The greatest physiques of all time have always had one defining quality – strong shoulders.
Think of all the greats, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank Zane, and Shawn Ray; they all had strong and proportionate shoulder physiques.
One defining quality of all of their workout programs – is bodyweight shoulder exercises.
Bodyweight shoulder exercises are some of the best ways to develop strong shoulders – an essential quality for any athlete.
Not only do strong shoulders look great, but they are also a very functional set of muscles. The shoulders are not as simple as one muscle.
Unlike muscles like the biceps and triceps, the Deltoids and surrounding shoulder muscles need to work in a wide variety of movement patterns. In essence, they act in almost all directions of the shoulder.
An incredible set of muscles like this is something you will want to develop.
Boulder Shoulders: Anatomy Refresher
Before we get into workouts and exercises, let’s take a quick moment to refresh your knowledge of the anatomy of shoulder muscles.
When you think of the shoulders, you are thinking of the deltoids. These are the big muscles you can visually see on the top of the shoulder.
We say “these” because the deltoid muscle is broken into three parts – the anterior deltoid, posterior deltoid, and middle lateral deltoid.
Named after their location on the shoulder (front, back, and side), each deltoid muscle has a different job.
While the anterior portion of the shoulder works to flex the arm (raise it in front of your head), the posterior deltoid helps in external rotation (pulling your thumb to the ear), and the lateral deltoid helps with the abduction of the arm (raising your arm out to the side).
Each deltoid muscle has a specific job, but when it comes to compound movements like the overhead press, all the deltoid muscles work together in symmetry to provide you power and strength.
Training the deltoids requires you to complete exercises where you press the weight overhead, raise the weight in front of you, or pull the weight towards you (face pulls).
Rotator Cuff Muscles
A much smaller set of muscles that carry the weight of your lifting success.
The rotator cuff muscles are the muscles surrounding the scapula (shoulder blade), and they work to stabilize almost all the movements in this area.
Although these muscles may not be large, they still carry a considerable portion of your ability to lift weights.
Since they stabilize the shoulder, weak rotator cuff muscles can not only limit the amount of weight you can lift, but weak rotator cuff muscles can also increase the rate of injury while training.
Shoulder injuries are one of the most common injuries to have as a weight lifter.
The simple fix here is to complete simple bodyweight shoulder exercises like arm circles every time you workout.
This will help to strengthen and mobilize your shoulder.
No, the triceps are not necessarily a shoulder muscle – but they do act in assistance through most shoulder strengthening exercises.
The triceps are a simple muscle system that works to extend the arm.
The triceps system comprises three muscles, but the most important is the triceps’ long head, which attaches to the scapula (shoulder blade).
This means it must work together with the shoulder in exercises where you are pressing overhead or extending the arms.
The triceps are a strong set of muscles that will train best at a high intensity (high weights), so be sure to use exercises that are compound and powerful.
How Do You Build Great Shoulders?
The shoulder muscles are one of the most challenging sets of muscles to train.
On the one hand, you have to factor in that many people lack mobility, some people may have never trained shoulders, and some people might not have the physiology for wide shoulders.
The fact remains that although the shoulders are challenging to train, with time and patience, anyone can develop the muscle through a set of bodyweight shoulder exercises.
Here is our list of the best exercises you can use to develop strength and physique – and the best way to train with this exercise.
Bodyweight Shoulder Exercises
(Arranged easiest to most difficult)
1. Pike Press
The original shoulder exercise.
There are videos of gymnastic athletes completing this exercise for generations.
It is a simple shift from a pushup, but it makes all the difference – especially for those of you who are interested in completing handstands.
The pike press is a simple exercise that helps to isolate the anterior deltoid for size and strength.
When completing this exercise, it will be best to ensure you are going through a slow and complete range of motion – there are few benefits in half-reps.
2. Static Handstand
Even if you have to use a wall, the static handstand is one of the better exercises for building balance in the back of the shoulder.
The best part about this exercise (beyond building muscle) is that the position will help you transition into more complicated exercises like the handstand pushup.
Those who are new to handstand training should be sure to keep a low volume on this exercise.
Since your wrists may not be used to the amount of pressure on them in a static position, you could fall into an unnecessary injury if you jump into this too fast.
3. Walkout Pushups
My favorite exercise for warming up – especially when I am training the upper body.
The walkout is an exercise where you start in a standing position, fold at the hip (try to touch your toes), and proceed to walk your hands out in front of you until you are in a pushup position.
Complete one pushup from this position and then continue to walk your hands back towards your feet so that you can front fold and stand up (reverse the same position).
Walkouts are one of the best bodyweight shoulder exercises because they will help to strengthen every muscle involved in shoulder anatomy.
4. Hindu pushup
A popular yoga exercise that can help increase strength and mobility.
The Hindu pushup is very difficult to do right, but when completed correctly has a considerable impact on anterior shoulder size and strength.
Similar to the static handstand, if you are new to training, this is an exercise where you will want to keep the volume lower than usual.
Training this exercise 1-2 times a week will be enough to grow stronger without running into injury.
5. Handstand Pushup
The king of all bodyweight shoulder exercises, the handstand pushup is the complete mastery of your body.
This is an exercise that will take time to complete, but when it is done, you will have achieved a skill that only a select percent have been able to accomplish.
The handstand pushup will help develop all muscles in the shoulder, build strength, and define your shoulder for the optimal physique.
When training this exercise, we recommend sticking to lower reps and higher sets.
This is an exercise that will take time (perhaps years) to develop properly. Do not rush your strength, and be sure to keep the final goal in mind.
Shoulder Exercises With Dumbbells
You can develop profound strength in the shoulders through bodyweight-only exercises, but sometimes it can be very effective to grab a dumbbell and use some resistance.
Take a look at our favorite shoulder exercises with dumbbells.
The overhead press falls into the same category as the handstand pushup in the strength world. Those that can lift a plate over their heads are regarded as strong athletes.
The overhead press is simple.
Start the dumbbell or barbell at shoulder level and press the weight overhead. In the process, you will train the entire shoulder for strength, size, and physique.
If you are looking to get bigger, stronger shoulders, this is an exercise you will not want to miss.
TOP TIP: similar to the handstand, this is an exercise where you will be best at a lower volume and a moderate/high intensity. Generally, this means using low reps and high weight.
A basic lateral raise is one of the most underrated exercises in a workout program.
Most programs overemphasize the anterior deltoid muscle, which can lead to injury.
Make your workout program complete by adding some dumbbell lateral raises 2-3 times a week.
Use low weight and complete a controlled, wide range of motion.
Front Raise (On Bench)
Very common in the bodybuilding world, the dumbbell front raise will help you to train the posterior deltoids and many muscles in the rotator cuff.
To complete this exercise correctly, you will need an incline bench or something to lean over while your body is lying down.
To maximize strength in this exercise, be sure to keep the reps high and weight low.
This is an exercise where you could run into some injury since there is a lot of movement and weight being supported by the neck.
Keep the sets low and reps high – I’d suggest basic progressions like 3×12.
At-Home Workout For Beginners
Having a set of amazing exercises can help, but the best way to ensure you are prepped and ready for building strength is to have a program.
Below, we will detail two workouts you can complete, which will allow you to build strength and size.
One will be bodyweight shoulder exercises only, while the other will be bodyweight exercises along with dumbbell exercises.
|BODYWEIGHT SHOULDER WORKOUT*||REPS||SETS||TEMPO||RBS|
|Pushup with Shoulder Tap||12||3||2020||2m|
|BODYWEIGHT + SHOULDER WORKOUT*||REPS||SETS||TEMPO||RBS|
*Bodyweight plus dumbbells
Building Growth in the Shoulders: Frequency and Intensity
Bodyweight shoulder exercises are not difficult to complete, but the shoulder’s anatomy means we have to be ever patient in achieving strength.
These are muscles that take time to develop, and beyond that, growth will only occur with consistent frequency and high intensity.
Be sure to train your shoulders 2-3 times per week.
This could be as simple as having one dedicated shoulder workout per week, and the other two are compound lifting exercises like the overhead press in other workouts.
This frequency will help you develop your muscles through the best bodyweight shoulder exercises above.
This topic is sometimes open to debate, but most strength experts can agree that a higher intensity through lower weights will help to ensure that you are building muscle without risking injury.
Try to keep your weights so that they are moderate-heavy, and your reps are around 25 total for each exercise.
3 sets x 8 repetitions =24 total contractions
4 sets x 6 repetitions = 24 total contractions
Coming full circle and admiring the greatest bodybuilders of our time, it is easy to see why these guys, guys with massive shoulders, are respected so much.
Having strong and stable shoulders is an essential quality of any athlete.
We hope you can use this information and the workouts above to build strength and size and improve your athletic abilities.
What Are Some Bodyweight Exercises for Front Deltoid?
The best bodyweight exercises for the front deltoid are walkouts and the pike press.
Both exercises will help build strength and size in the shoulders without any resistance.
How Can I Build Lateral Deltoids with Bodyweight?
Shoulder tap pushups can help develop the lateral deltoids, but one of the most effective for strength is the elbow-supported plank rotation.
See this video for more details.
What Are the Best Bodyweight Rear Delt Exercises?
Hitting the rear deltoids is all about externally rotating the arm or raising overhead.
Our favorite bodyweight-only rear delt exercises are the back plank.
See this video for more details on how to complete this correctly.
CSEP-CPT, Expert in Exercise Physiology.
Gabriello is a writer and strength expert best known for his science-based yet practical approach to exercise physiology, nutrition, and strength. After serving in a directors position for The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, Gabriello moved towards writing to help more people understand the importance of living a healthy life. Gabriello's articles have been published globally, in several languages, on some of the largest health and fitness websites helping people learn, grow and understand the complex components of optimizing human performance in a simplistic way.
Gabriello also takes on specialized, high-performance athletes who seek strength, mobility, and conditioning. Through individualized and progressive programming he can optimize your fitness through his Earned Fitness program.