There’s not a single two-armed person in this world who wouldn’t benefit from strengthening their shoulders. 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 them strong and stable.
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 your bodyweight only, right? Actually, think again…
We’ve put together 9 effective bodyweight shoulder exercises of varying difficulty levels, so you can make your shoulders bigger, stronger, leaner, more defined, and resilient to injury. No weights needed at all! The only thing required is your body and wall.
Before we jump into the shoulder exercises, let’s talk about the shoulder muscle anatomy, how the traps play a role in shoulder workouts, the importance of training your shoulders, how to progressive overload your shoulders so you can continue building muscle and strength over time, and then finally, we will get into the bodyweight exercises for shoulders, that way you are fully informed on the "why’s" and the "how’s", which will make the exercises that much more effective.
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.
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. If you want to learn more about strengthening and rehabbing your rotator cuff complex, check out 7 great rotator cuff exercises.
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 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...
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, effective, bodyweight exercises, you can build and strengthen your shoulders from home or anywhere you please.
By following the exercises in this article, you can get shredded, strong shoulders right there in your humble abode. The exercises we are going to present to you are not fancy, they are simply effective. Their purpose is simple - to put resistance and tension on your shoulders. 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 (enough protein), at the very least, you will get tone and lean.
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:
For those who workout from home or outdoors without equipment, the shoulder muscles can be a troublesome muscle group to target (as can the back). 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.
Finally, here are the 9 best bodyweight shoulder exercises...
In this video, 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!
Below we breakdown each exercise with How To’s, Muscles Worked, Tips and Difficulty Level.
1. SHOULDER TAPS
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
2. PLANK TO ALTERNATE PIKE
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
3. EXPLOSIVE PIKE PUSH-UPS
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
4. PIKE PUSH UPS
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
5. BEAR CRAWLS
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
6. ELEVATED PIKE PUSH UPS
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
7. WALL WALKS
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
8. HANDSTAND KICK UPS
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.
9. HANDSTAND HOLD
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.
All the above exercises will work your anterior deltoids.
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.
Pike push ups (especially elevated pike push ups)
Handstands (and kick ups)
If you want to work your middle delts to a greater degree, some equipment like resistance bands will be very effective for exercises like lateral raises.
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.
If you want to work your posterior delts, you need to focus on pulling movements. Unlike the front and middle delts, which are pressing muscles, the posterior delts are a pulling muscle.
These bodyweight back exercises will help you develop your posterior delts.
Resistance bands are also great for the posterior delts. You can do reverse flys, band pull aparts, and others pull movements that isolate the posterior delts.
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:
Shoulder Flexion - when your arms are straight, palms against your sides and you raise your arms in front of your body: 180 degrees (so all the way up over your head)
Shoulder Extension - when you move your hands behind your body, straight back: 45-60 degrees.
Shoulder Abduction - when your arms are straight, palms against your sides and you raise your arm out from the sides of your body, laterally: 150 degrees
Shoulder Adduction - when you move your arms toward the middle of your body (think, hugging yourself): 30 to 50 degrees, depending on your flexibility and body composition (big chest and biceps muscles means less range)
Medial Rotation - when your elbows are at 90 degrees and arm to your side, hands are pointing straight forward, and you rotate your forearm inwards towards your body while keeping your elbows tucked against your side body: 70-90 degrees
Lateral Rotation - when your elbows are at 90 degrees and arm to your side, hands are pointing straight forward, and you rotate your forearm away from your body: 90 degrees
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...
Full body workout routine:
- 4-5 sets 3-4 times a week
Upper/Lower Split (4 resistance workouts a week, so 2 upper days)
- 6-8 sets 2 times a week
4-5 day bro type split (hit each muscle group once a week):
- 12-14 sets, once a week.
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.
Here is a breakdown of the bodyweight shoulder workout in the video above.
Exercise 1: Shoulder Taps - 3 sets x 10 reps (each side) (0:17)
Exercise 2: Plank to Pike - 3 sets x 10 reps (each side) (0:35)
Exercise 3: Explosive Pike Push Ups - 3 sets x 10 reps (1:08)
Exercise 4: Pike Push Ups - 3 sets x 10 reps (1:26)
Exercise 5: Bear Crawls - 3 sets x 10 reps (2:04)
Exercise 6: Elevated Pike Push Ups - 3 sets x 10 reps (2:42)
Exercise 7: Wall Walks - 3 sets x 6-10 reps (2:57)
Exercise 8: Handstand Kick Ups - 3 sets x 10 reps (3:52)
Exercise 9: Handstand Holds - 3 sets x 20-30 second holds (4:36)
OTHER BODYWEIGHT SHOULDER WORKOUTS:
Here are a few more good workout examples using the shoulder exercises in this post.
Workout 1: Tradition (sets x reps)
4 sets x 10-15 reps - Elevated Pike Push Ups
3 sets x 10 reps - Wall Walks
3 sets x 20 yards - Bear Crawls
3 sets x 20-30 seconds - Handstand Holds
3 sets x 20 reps - Plank to Pike
- Rest 60 seconds between sets and exercises
Workout 2: Circuit (4 rounds)
Exercise 1: Explosive Pike Push Ups
Exercise 2: Hand Stand Kick Ups
Exercise 3: Bear Crawls
Exercise 4: Shoulder Taps
Exercise 5: Pike Push Ups
- Aim for 25-30 seconds of work each exercise
- Rest 15 seconds between exercises and 30 seconds between rounds
Workout 3: Circuit Training (Grouped):
Exercise 1: Shoulder Taps x 20 reps
Exercise 2: Wall Walks x 6-10 reps
Exercise 3: Pike Push Up x 10 reps
- No rest between exercises
- After you finish the three exercise, rest for 30-60 seconds, then move to round 2
Exercise 1: Elevated Pike Push Ups x 10-12 reps
Exercise 2: Handstand Kick Ups x 10 reps
- No rest between exercises
- After you finish the three exercise, rest for 30-60 seconds, then move to round 2
Exercise 1: Bear Crawls x 20 yards (10 yards back and forth)
Exercise 2: Elevated Pike Push Ups x 10 reps
- 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 more time.
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.
Although bodyweight workouts are great, especially if your goal is to be lean and you don’t care about having huge muscles, you really can’t go wrong by adding some equipment into the mix. If you want to keep things minimal, there are a few fitness tools that are affordable, portable, and very effective. Our favorites are kettlebells, steel maces and resistance bands.
Kettlebells, steel maces and resistance bands will provide you everything you need to target every muscle group effectively, especially the shoulders. Kettlebells and steel maces will help you build powerful, explosive boulder-like shoulders. Resistance bands are great too, as you can use them to replicate any barbell and dumbbell exercise (i.e. shoulder presses, lateral raises, rear flys, etc.) Moreover, resistance bands (and steel mace 360s and 10 to 2s) are great for mobility/fluidity. With bands and maces, you can create and maintain normalcy in your range of motion that we discussed further above.
Furthermore, due to the awkward nature of kettlebells and steel maces, and the eccentric, elastic force of resistance bands, they will work your shoulder stabilizer complex like no other tools. This will improve your shoulder stability, helping you become more injury resilient.
While we sell resistance bands and steel maces, we are not discussing them because of that. We truly believe in their effectiveness for the shoulders, and fitness as a whole. This is why we’ve built our business around them. We know how effective these tools are for athletes, home workout enthusiasts, and even seniors.
If you want to learn more about these tools, see the links below.
Each tool offers tons of benefits, and all you really need to start is one kettlebell (see link above for which size), one mace (see link above for what size), and a set of resistance bands (even just one would do). The total for all three tools would be around $150. And if you only had to get one, we’d say a steel mace ($27-55) or a set of bands ($25-80) as they are the most versatile in their uses.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us!
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