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Larry Scott, the first Mr. Olympia, was known for his remarkable biceps development, which is still impressive even by today’s standards. Not only were his arms huge, but he was also blessed with long muscle bellies that provided a fullness to his arms. Although Scott’s bulging biceps helped him win two Sandow trophies, an even more remarkable achievement was his shoulder development.

Scott wasn’t blessed with wide shoulders. He had narrow clavicles that severely limited his ability to develop an impressive V-taper. As such, Scott had to overcome his physical limitations by training shoulders with many different exercises using a variety of implements, including dumbbells, barbells, and pulleys.

The deltoid has seven basic functions: abduction, flexion, horizontal adduction, internal rotation, extension, horizontal abduction, and external rotation. Most bodybuilders will describe the deltoid as having three sections: anterior, medial, and posterior (or front, side and rear). This description works OK, but be aware that there are actually seven sections: deltoid 1-7, anterior to posterior. Just how much each section is activated is determined by the position of the arm in relation to the glenohumeral joint. This is why a variety of exercises must be performed to fully develop this muscle group.

What trainees usually lack is development of the posterior and medial sections of the deltoid. Lateral raises are great isolation exercises for the medial deltoids; however, due to limitations in the resistance curve there is no single best lateral raise variation. 

Russian sport scientist Vladimir M. Zatsiorsky discussed the problem of matching resistance curves to strength curves in his book Science and Practice of Strength Training: “The magnitude of weight that an athlete can lift in a given motion is limited by the strength attainable at the weakest point of the full range of motion.” This means that restricting yourself to lateral raises with a dumbbell will only overload one section of the strength curve of the exercise—in this case, the mid range of motion.

Scott had to overcome his physical limitations by training shoulders with many different exercises using a variety of implements. 

To effectively work all areas of the strength curve, you need to perform variations of the lateral raise that will enable you to overload the top range, mid range, and bottom range of the movement. Two ways to accomplish this are varying the position of the torso and using cables. Here are three lateral raise exercises, each with different resistance curves.

TOP RANGE Lean-away lateral raise with dumbbells

MID RANGE One-arm lateral raise with dumbbell

BOTTOM RANGE One-arm lateral raise with low cable

Whenever you perform any of these exercises, keep your arms straight—but to reduce stress on the elbows do not hyperextend your arms. Also, take care to keep your upper arm aligned with your shoulder (coronal plane).

To ensure you are focusing on the medial deltoids during lateral raises, do not supinate your hands (i.e., do not turn your thumbs up) as you lift the dumbbell or cable handle. Doing so diverts the emphasis away from the medial deltoid and more toward the anterior deltoid. To help maintain a neutral hand position during lateral raises (so that the palms are parallel to the floor), one popular recommendation is to visualize the dumbbells as water buckets and slightly rotate your wrists as though pouring water slowly from them. The problem with this suggestion is that excessive pronation may contribute to shoulder impingement, especially when the hands are raised above horizontal.

A1 Lean-away lateral raise with dumbbells, 3 x 6–8, 3010*, rest 10 seconds

A2 One-arm lateral raise with low cable, 3 x 6–8, 3010*, rest 10 seconds

A3 One-arm lateral raise with dumbbell, 3 x 6–8, 3010*, rest 60 seconds

If you are not blessed with wide clavicles or you simply want to pack more meat on your delts to enhance your V-taper, be sure to include plenty of variety into your shoulder training to work all areas of the strength curve. The late Larry Scott followed that good advice, and it’s one reason he was able to overcome his weaknesses and earn the name “the Legend.” – FLEX

*The tempo prescription from strength coach Charles Poliquin.

Here’s how the four numbers work, using 4011 as an example:

  • If you are doing a squat, you would squat down in a controlled manner, taking 4 seconds to do so. You would not pause at the bottom, but come right back up in 1 second. Then you’d pause for 1 second at the top, in the original start position, and then lower the weight counting 4 seconds to do so.
  • This tempo would be written as 4011. The first number dictates the seconds it takes for the down motion; the second number is the pause before the up motion, which is the third number; and the fourth number is the pause before the down motion. – Poliquin™ Editorial Staff, "Tip 32: Count the Tempo of Your Exercises When Weight Training To Get Stronger", Life Style by Poliquin, 11/1/2012, http://www.lifestylebypoliquin.com