Overhead pressing should be the foundation of your shoulder work. You just can’t beat heavy compound movements for size and strength. But earning cannonball shoulders requires focusing on all three heads (anterior, lateral, posterior) of your shoulders.
And the barbell front raise is a decent isolation exercise for the front delts.
Yes, the front delts get a lot of work and activation during overhead pressing and bench pressing movements. But even the best pressers in the world take their time to isolate each of the three heads of the shoulder complex. Most of us mere mortals, however, can use all the extra help and size we can get.
So I give you the barbell front raise. While an isolation movement, the inclusion of the barbell allows you to isolate and overload the front delt.
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Table of Contents
- Video: Barbell Front Raise Demonstration
- How to Perform the Barbell Front Raise: Step-by-Step Instructions
- Common Mistakes
- Programming the Barbell Front Raise
- Safety and Precautions
- Barbell Front Raise Muscles Worked
- Barbell Front Raise Variations
- My Honest Opinion
- Recommended Gear for the Barbell Front Raise
- Conclusion: The Barbell Front Raise
- Read Next
Video: Barbell Front Raise Demonstration
How to Perform the Barbell Front Raise: Step-by-Step Instructions
Step 1: Grasp a barbell with an overhand grip, hands spaced about shoulder-width apart. Your arms should be straight but with a very slight bend at the elbows. This is your starting position.
Step 2: Raise the barbell forward and upward until your upper arms are slightly above horizontal, just past shoulder height.
Step 3: Lower the barbell under control and repeat.
Avoiding errors when performing any exercise is paramount to both the effectiveness of the lift and avoiding injury. Avoid these common mistakes with the barbell front raise.
This lift is meant to isolate the front delts. Using momentum, like swinging back and forth or lifting the weight too fast, takes tension off these muscles and fails to provide a sufficient overload. Even worse, this type of movement may cause injury in the elbows or wrists.
Using too much weight is another common barbell front raise mistake. Because you’re training with a barbell and your arms are working together, it’s very easy to more weight than your shoulders are ready for. Especially the surrounding rotator cuff muscles. Using an excessive load can put your joints in awkward positions, which could result in injury. Trust me, you do not want to injure your shoulders.
Start with a lightweight and progress to a heavier weight only when you can lift it with proper form.
Just like any other barbell lift, poor form can lead to injury. Keep your back straight, core engaged, head forward, and shoulder blades retracted.
Shrugging the Weight
try and relax your traps as much as possible throughout this movement. People have a tendency to shrug their shoulders to their ears when doing barbell front raises, which over activates the trapezius muscles. You want your front delts lifting the weight.
Your wrists should stay in a neutral position throughout the movement. As if you have a yardstick taped from your elbow to your knuckles. Do not bend your wrists up or down. If you can’t maintain a neutral position the weight is too heavy.
Lifting above the shoulders
The barbell should end roughly in line with your chin. Slightly past parallel with the floor. Some people will say to raise up to your eye level. That is too high. Going higher does not increase stimulation on the anterior delts, but does increase your risk for impingement or injury.
Programming the Barbell Front Raise
Whether you’re trying to get stronger, bigger, or just fitter, the barbell front raise is an easy exercise to add to any lifting routine, for any goal. It all depends on how much you want or need to focus on your front delt development.
If you feel your front delts are underdeveloped, barbell front raise can be included 2-3 days per week. You can also add them to the start of your shoulder workouts when your shoulders are fresh. Subsequent exercises will then push these muscles even further, stimulating new growth.
If you feel that your front delts are already developed enough or you just use barbell front raises more for “prehab,” they can be included once per week, possibly for higher rep sets.
You could also add barbell front raises to your routine for a “deload” week. If you’re in an overreaching cycle and feel like your shoulders need a break, barbell front raises could be the perfect deload exercise because it’s less strenuous than the barbell shoulder press.
When: Barbell front raises can fit in at any point in your workout. If you have great shoulders or can move a lot of weight in pressing movements, add these at the beginning of your workout to pre-exhaust your front delts.
If your shoulder development is lacking, get your pressing movements in first when they are fresh, and then push them further with barbell front raises. This is another time these are a great movement. Because your arms are working together you will be able to lift more weight, which is great for growth.
Sets: 2 to 3 sets of the barbell front raise taken close to failure is a good place to start. You should also be doing lots of presses whether the bench press or overhead press which should make up a large part of your shoulder training. Otherwise, you’ll need more isolation work overall.
Reps: I never recommend using heavy weights relative to your ability that limit you to less than 8 reps. This is an isolation movement, not a compound exercise. So higher reps with lighter weight are going to be more effective and safe here.
I recommend 8 to 15 reps, but often as high as 20 to 25 as well. Focus on form and still push to within a rep or two of failure, even with these higher rep ranges.
Safety and Precautions
Warm your shoulders up well before performing any shoulder work with weights. Personally and professionally I recommend the Crossover Symmetry System. I have it. I use it before all upper body workouts. The bands are high quality and they have demonstration videos and resources to help you do the exercises correctly.
I actually purchased their system to help rehab a shoulder injury. Thanks, CrossFit. Love you! (I actually do love CrossFit…the shoulder injury was my own fault…while doing competitive CrossFit.)
If you have a previous or current shoulder injury, follow the directions of your doctor or physical therapist. They’ll be very familiar with this exercise.
Do not continue any lift if you feel pain.
Your shoulders may impinge if you rotate too quickly during this movement. Take the movement slow and controlled.
Barbell Front Raise Muscles Worked
The shoulders are made up of three heads, the anterior (front), lateral (side), and posterior (rear) deltoid muscles. These three heads act as the prime movers during abduction (moving away from the body) of the arms.
The shoulder structure is also made up of three bones: the scapula (shoulder blade), clavicle (collarbone), and humerus (upper arm bone).
Finally, the shoulder structure is made up of four joints, stabilized by the rotator cuff muscles. The muscles, bones, and joints work together to allow the shoulder to function as a ball and socket joint, providing an incredible range of motion.
The main muscles targeted during the barbell front raise are:
Primary Muscles: Anterior Deltoid
The anterior deltoid is situated on the front of the arm above the biceps, adjacent to the pectoralis major muscles. The role of the anterior deltoid, in conjunction with the pec major, is to flex the shoulder. It also helps to medially rotate the humerus by contracting with the subscapularis, pectorals, and lats.
Secondary Muscles: Lateral Deltoid
The lateral delts are situated on the side of the arm above the triceps, behind (or posterior to) the pectoralis major muscles. The role of the lateral deltoid is to abduct (raise away from the body) the shoulder joint.
Tertiary Muscles: Pectoralis Major Clavicular Head
The pectoralis major muscles are situated on the chest between the sternum and humerus. The primary role of this muscle is to adduct (bring together) the shoulder at the glenohumeral joint.
The serratus anterior is situated on the side and front of the upper thorax, adjacent to the ribs. The role of this muscle is to stabilize the scapula at the glenohumeral joint. It also works with the trapezius muscle to sustain upward rotation of the scapula, which allows for overhead arm movement. (1)
Barbell Front Raise Variations
There are several variations of the barbell front raise that you should add to your program.
Incline Front Raise
Set a bench at an incline and lie on it with your chest down and your face looking at the ground. Grasp your dumbbells, weight plate, or barbell and perform front raises. These create an angle similar to the angle I just described for cable front raises. These also prevent any possibility of cheating, so they really help you focus on form and targeting the muscle correctly.
Dumbbell front raise
Dumbbells force each arm to work on its own, helping to correct or prevent imbalances. They also allow for a freer range of movement, which means you can make very small adjustments to suit your body or target the muscles slightly differently. Finally, the force smaller stabilizing muscles to become more involved than when you use a barbell.
You can hold the dumbbell with an overhand, underhand, neutral, or any angled grip you like. Find grips that work best for you.
Single Dumbbell Front Raise
These are fun! They are kind of a cross between a dumbbell front raise and a barbell front raise.
Grab a dumbbell with both hands, interlocking your fingers around the handle. Now raise the dumbbell using both arms, just like a barbell front raise!
You can get away with the fingers interlocked as long as the weight is relatively light. As you get stronger with these you’ll find that you need to hold the dumbbell with one hand above the other. This is not ideal, but it’s ok! Just even things out by switching the top hand each set.
Or you can hold the weight with one hand on the outside of each head of the dumbbell as well.
Weight Plate Front Raise
Grab a weight plate and hold it with your hands on opposite sides of the plate. It’s okay if your grip is slightly above or below the center of the plate. Just find a comfortable position.
Raise the plate with both arms just like a barbell front raise.
I love these as a burnout/finisher at the end of shoulder workouts! High reps and just load the burn into your delts.
Cable front raise
The major benefit of using cables instead of free weights is that they place constant tension on the target muscle. They also offer a nice variety because you can use a bunch of different handles.
Place a straight bar handle to the lowest pulley increment of a cable station. Stand with your back to the cable station and grab the attachment with your palms facing your body (pronated grip).
Step away from the pulley station with the cable running between your legs. Raise the cable just as you would a barbell front raise. Smooth reps, nice slow eccentric.
My favorite handle to use with these is actually the triceps rope! Same setup as with the straight bar, but I want you to hinge at the hips so that your back is at a 45-degree angle. Raise the rope just like a barbell front raise, with your thumbs toward the ceiling. The angled upper body helps to keep the tension in your shoulders throughout the entire movement.
My Honest Opinion
I don’t do these often. Overhead pressing is still going to give you the best bang-for-your-buck when it comes to building the front delts. Nothing else comes close. Cap your shoulders off with side the lateral raise and rear delt raise with dumbbells, cables, or a reverse pec fly and you’re good.
But these can beat the boredom. Yes, the tried and true movements are the best, but our brains and bodies need a break from time to time. If you’ve been doing the same exercises for a while now, switch things up a bit.
Of all the variations I mention in this article, cable front raises with a rope attachment are my favorite. I get the most out of them. Sometimes I will do them as a pre-exhaust before pressing, other times I’ll do them at the end of my workout as a burnout. Either way, they’re great.
Recommended Gear for the Barbell Front Raise
I use each of the barbells listed below on a regular basis. They are incredible all-purpose barbells at great prices.
Again Faster Team Barbell 2.0 – This is the barbell I have and use at home.
Rogue Bar 2.0 – This is an incredible all-purpose barbell. Some of my closest friends own this one and use it as their daily bar. It’s also one of the bars used at the CrossFit Games.
Rogue Bella Bar 2.0 – Modeled after the Rogue Bar 2.0 but designed for women with a 25mm shaft and 15kg (33lb) weight. This is an incredible all-purpose barbell and is the bar the women use at the CrossFit Games.
Titan Fitness Blues City Olympic Barbell – My local CrossFit gym has this barbell and I use it often. It’s a great all-purpose barbell.
Rogue Fitness Cast Iron Olympic Plates – These are high quality and slightly less expensive than bumper plates. Again, great if you’re not going to drop them.
Rogue Crumb Bumper Plates – Crumb bumpers are amazing for home gyms! They are incredibly durable and are much quieter than typical bumper plates. And, if you plan on training outside at any point, these are the plates you need.
Conclusion: The Barbell Front Raise
We’ve discussed how to perform the barbell front raise and some great variations to target your front delts. If you want to avoid boredom in your workouts and break up the monotony, try out one or more of these exercises? See which ones you like and which ones make your training fun.
As always, remember that safety is priority number one when it comes to weight training. Check your ego at the door and keep the weights light enough to truly hammer the muscle without compromising your shoulder health.
Leave me a comment and let me know what variations you like or which ones I forgot and I’ll add them to the article.
- Lung K, Lui F. Anatomy, thorax, serratus anterior muscles. StatPearls [Internet]. 2020 Jul 10. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK531457/ (accessed 1.20.2022)