of people heave the bar upwards using leg drive. Unfortunately this will create an overload stimulus for lateral delts and traps. Once again, it isn’t dangerous but it also is better performed in a specific exercise designed to engage leg drive, like a barbell high pull.
Muscles Involved In An Upright Row
When you move your upper arm out to the side as you raise the barbell, you perform what is known as humeral abduction. When you lift your shoulder blades at the top of the upright row you perform scapular elevation. For both these motions the lateral delts and upper traps are key contributors.
At the very top of movement, when your elbows are raised above parallel, the rhomboids assist in rotating the shoulder blades upwards and outwards.
And let’s not forget the biceps, which are used to bend the elbow in the initial motion of an upright row.
- The benefits of doing upright rows lie in the way they help to build and widen your shoulder stack. Stacked shoulders make your upper body appear wider and as a result your waist appears narrower. All this helps in achieving the ultimate triangular silhouette - so you can look like Chris Hemsworth!
- Of course, having strong traps is never a bad thing, as these muscles are super handy in assisting heavy deadlifts too, so by doing upright rows you will also increase the amount that you can lift off the ground. You should note that there are some upright row alternatives that may be right for you.
- Much like with the lateral raise and many other lifting exercises, a drawback of upright rows is that you may experience some discomfort in your shoulders due to the strain and stress that upright rows put on them. What’s more, some lifters complain of clicking or popping sounds which they hear during the end of motion.
- And it is also important to say that, although upright rows are effective at building side delts, they aren’t the most effective exercise, and should be thought of more as an assisting exercise for this reason.
Upright Row VS Lateral Raise - FAQs
Will Lateral Raises or Upright Rows mess up my shoulders?
Any exercise will do damage if you go at it too hard and in an irresponsible way. However, there is no reason that either the lateral raise or upright row should do any harm to your neck or shoulders if you use weights that you can handle and stick to the right number of reps.
Be patient and you will see results much faster than if you go hard and fast and have to take weeks off for injury.
What should I do about the clicking and popping during these exercises?
Crepitut is the sensation of popping or clicking noises during lifting exercises. Although it is rarely painful or harmful it can be disconcerting. To get rid of it try rolling your shoulders down after each rep, and also experiment with different grips and widths to see if it helps.
Whether you choose to do lateral raises or upright rows really depends on your training goals, and which muscles you are looking to build.
Upright rows will build the lateral deltoid muscles and trap muscles through loading a great deal of weight between them.
Lateral raises will develop the lateral deltoids almost exclusively through reps that are less excessively loaded.
Neither exercise is better or worse than the other - it all depends on what feels right and gets the best results for your goal.