There are some things in your training regimen you do because, well, everybody does them. Everyone benches for a big chest, and if you want big legs, you squat. But sometimes the masses seem more like lemmings -- they aren't sure what or why they're doing something. They just do it because they believe they should.
Which brings us to the dumbbell lateral raise. Just about anyone who does this exercise raises the weights to only shoulder level, arms about parallel to the floor, but no higher. Know why? Think it causes rotator-cuff impingement and is dangerous to go above that point? Uh-uh. Think the arms-parallel position is where the middle delt stops working?
"Going to arms parallel in the dumbbell lateral raise provides good deltoid recruitment and doesn't put the shoulder joint in a stressful situation," says Louie Brockhoeft, MES, a personal fitness coach at Mercy Hospital in Anderson, Ohio. "But taking the move 45 degrees past parallel fully engages the middle delt; plus it recruits the upper traps, levator scapulae and all muscles around the scapula, including the rhomboids, the lower traps and serratus."
While the concern over rotator-cuff impingement is real, Brockhoeft notes this fear can be minimized in two ways. First, slightly supinate your wrists (turn your palms up) on the way up if necessary. Second, instead of bringing the weights directly out to your sides, raise your arms in a wide V formation, about 10-15 degrees in front of your torso.
Both modifications should improve the comfort of your lateral raises.
Brockhoeft argues that it's not necessary to go above 135 degrees (about halfway between the arms-parallel position and directly overhead) because the middle delt is strongest to that midway point, then quickly falls off. "Once you pass that point, you're no longer working against gravity [when using dumbbells] and the weight becomes lighter, taking stimulus off the muscle. Going to 135 degrees not only maximizes your delts but also works the traps from an angle different than you're used to."