Dumbbell Shoulder Press vs Lateral Raise

Dumbbell Shoulder Press vs Lateral Raise (Which is Better?)

There are a lot of options available to you when it’s shoulder day in the weight room. Two of the most popular options for shoulders is the Dumbbell Shoulder Press and Lateral Raises.

Both work the shoulders, but is one better than the other?

Is one better at building strength? Are the muscles worked the same? Is a Dumbbell Shoulder Press or a Lateral Raise easier for beginners?

In this guide, I’m going to explain exactly what each exercise is and then compare the two against each other to give you an idea of which exercise you should be doing and when.

First, the Dumbbell Shoulder Press.

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

The Dumbbell Shoulder Press is a great movement for upper body strength. The dumbbell implement allows the shoulders to move very naturally and engages the stabilizing musculature to keep the shoulders healthy.

Single Arm Dumbbell Shoulder Press (1)

Equipment Needed

  • Dumbbells

Muscles Worked

  • Anterior delts (Primary concentric movers)
  • Medial and rear delts (Primary eccentric and isometric stabilizers)
  • Lats and biceps (Secondary eccentric and isometric stabilizers)
  • Triceps (Lockout)
  • Abdominal and lower back muscles (Stabilizers in most compound movements)

Step-by-Step Instruction

  • Stand with the dumbbells next to you.
  • Hinge and the waist and bend the knees until you can grab the dumbbells.
  • Keep a neutral spine, and a nice flat back, and lift the dumbbells into your pressing position.
  • I recommend palms face away or toward each other (whichever feels more comfortable).
  • Brace the abdominal muscles and engage the upper back.
  • Press the dumbbells directly overhead. The dumbbells should not track forward.
  • Lock the reps out and pause for about 1 second with each repetition.
  • Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position to prepare for the next repetition.

Coaching Points

Keep the core engaged as you press. If you feel you are arching your back as you reach closer to lockout, consider going down in weight.

Remember this is not a push press. This is a purely upper-body pressing movement. If you are using your legs, even slightly, this would be called a Push Press. The push press is a great movement as well BUT a shoulder press should be focused on the shoulders, no cheating.

Dumbbell Lateral Raise

Dumbbell Lateral Raises, or Side Raises, is a shoulder isolation exercise and one of my favorite supplemental lifts. They’re good on their own, but in my opinion, work even better when paired up as part of a giant set (multiple shoulder exercises paired together) or a superset.

Equipment Needed

  • Dumbbells

Muscles Worked

Side Raises work both the Delts and the Traps, but their primary focus is on the medial deltoids.

  • Deltoid (Medial, Anterior and Posterior heads)
  • Supraspinatus
  • Trapezius (if dumbbells are lifted slightly higher than shoulders at the top)


  • Hold dumbbells-palm in, arms straight down at sides.
  • Raise dumbbells in semicircular motion slightly above shoulder height tilting the head of the dumbbell down.
  • A slight pause, then lower to starting position under control.
  • Keep your arms straight with just a slight bend in the elbow.
  • Use the same path to continue repeated reps.
  • Exhale up, inhale down.

Coaching Points

To keep the focus on the medial delt, make sure to keep your palms down at the top of the movement. Many lifters like to pull back, instead of lift straight out to the sides, which brings the stronger muscles of the upper back into play.

Also, always start the movement at the side of the thigh. Bringing the dumbbells in front of the body allows for more of a momentum swing and takes away from the stress placed on the delts.

Dumbbell Shoulder Press vs Lateral Raise: Which is Better?

Now that you’re well-versed in both exercises, let’s compare the two exercises directly.

Which is Better at Developing Strength?

Dumbbell Shoulder Presses are better at building strength. Shoulder Presses are a compound exercise that gets more muscle groups involved and the movement itself is a pressing action that stays much closer to the midline of the body.

Lateral Raises, on the other hand, use primarily the medial delts to raise the dumbbells. The movement itself takes the dumbbells far away from the midline which is a much weaker position.

Because of these reasons, Shoulder Presses allow the lifter to use more weight and are much better at developing strength.

Are The Muscles Worked the Same?

Yes and No.

Both exercises work the shoulders but in very different ways.

DB Shoulder Presses work the entire shoulder but also get other muscle groups involved like the triceps. Lateral Raises primarily focus on the medial delt.

If you’re looking for overall shoulder development, go with Shoulder Presses. If you want to isolate the medial delt, go with Lateral Raises.

Which Should I Be Doing?


This is the beauty of strength training. There is no need to have to pick between the two exercises. I utilize both Dumbbell Shoulder Presses and Lateral Raises into my programming on a consistent basis.

In fact, oftentimes I’ll have both exercises programmed on the same day.

Final Thoughts

If you’re purely looking to build strength, I recommend going with Dumbbell Shoulder Presses over Lateral Raises.

If you’re taking a bodybuilding approach to your workouts and want to really focus on the medial delt, then Lateral Raises are a great option.

However, there is no reason you can’t be doing both exercises within your strength training. Both Dumbbell Shoulder Presses and Lateral Raises are excellent exercises for shoulder development and both can have their place in your training program.

Finally, if you want to do Dumbbell Shoulder Presses, but you’re not able to (lack of equipment, etc), here are 15 Dumbbell Shoulder Press Alternatives you may be able to try instead.

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