The shoulders bear the brunt of a lot of upper body movement, and numerous exercises for the upper body involve the deltoids as secondary stabilizers. While the shoulder press and certain variations of other overhead presses engage the shoulder muscles, the deltoids are tough to engage under load through a more natural rotational movement. Both the reverse fly and the lateral raise target the deltoids through a rotator-cuff friendly motion. Each exercise engages similar muscles, but their different motions may better suit your specific strength training goals.

Reverse Fly

The reverse fly works the lateral and posterior portions of the deltoids, along with the trapezius muscles, the latissimus dorsi and the triceps. The form works most efficiently when the fly is performed against gravity, lying on a flat or inclined workout bench. The only other equipment necessary are dumbbells, free weight plates or kettlebells. The motion begins with the weight at or near the floor. With a weight in each hand, lift both arms in unison straight back, bend at the elbows, and bring the weight up to torso-level. Hold them there for a moment against gravity, then slowly return them to a starting position.

Lateral Raise

The lateral raise works the anterior and lateral portions of the deltoids, and engages the trapezius, the triceps and the latissimus dorsi as stabilizer muscles. You can perform the lateral raise while seated in a flat-backed workout chair or while standing. The standing version engages a broader network of upper-body stabilizers. Use dumbbells, free weight plates or kettlebells for the exercise. Start with a weight in each hand, with your arms hanging at your sides. Lift both weights up and out to your sides while keeping your arms straight and your elbows locked. Hold the weights up for a second, then control both while you lower your arms back to your sides.


Both exercises have similar form and engage mostly the same muscles in the same way. The notable difference in muscle targets is the deltoid. The reverse fly engages the posterior portion of the shoulder muscles, while the lateral raise engages the anterior portion. Beyond that, both exercises work the lateral deltoids along with the same network of secondary muscles. The lateral raise is a logistically simpler exercise that you can do with only two free weights. The reverse fly requires a bench or something to lean over to support your upper body.


Since the two exercises are so similar, performing both during a workout session requires caution, especially if those exercises are performed in conjunction with other shoulder-targeting forms such as military presses or even bench presses. The shoulder joints are prone to injury, and too many similar exercises increase the risk of over-training the deltoids. For best results, alternate each exercise in consecutive workout sessions. For example, on upper-body Day 1, do reverse flyes; on upper-body Day 2, do lateral raises.

by Bobby R. Goldsmith