Front Raise 101
Performing a front raise is as straightforward as it gets when it comes to exercising. You stand up straight with your arms extended and holding a plate or dummbells. You then raise your arms forward until the weights are over your head. You can stop the motion once your arms are horizontal to the ground. This shorter motion poses less risk for shoulder injury. When you reach either the overhead or horizontal position, depending on your preference, you then lower the weights down to the beginning point.
Range of Motion
The dumbbell front raise and weight plate front raise have nearly identical ranges of motion. With dumbbells, you can start with your hands by your sides. With a weight plate, you must start with your hands in front of your thighs. Due to the starting positions, dumbbells provide you with a slightly greater range of motion. There is no significant advantage to this, but it will allow you to stretch your muscles more. Range of motion is thus neither a pro or con of either dumbbells or a weight plate for the front raise.
Variety of Hand Positions
The variety of hand positions is where dumbbells shine over weight plates for the front raise. Weight plates force you to use a neutral, or thumbs-up, hand grip at the sides of the weight plate. It's difficult and uncomfortable to hold the top or bottom, and doing so increases the risk you drop the weight plate on your foot due to the weak grip. With dumbbells you can comfortably use an underhanded, neutral or overhanded grip. An underhanded grip lets you almost completely isolate the anterior deltoids, while neutral and overhanded grips recruit a good deal of side shoulder involvement. With the greater variety in hand grips that dumbbells provide, you can choose whether to isolate a muscle or work several at a time during the front raise, so dumbbells win in this case.
Another big advantage of dumbbells is you can choose a wide variety of weight increments at typically 5 pounds apart. Weight plates, however, usually start at 5 pounds and only go up to 45 pounds in most gyms. These are general numbers but are typical of the norm. Some gyms offer lighter and/or heavier weight plates, but the variety is nowhere near that of the dumbbells.
It is clear that dumbbells are superior to weight plates as far as the front raise exercise is concerned. The range of motion is similar between the two. But, with the use of dumbbells, you can choose whether or not to isolate your anterior deltoids and can choose nearly any weight you want to exercise the muscle.