When it comes to shoulder health, stability and control around the joint are paramount.
So, any exercise that helps to improve shoulder stability and control is undoubtedly worth taking note of.
Cue… Powell raises.
Despite being relatively unknown, this exercise is incredibly effective at assessing and improving shoulder strength, range of motion and stability… and we think it’s about time the movement got the attention and praise it deserves.
Correct technique is everything though, so this exercise guide provides a clear overview of the movement, including how to perform it properly, muscles worked, benefits and common mistakes to avoid.
- Powell raises are a great way to improve overall shoulder health.
- They primarily target the posterior deltoids.
- You can do them on the floor, a flat bench, or an incline bench.
- Alternative exercises include reverse flyes, cable face pulls and scarecrows.
Coach’s Tip – Powell raises are first and foremost an exercise used to improve shoulder stability, control and mobility. This means try and avoid the temptation to use heavy weights… and instead, focus on slow repetitions using light weight.
What is the Powell Raise Exercise?
The Powell raise exercise is a horizontal shoulder abduction movement.
It involves lying on your side and lifting a weight, such as a dumbbell or weight plate, until vertical, before slowly lowering it back down.
This movement path means the exercise primarily targets the posterior deltoids and supporting muscles.
The focus is less about absolute strength and more about challenging your shoulder stability and control.
If you don’t have access to a cable pulley machine, doing horizontal shoulder abduction isn’t straight forward (due to gravity), which is why Powell raises are a great alternative for those who only have access to (or prefer using) free weights.
The movement feels somewhat similar to lu raises, in that even just a very light weight is surprisingly challenging.
The Powell raise can be performed on either the floor, a flat bench or on an incline bench (set to a 30-45 degree angle).
Although we find the incline variation the most effective (because it allows for greater range of motion), we tend to prefer using the floor/flat bench variation just because the set up is easier, and it’s less awkward getting comfortable… and this generally means it’s more likely to become a regular exercise in someone’s fitness routine.
If you’re tall, doing Powell raises on the floor is probably the easiest set up for you.
Equipment You’ll Need
You only need a weight, preferably a dumbbell or weight plate.
Even if you’re experienced in the gym, opt for the lightest weight possible to begin with and adapt as you feel necessary.
If you want to do the incline or flat bench variations, you’ll need a bench too.
How to do the Powell Raise
To do the Powell raise:
- Lie on your side left side and either support your head with your left hand, or lift yourself up onto your left forearm.
- Grab a weight, such as a dumbbell or weight plate in your right arm and extend it out in front of you.
- Pull your right arm back until it is vertical and pause for a moment.
- Don’t hinge/bend your elbow as you lift your arm.
- Slowly lower your right arm back down.
- Repeat for repetitions and do the same on the other side.
Coach’s Tip – We tend to do Powell raises on the floor/flat bench for the simplicity and accessibility but you can follow the same instructions and do it on an incline bench. Alternatively, you could do a set of each variation if you want to hit the muscles from different angles too.
Slow Lowering (Eccentric) Phrase
What Muscles Does the Powell Raise Work?
The Powell raise primarily works the deltoids, the muscles at the back of your shoulders, as well as the supraspinatus and the upper trapezius.
These muscles play a vital role in all sorts of movement paths, including horizontal abduction, rotation and extension… and are important for overall shoulder health.
Benefits of Powell Raises
Improved Shoulder Stability
By strengthening the posterior deltoids and the muscles around the shoulder blades, the Powell raise is very effective at improving shoulder stability.
This can help improve performance in other exercises, such as bench press and pull ups, and reduce the overall risk of shoulder injuries.
When you hear people talk about “bullet-proofing” their shoulders, i.e., reducing the risk of injuries, it’s often referring to joint stability and range of motion, as well as strength.
Better shoulder control will have a noticeable impact on all types of exercises, especially any that involve overhead lifts.
Without this control around the joints, you increase the risk of injury as you try and add more load to these types of movements.
This is why shoulder mobility and stability exercises are so important for anyone doing Olympic lifts.
The muscles targeted by the Powell raise help to promote good posture (i.e., combat shoulders rounding).
By strengthening these muscles, you can help open up the chest and keep your shoulders back.
This can reduce discomfort and pain associated with poor posture.
Powell raises test each shoulder separately, so you can spot any muscular imbalances.
This is really useful for athletes that may use one arm (e.g., baseball pitchers, tennis players) more than the other.
Failing to address muscular imbalances can increase the risk of certain injuries, so it is something worth assessing.
The Powell raise can also contribute to a well-rounded and balanced upper body physique. It ensures that the posterior deltoids are not neglected, which is often the case in workout routines that include more ‘pushing’ exercises compared to ‘pulling’ ones.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
Weight is Too Heavy
Selecting a dumbbell or weight plate that is too heavy is the most common mistake we see, and will lead to bad technique, such as using momentum and adopting more of a swing, instead of a slow, controlled raise.
Keep things really light and focus more on stretching the shoulder joint as well as very slow, controlled repetitions.
Using momentum to lift the weight not only increases the risk of injury but also means you’re not testing your shoulder control and stability.
This usually happens when you select weight that is too heavy, but could happen with light weight too, if you aren’t following the right technique.
If in doubt, slow things down, as this will stop any momentum or swing from happening.
Avoid over-extending beyond vertical as you lift the weight up. You may find doing Powell raises in front of a mirror is useful to check if this is happening.
Rolling the Hips
The focus of this exercise should be on the shoulders, which means you need to keep your hips from rolling backwards (doing so means your shoulders aren’t moving as much, so the exercise is less effective).
Keeping your core activated and engaged will help create stability around the hips.
You may find doing a Powell raise side plank not only makes the exercise harder, but actually helps address any issues of hips rolling, as you’ll need to keep your core activated to maintain the side plank.
Increase the challenge with side plank Powell raises
Powell Raise Alternatives
Dumbbell Reverse Fly
The dumbbell reverse fly also targets the posterior deltoids and can be performed standing or bent over.
It involves holding a dumbbell in each hand and extending your arms out to the sides, then bringing the dumbbells back together in front of you.
If you are using dumbbell reverse flyes as a Powell raise alternative, focus on really slow and controlled repetitions.
Using a cable pulley machine, cable face pulls target the rear deltoids and the upper back muscles.
The exercise involves pulling the cable towards your face while keeping your upper arms parallel to the ground.
This is another great exercise to help combat poor posture.
Scarecrows are primarily used to help improve shoulder mobility. Either using no weight, or very light weight, scarecrows involve hinging at the shoulder with your shoulders and elbows bent at 90 degrees.
Powell raises are a great way to target the posterior deltoids and the muscles between the shoulder blades.
As with any exercise, it’s important to use good technique as discussed in this exercise guide, to maximize effectiveness and prevent injury.
Featured image and video demonstration credit – Camille Leblanc-bazinet