December 01, 2021
In this post, we have 9 effective bodyweight shoulder exercises of varying difficulty levels. With these exercises, you can build bigger, stronger, more injury resilient shoulders. We also have 4 bodyweight shoulder workout routines that you can follow - No weights needed at all!
Your shoulder is the most mobile joint in your body, and it is also the joint most susceptible to injury. So, it's important to keep the muscles surrounding the joint (deltoids and rotator cuff) strong, stable, and mobile.
You use your shoulders every day, pretty much all day. Any pressing or pulling motion you do with your upper body involves your shoulders. Strengthening them will only make life easier.
Plus, having well-defined shoulders looks fantastic!
Now, if you are into calisthenics, or, you prefer bodyweight workouts at home (or outdoors), or you simply don’t have access to weights, you might have some trouble targeting your shoulders. It’s a difficult muscle group to target with only your bodyweight, right? Actually, think again…
We are going to teach you how to hit your shoulders effectively without any equipment. But, before we jump into the shoulder exercises and workouts, let’s talk about the anatomy of the deltoid muscle, how the traps play a role in shoulder workouts, the importance of training your shoulders, and how to progressive overload your shoulders so you can continue building muscle and strength over time with just your bodyweight.
Your shoulders consist of three major muscles, known as the Deltoids or Delts. They are a group of triangular muscles.
For the purpose of this article, we are focusing on bodyweight deltoids exercises, as these are superficial muscles (muscles that can be seen as they are close to the surface of the skin), and that's what most people think about when doing a shoulder workout. The deltoids are primary movers, so they will give us the strength and power we want for pushing movements. Moreover, the deltoids are what create tone, broad shoulders that pop.
The anterior deltoids are located on the front of your upper arm. They attach to your collarbone, allowing you to flex your shoulder joint and rotate inward. Your anterior delts are primarily in use when you bring or press your arms up in front of you (i.e. front raises and push ups).
The lateral deltoids are located on the side of your upper arm. They attach to your shoulder blade, allowing you to abduct your arm. They are primarily in use with exercises that bring your arms towards your sides or overhead (i.e. overhead presses and lateral raises).
The posterior deltoids are located on the back of your upper arm. They are attached to your shoulder blade as well, allowing you to extend and laterally rotate your arm. They also keep you from hunching forward. The posterior deltoids are primarily in use with exercises that bring your arms behind you (i.e. reverse flys).
Note: The posterior deltoids are stabilizer muscles for the front and middle delts during pressing movements. For example, when you do an overhead press, your posterior deltoid is acting as a stabilizer. The posterior delts will be primary movers during pulling motions.
Your rotator cuff complex is a group of muscles that help keep your shoulders stable. The rotator cuff is composed of the subscapularis, supraspinatus, infraspinatus and teres minor muscles. These muscles attach to the humerus, providing support for the glenohumeral joint (ball and socket joint of the shoulder).
The rotator cuff muscles are stabilizers, so, naturally, they will also be strengthened with these exercises.
Are the Trapezius (traps) part of your shoulders?
Your traps are broad, flat superficial muscles that resemble a trapezoid. They extend from the cervical to the thoracic region on the posterior side of your neck and trunk. Although they are not part of your shoulder, they are often being worked during shoulder movements. Only the middle traps are involved in back exercises. That's why people often train shoulders and traps on the same day.
We will be remarking on what muscles are being worked for each of the 9 exercises.
Nobody wants flat, weak shoulders. Men and women alike.
Anyone man who works out will make time in their routine for their shoulders. You probably know someone who skips leg day all the time (although this is becoming less and less a thing thanks to the internet putting leg day skippers on blast). But do you know anyone who skips shoulder day. Not likely.
For women, it's different, as no women want to skip leg day. Nevertheless, the majority of female fitness enthusiasts will train their shoulders as well.
Now, while the shoulders are appreciated in that aspect - after all, people want to look good and the shoulders are a very noticeable muscle group - they are under-appreciated for their purpose in everyday life. Despite their relatively small size (compared to other muscle groups), they play a huge role. The shoulders are used in every single motion of the upper body. Think about how you use your arms during the day, your shoulders are acting, supporting, and dictating it all. Therefore, they need to be strong and mobile or you will be severely limiting your movements and capabilities in any activity that involves your upper body. Moreover, with weak shoulders that lack mobility, you run the risk of injury, even with normal everyday tasks.
Let’s quickly list the main benefits of strong shoulders...
For those who workout from home or outdoors without equipment, the shoulder muscles can be a troublesome muscle group to target (as can back muscles). However, with the right exercises, you can effectively target your shoulders with just your bodyweight. You simply need to position your body so it has to press against gravity.
One example of this is a pike push up. For a pike push up, you get into a very high, vertical, downward dog-like position (except you will be on your toes, to allow your body to be as perpendicular with the ground as you can), then you press up. This will allow you to press your body up against gravity, causing tension and resistance on your deltoids.
The way you angle your movements is key to honing in on specific muscles.
Tempo is also important. Some of the exercises will use a slow, controlled tempo, while others are more explosive. It’s good to change up the tempo, as you want to shock and stress your shoulders and traps. This will allow you to break plateaus, grow muscles, and build well-rounded strength, power, and endurance. Your body adapts quickly, so variety in speeds and angles is an important part of progressive overload, as we mentioned further above.
All in all, making your shoulders bigger and stronger from home takes hard work and consistency, with or without equipment like dumbbells and kettlebells. Nevertheless, it is absolutely achievable. With the right bodyweight exercises, you can build and strengthen your shoulders from home or anywhere you please.
Note: You will need to employ progressive overload if you want to continue building muscle, strength, and endurance over time.
Progressive overload is simple, you just want to put more and more stress on your muscles over time. If your workouts are getting easier, you are not employing progressive overload.
There are a few ways you can progressive overload with bodyweight shoulder exercises and workouts.
Here are the main ways:
Related: Progressive Overload Guide
By following the exercises below, you can build strong 3D shoulders right from your humble abode. The exercises are not fancy, they are simply effective. Their purpose is simple - to create resistance and tension on your deltoids. That way, they can tear the muscle fibers up, allowing them to grow back bigger and stronger (in layman terms).
These bodyweight shoulder exercises will also burn a lot of calories, so even if you aren’t eating right (and enough protein), at the very least, you will get tone and lean.
Without further ado, here are the 9 bodyweight shoulder exercises, including step-by-step instructions on how to do each exercise, muscles worked, pro tips and difficulty level.
Although this is typically considered a core exercise, it also works your deltoids (mainly front and side delts), as well as your triceps and even glutes, quads and low back.
Difficulty Level: Easy-Medium
This one is a mix of core and shoulders as well. You will feel your shoulders burn on this exercise big time. It will work your abs, deltoids, triceps and hamstrings.
Difficulty Level: Medium
The pike push up is one of the best bodyweight shoulder exercises you can do. It’s going to work your front (anterior) and side (lateral) deltoids the most. It is far from an easy exercise. Much harder than a push up.
Difficulty level: Medium-Hard
The pike push up is one of the best bodyweight shoulder exercises you can do, without question. With this version, you are simply taking it up a notch by using explosive force on the concentric part of the movement to push yourself up so your hands are off the ground. When you land, keep full control and move slowly back down. So, it's explosive up and slow down. Be careful with this one as if you slip up, you can land on your head!
Difficulty level: Hard
The bear crawl is a brutal full body exercise that puts emphasis on the deltoids. As they can be hard on the shoulder joint if done improperly, do these in a controlled, developmental manner.
Difficulty Level: Easy-Medium
This is the same exercise as the above. However, your feet will be elevated on some kind of platform, which makes it less awkward and doesn’t require as much hamstring flexibility. Moreover, it allows you to get into a more vertical position (especially for those with flexibility issues), so it targets the middle delts more.
Difficulty level: Medium-Hard
This is a difficult exercise that’s going to hammer your shoulders and traps. Only do this exercise if your shoulders and wrist are 100% healthy. Any rotator cuff injury will come to light on this one.
Difficulty level: Hard
Not only is this a great exercise to practice handstands, but it is also a great core stability and shoulder builder. It’s going to increase wrist strength as well.
After practicing handstand kick ups for a few weeks, try to do handstand holds for max time. This exercise uses the same form, but instead of returning to the floor after a brief pause, your goal is to hold the handstand position for as long as you can.
If you can't hold a handstand for 10-30 seconds, or at all, use a wall as seen in the pic above.
If you want to be able to do handstands, you need strong shoulders and a strong core.
So, you should practice the above exercises. These exercises will develop the core and shoulders strength needed for handstands.
Even if handstands aren’t your primary goal, the exercises are, of course, effective for building shoulder muscle and strength. The ability to do handstands is just an added benefit. Plus, handstands are a great exercise for developing your bodyweight shoulder strength, taking your shoulders to the next level.
Your front delts will be the easiest to hit with just bodyweight exercises. All of the above exercises will work your anterior deltoids.
Pike push ups (especially elevated pike push ups), Wall walks, Handstands (and kick ups) are all good exercises for your middle delts.
The posterior delts are mainly a stabilizer for the above exercises, so while they are worked, they are not going to be a primary mover.
Note: The above exercises are all-around shoulder exercises. These are exercises that will build your shoulders in a functional way, which transfers over to other bodyweight exercises, sports, and general day to day movements. They will help you build stronger, more resilient shoulders.
If you want to keep your workouts simple and minimal (mainly bodyweight training), but you are open to some training tools that can help you target certain muscles that are hard to hit with just bodyweight alone, we recommend getting a set of bands. With bands, you can hit your middle delts effectively with exercises like lateral raises, and your rear delts with exercises like face pulls and band pull aparts.
The shoulders are your body’s most versatile joint, but they are also the most vulnerable to long term wear and tear. So, you want to approach your shoulder workouts in a way that provides you the highest reward with the lowest risk. One injury can set you back months or even more than a year…Thankfully, most “bad” shoulder exercises involve weights (i.e. behind the neck barbell presses). For bodyweight-only shoulder movements, you have just a few things to consider to avoid shoulder injuries.
1. If it hurts, stop.
Avoid angles that pinch the rotator cuff muscles against the bones of the shoulder joint.
How do you know if this is happening? Well, it hurts! Adjust your arm position or the angle, if it hurts. If it still hurts when adjusting the angle of your elbow, again, stop. If your shoulders consistently hurt from various angles and proven bodyweight exercises like the ones above, you should consult a physician or physical therapist about the pain.
2. Avoid Extreme Ranges of Motion
Just because your shoulder can move through a certain range of motion, it doesn’t mean it’s good to add resistance (i.e. your bodyweight) through that same range.
This brings up back to point number one, if it hurts, stop.
You want to exercise through normal shoulder ranges of motion, which are as follows:
If you don’t have this range of motion, it is something you should work on through mobility and flexibility training. If you have an injury that is preventing a normal range of motion, then you should consult a doctor or physical therapist.
All in all, the goal is to create normalcy in your range of motion (which would be in line with the above ranges of motion), not to be overly flexible. So just work to achieve a normal range of motion, nothing more, nothing less.
By following our how to’s and tips for the bodyweight exercises we’ve demonstrated, you can avoid moving through ranges of motion that put stress on your rotator cuff.
If your shoulders hurt, it’s likely a rotator cuff issue. Give your shoulder time to rest and then practice shoulder rehab strengthening exercises. These are also good for prehabilitation, to make your rotator cuff muscles strong so your shoulders are stable for upper body movements and you avoid injuries in the first place.
You want to train your shoulders with enough volume to stimulate growth, but not too much where you impede your recovery and growth processes. The easiest way to think about this is by weekly volume, as people have different training splits - i.e. full body, upper/lower, muscle groups. You also need to look at the three heads of the deltoids separately. So let’s start there.
The side and rear delts can have more direct training volume as they are not the main primary movers for most pressing movement (i..e overhead presses, push ups). The front delts will be a primary mover for most pressing motions. So they can be subject to overuse if you train them with the same volume as side and rear delts when doing shoulder specific exercises.
For bodyweight training, this is less of an issue, as you won’t be doing isolated exercises. So, we won’t dig too deep into delt specific training volume. We will just give you a general understanding…
Based on that, you should be doing about 8-12 total sets per week for side and rear delts and 6-8 sets for the front delts. This would be ideal for most beginners. If you are more advanced, you can start with a higher volume.
Now, the above weekly volume can be split-up based on your training routine as follows...
Remember, those are sets, not exercises!
Just be sure you are training with enough volume so it results in adequate stimulus for muscle adaption, but not too much where you aren’t recovering fully. Moreover, employ the progressive overload techniques we mentioned earlier in this post.
In the video below, Chri demonstrates one of his go-to calisthenics shoulder workouts. This is a great shoulder workout that will help you build muscle, strength, and endurance with only bodyweight exercises. No equipment is needed. All you need is your body and a wall!
Note: This workout is high volume. It might be too much for beginners. We have other sample shoulder workouts further below that are a little easier, and simply for more variety.
Here is a breakdown of the bodyweight shoulder workout in the video above.
Exercise 1: Shoulder Taps - 3 sets x 10 reps (each side)
Exercise 2: Plank to Pike - 3 sets x 10 reps (each side)
Exercise 3: Explosive Pike Push Ups - 3 sets x 10 reps
Exercise 4: Pike Push Ups - 3 sets x 10 reps
Exercise 5: Bear Crawls - 3 sets x 10 reps
Exercise 6: Elevated Pike Push Ups - 3 sets x 10 reps
Exercise 7: Wall Walks - 3 sets x 6-10 reps
Exercise 8: Handstand Kick Ups - 3 sets x 10 reps
Exercise 9: Handstand Holds - 3 sets x 20-30 second holds
3 OTHER BODYWEIGHT SHOULDER WORKOUT ROUTINES:
Here are a few more good workout examples using the shoulder exercises in this post.
Bodyweight Shoulder Workout 1: Tradition (sets x reps)
Rest 60 seconds between sets and exercises.
Bodyweight Shoulder Workout 2: Circuit (4 rounds)
Aim for 25-30 seconds of work each exercise.
Rest 15 seconds between exercises and 30 seconds between rounds.
Bodyweight Shoulder Workout 3: Circuit Training (Grouped)
No rest between exercises.
After you finish the three exercise, rest for 30-60 seconds, then move to round 2.
No rest between exercises.
After you finish the two exercise, rest for 30-60 seconds, then move to round 3.
No rest between exercises.
After you finish the three exercises, rest for 30-60 seconds.
Repeat from round 1, and do all three rounds 1 or 2 more times.
The traditional workout will be the easiest workout structure in terms of intensity.
The other two circuit workouts will be more intense, and are better for burning more calories during your workout. If you are focused on building muscle, the traditional workout will be a better option.
Related Content: The Ultimate Calisthenics Workout Plan
Bodyweight Exercise Resources:
If you have any questions about doing bodyweight exercises for your shoulders and at home workouts, please feel free to contact us!
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