Are Side Laterals Better Than Overhead Presses?

Runner bending forward, stretching

Shoulders can be sculpted and accentuated through exercise. Aside from aesthetics, the shoulders are an important complex of muscles and connective tissue that allow for functional movement of the arms. Both overhead presses and side lateral raises develop the shoulders. One may not necessarily be better than the other since each exercise places emphasis on the muscles in a different way.

Overhead Press

The overhead press incorporates multiple muscles of the shoulder in addition to the muscles of the surrounding area. Overhead presses work the front and side shoulder muscles and also engage the trapezius muscles---shoulder muscles at the base of the neck--- and the triceps. The compound movement covers a large range of muscles with one exercise.

Military Press

Military presses are a type of overhead press performed with a barbell or Smith machine. The motion involves lifting the barbell from shoulder height in front of the chest overhead. One of several styles of overhead press, this exercise also incorporates muscles of the upper chest as well as working the front and side shoulders muscles along with the triceps.

Dumbbell Overhead Press

Performing the overhead press with dumbbells allows for a greater range of motion than using a barbell. Dumbbells can be positioned with the knuckles back and the palms facing forward, or presses can be performed with the knuckles turned outward and the palms facing the ears. The more traditional press with the knuckles back focuses work on the front and side shoulders muscles, while turning the knuckles inwards places greater emphasis on the side shoulders muscles alone.

Side Lateral Raise

Lateral raises are considered an isolation movement meaning they work one muscle group with the movement of only one joint. Because they are an isolation movement, work is focused solely on the side shoulder muscle. Performing lateral raises with the arms straight places greater challenge on the muscle as the entire arm creates a greater torque on the muscle during the movement. Lateral raises are often performed with the arms bent as well. This still focuses work on the side shoulder but allows for movement of heavier weight since the moving lever is shorter.


The overhead press is a compound movement that works multiple muscles with one motion. If time is an issue overhead presses may be a useful option for effectively hitting more muscles in a shorter amount of time. However, side lateral raises are invaluable for deeply sculpting the shape, density and strength of the side shoulder muscle as well as strengthening connective tissue at the shoulder joint. Ideally, a combination of both movements provides the most effective and comprehensive workout for the side shoulder region.