Lateral raises are one of the most common (if not the most common) shoulder exercises.
They don’t require much technical skill and provide a good shoulder pump, so, for these reasons you’ll find them in most people’s shoulder routines.
While they may be good for a shoulder pump, you might also notice that when performing lateral raises you end up feeling the burn in your traps as well.
Traps are an overactive muscle group and are often active when training shoulders and back due to their function and position.
Therefore, feeling so your traps during a shoulder raise could mean that you’re doing the exercise wrong and limiting your shoulder growth!
So, do lateral raises work traps, or is it due to incorrect form and technique? Read on and we’ll explain…
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Do Lateral Raises Work Traps?
Lateral raises are an exercise designed to work the lateral deltoid (side deltoid), though the angle could also activate the front or rear deltoid.
This means that the lateral raise is primarily a shoulder exercise, however, lateral raises will work the traps when using an incorrect form.
If you shrug your shoulders at any point during a lateral raise, the upper traps will become engaged in the movement and will be worked as a secondary muscle.
The extent to which you shrug will impact the engagement/activation of the traps.
While lateral raises are not supposed to work the traps, the incorrect form could result in your traps being heavily stimulated during this exercise.
Why Do You Feel Lateral Raises in Your Traps
The primary reason why people feel lateral raises in their traps is due to incorrect form and using a weight that is too heavy.
Some former IFBB pro bodybuilders would advise that weight isn’t important when doing lateral raises, execution of the exercise is what will develop your shoulders.
This advice is very true for most lifters. There’s a tendency to lift too much weight when performing lateral raises and this will lead to two breakdowns in the form:
- Swinging the weight up with upper body momentum
- “shrugging” the weight up
Both of these faults are very common when ego lifting but also lifters new to the gym who might have watched a poor demonstration for a lateral raise. Below is a textbook explanation for how to perform lateral raises:
Ego lifting would be swinging the weight up and using a load that your side delts just can’t handle for the movement.
It’s like holding a piece of paper out in front of you. After a minute, the piece of paper (weighing literally nothing) will start to feel heavy. This is because of lactic acid build up but you need to understand that certain mechanics of the human body favor certain movements.
You can press heavy weight and still hit the shoulder fully but when it comes to an isolation movement like a side lateral raise then gravity, leverage, and range of motion all mean that you’re much more limited to the max weight you can use.
If you’ve found your traps are growing faster than other body parts, it’s likely because you’re performing exercises for the shoulder by bringing other muscles like the traps into play.
Related – Overactive traps
If this is you, a quick form check can turn your lateral raises from trap dominant to shoulder dominant in no time.
How to Not Use Your Traps in Lateral Raises
The key to minimizing trap engagement during a lateral raise is to keep your shoulder blades pressed together and tucked downward as a starting point.
“Anytime you shrug your shoulders upward during ANY exercises, the more you’ll activate your traps”
Therefore, even before performing a lateral raise you need to pin your shoulder blades and keep your shoulders down during the movement.
The next step is to ensure you’re not raising your shoulders too high during a lateral raise.
A key exercise tip that people use to shift more tension onto the deltoid is to keep your elbow and wrist below the shoulder at the top of the movement.
It’s easy to lift your arms higher during lateral raise because theoretically, you’re getting the shoulder into a shorter position which should mean more muscle fibers are being fatigued (which means more muscle growth).
While this is true, the downside is that once you raise the weight above a certain height, it becomes almost impossible to keep your shoulder blades down. Following on from the first point, once your shoulders start to rise up during a lift your traps will become engaged.
The traps are a noticeably stronger muscle group than the deltoid as well so as soon as your traps become active in a lateral raise they may also become the dominant working muscle – which you definitely don’t want to happen.
To prevent this, bring your arms out to the side during a lateral raise but keep your elbows and wrist slightly below shoulder height at the top of the movement.
This will ensure you keep tension on the lateral deltoid throughout the movement but more importantly, you’ll prevent the traps from becoming involved too.
Finally, you want to prevent any momentum and upper body rocking during the lift.
When performing heavy lateral raises – heavy being relative because no one really lifts heavy weight on a lateral raise – there’s a tendency to start to swing the weight up by using some chest/upper back thrusting.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise now but if you’re swinging the weight up with momentum on this exercise, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be keeping your shoulder blades together and lowered at the same time.
The opposite is true in that you’d need to shrug the weight up to some extent in order to create the momentum.
Leaning Side Lateral Raise
Ok, we have one more tip to eliminate trap engagement when doing lateral raises and that is to perform a leaning lateral raise.
This can be done by holding a squat rack or machine with one arm and leaning at a 30 degree angle away from the machine.
This can be hard to explain so see the short video below to demonstrate this:
By leaning away and performing a lateral raise with this technique, you’ll shorten the shoulder for a better contraction while also making it more difficult to shrug the weight up.
The change in body angle means that movement stays the same but the tension shifts more towards the side delt and away from the trap.
You’ll still bring the dumbbell to the same height as you would when standing upright though so the movement is essentially the same.
However, when leaning you change the resistance profile of the exercise so instead of it being more difficult to lift the weight in the middle of the movement (which leads to shrugging), it will become harder at the top of the movement (by which point you won’t be able to shrug the weight up).
This allows you to fatigue the muscle in a different range of motion as well so not only will the leaning lateral raise work the traps much less, but it will also fatigue the delts in a new way from what you’d be used to.
To summarize, lateral raises will work traps if you shrug your shoulders upwards at any point during the movement. This will engage the upper traps and is a common mistake people make when using too much weight for this exercise.
The side delt is a relatively small muscle to isolate so if you exclude pressing exercises, the weight capacity for a side lateral raise is fairly low for almost all lifters.
As you bring the weight further away from your body, the muscle has to work much harder so lateral raises should mainly focus on form, rep ranges, and tempo.
To minimize trap engagement during a lateral raise, you need to keep your shoulder blades together and tucked downward for the duration of the lift.
Any sort of upward shrug to lift the weight will not only work the traps but it will take a lot of the tension away from the side delt.
This means you’ll be turning a delt exercise into a trap exercise and this could be a key reason why you’re not seeing the progress you want when it comes to shoulder growth and development.
If you want your delts to pop, drop the weight on lateral raises and keep your shoulders tucked down at all times during the lift.
This is only one component when it comes to shoulder training. You’ll also want to check out our guide on How to work shoulders without traps as we focus on the whole shoulder here and not just the impact of lateral raises on the side delt.