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Smith machine lateral raise: Learn how to do Jim Stoppani's weirdly-effective side delt exercise

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 13th October 2020

I know what you're thinking. "Lateral raises on the Smith machine? Really?"

Believe it or not, some time ago, people would've questioned the Smith machine overhead press (and that exercise is as legit as they come).

Anyway, while I understand your scepticism, I think that you'll be pleasantly surprised once you give the Smith machine lateral raise a try. It's a direct replacement for the side delt machine, and it's a brilliant, joint-friendly alternative to dumbbell lateral raises, which are quite harsh on the wrist and elbows past a certain weight.

bodybuilder doing smith machine shrugs

I can't take any of the credit for this exercise's invention, though. Jim Stopanni, PhD created it. You might have heard of him already. But in case you haven't, here's what he's most-know for:

He's the fella behind one of the world's most proven pre-workout supplements, Pre JYM.

And I must say, I've never tried a pre-workout supplement that gives me such a potent muscle pump (thanks, citrulline malate).

But what I really like about Pre JYM is that it's remarkably good value for money. Unlike other pre-workouts, Pre JYM includes a full dose of creatine and BCAAs, completely negating the need for intra-workout supplements.

Anyhow, Dr Stopanni is one of those fellas—and there aren't many of them—who genuinely puts his money where his mouth is. Sure, he's spent time in the lab researching. But he's not some feeble little scientist. He actually lifts himself, and he's got quite the physique to show for it.

"This exercise is great for those with wrist or hand issues who can't perform the dumbbell lateral raise without pain. it also makes a great replacement for the machine lateral raise, in case your gym does not have one."
Dr. Jim Stoppani

Smith machine lateral raise exercise details

  • Main muscles: Side delts
  • Supporting muscles: Rear delts, front delts, traps
  • Exercise type: Isolation
  • Difficulty: Advanced
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Chalk, wrist wraps, resistance bands
  • Exercise purpose: Build broader shoulders and develop a more imposing v-taper

How to do a Smith machine lateral raise

  1. Stand side on to the Smith machine and raise your hand towards your shoulder (as if you were doing a hammer curl). Whatever position your elbow is in, is the height at which you should set the bar.
  2. Unrack the bar with your other hand and place it across the working arm.
  3. Push against the Smith bar and raise your elbow until there's a 90-degree angle between your upper arm and torso.
  4. Hold the contraction for a second and then lower the weight under control. Repeat with the other arm and perform 3-5 sets of 10-20 reps,

Smith machine lateral raise muscles worked

Lateral delts

fitness model flexing his upper body muscles

As good as dumbbell lateral raises are for building shoulder width, they don't provide the same level of isolation as the Smith machine version.

This is simply because your biceps contribute to shoulder abduction (as in raising your arm out to the side). And obviously, your forearms are active, too, since they actually have to hold the dumbbell.

Of course, a bit of bicep activation isn't exactly going to take the tension away from your delts. However, when people have a hard time feeling their delts working, they often use the side delt machine—of which the Smith machine lateral raise is a direct replacement—to remove their arms from the equation.

Front delts

ripped bodybuilder flexing his huge muscles

The front delts are surprisingly active during lateral raises because most people—whether they realise it or not—don't raise their arms straight out to the side. I actually think this is a good thing, though, because it prevents your rotator cuffs from taking too much strain.

Rear delts

bodybuilder showing off his muscular back

As a rule of thumb, anytime the side delts are working, so are the rear delts. However, in the case of lateral raises, it's more of a stabilisation role. So make sure that you do some direct rear delt training if you want to build proportional shoulders—more on that later.

Traps

photo of a bodybuilder's back muscles

If I had a quid for every time someone told me that they feel lateral raises in their traps, then I'd never have to pull a sickie again because I'd be retired.

Anyway, keep your arm below shoulder height if you want to keep the tension on your delts (rather than on your traps). Going higher won't do much extra for your shoulder development, but it will place a lot of extra stress on your rotator cuffs.

Smith machine lateral raise benefits

Healthier wrists

strong bodybuilder man wraps his wrist with sports wrap on black background

Call me soft, but dumbbell lateral raises hurt my wrists unless I wear my wrist wraps. Yes, I'm that guy with small the joints—the one who needs to wrap everything to survive a gym session.

I still do dumbbell lateral raises, though, because I think that they're just too effective to skip. However, I also throw in Smith machine lateral raises quite regularly now that I train at home.

It's a win-win exercise for someone like me because all of the tension naturally goes onto my delts, which means that my elbows and wrists also get a well-deserved break.

Obviously, this benefit can't be overlooked considering that you use your wrists in virtually every exercise!

Wider shoulders

very muscular man with his hands on his hips

Lifters love using the side delt machine because it allows them to blast their shoulders without stabilising the weight. In this regard, the Smith machine lateral raise is strikingly similar.

Since the machine takes care of all the stabilisation, you can focus 100% of your attention on stimulating your side delts. This bodybuilding-first approach naturally enables you to develop a stronger mind-muscle connection and grow your shoulders faster because more of the tension's going where you want it to.

Skin-splitting shoulder pump

muscular man performing dumbbell lateral raises

Jim Stoppani recommends supersetting the Smith machine lateral raise with light dumbbell lateral raises to get the maximum amount of blood into the muscle. This blood flow increases what's called metabolic stress (which is essentially the scientific term for the all-important pump).

Anyway, I rarely get sore for shoulder training. But after following Jim's advice, my delts had DOMS for days.

I suppose that my shoulders just weren't used to such a high training intensity. After all, it's been a while since I've taken a muscle to true failure. But after enduring the burn twice a week (for a month straight!), my delts are looking much rounder and proportional.

Of course, I couldn't have achieved my results without consuming a high-protein diet, and my pre-workout definitely gave me an edge on the pump side of things. However, it was the Smith machine lateral raise that actually triggered the muscle growth. My food and supplements simply made the best use of that stimulus.

Smith machine lateral raise alternatives

Smith machine shoulder press

back-view of a bodybuilder training his shoulders

The Smith machine overhead press is my go-to mass builder for shoulders. I did the barbell version for years and got stronger, but my actual delt development was pretty lacklustre.

However, after switching to the Smith machine version and focusing on the working muscle, my shoulders have beefed up significantly. I highly recommend giving it a shot if you're more interested in muscle growth than pure "strength". Whatever that really means (a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle).

Smith machine behind the neck press

muscualr man training his shoulders

Performing a behind-the-neck military press on the Smith machine can be risky. However, you don't get rewarded in life or in the gym without taking your fair share of risks.

The BTNP builds the shoulders fast by taking your triceps out of the movement (mostly). This controversial exercise also places far more tension on your side delts than the standard front press, making it an excellent movement for sculpting proportional shoulders.

However, it's best to avoid this exercise if you've had rotator cuff problems in the past. I personally can't do the BTNP pain-free, so I just do more lateral raises. And I don't think I'm leaving any gains on the table.

Smith machine upright row

Like the BTNP, Smith machine wide grip upright rows also have a reputation for being less than kind to the shoulders. However, this is simply because most people perform the exercise incorrectly. They've been told more range of motion is better, and so they raise the bar to their eyes and then wonder why their shoulders hurt.

If you only raise your elbows to shoulder height, you'll naturally keep the tension on your side delts while simultaneously sparing your rotator cuffs. It doesn't get more optimal than that.

Smith machine rear delt row

female training her shoulder muscles

If you thought that reverse flys were the only way to build your posterior delts, then allow me to introduce you to Smith machine rear delt rows. This exercise is the rear delt mass-builder if there ever was one. So put away your pink dumbbells and start rear delt rowing. Your shoulders will thank you for it.

It's also a great complement to the Smith machine lateral raise.

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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