June 26, 2020 10 min read

Strong bulging shoulders are necessary for a rounded out physique but building up that musculature does more for you than just help you attain a strong lean appearance. Your shoulder joints bear the burden of most of your daily activities and are used anytime you move your arm. From passing a plate to lifting heavy luggage, having strong shoulders simply makes life easier. Building and maintaining these muscles usually takes time in the gym but you can also make tremendous gains with the right bodyweight exercises. 

The Importance of the Shoulders 

Shoulder strength makes lifting exercises easier and allows you to attain upper body strength goals you otherwise couldn’t. Your shoulder gains equal your upper body gains. Increased shoulder strength obviously allows you to handle more weight but, more importantly, it guards you against injury. You’ll be hard-pressed to think of an upper-body workout that doesn’t also heavily tax your shoulders.  

Building the musculature around your shoulder joints plays an important role in stabilizing your core too. A stable core, in turn, helps balance out any posture issues you might have. Because so many of us spend hours in front of our computers it isn’t uncommon to see people with rolled shoulders and bad posture. If you’re guilty of texting a lot you can develop the same issues. Strong shoulders help counteract this.  

Shoulder exercises should be integrated into your upper body workout already and any gym worth its salt will have all the equipment you need to build those muscles. You can’t totally rely on the gym for your shoulder strength though. For people just starting out, and for experienced fitness junkies, you need to have a few bodyweight exercises you can use. Shoulder strength has to be maintained and with the right bodyweight exercises, you can do that no matter where you are. 

A girl doing home workouts. 

Shoulder Anatomy and Physiology 101 

Fitness is done best when you understand the anatomy and physiology behind the parts of your body that you are exercising. Unfortunately, articles on the internet move at a mile a minute so most fitness writers simply give you a list of exercises and let you go on your way. Your fitness journey will drastically improve if you take the time to study how your body works though. The shoulder, for example, is a fairly simple structure to understand, and once you do you will be able to create your own exercises to target the muscles you want. 

The major muscles of your shoulder that you need to know are the deltoids. These are the largest and most visible muscles and they are the ones targeted most when you exercise. The deltoids are divided between the anterior (front) deltoid, the lateral (side/middle) deltoid, and the posterior (back) deltoid. These deltoid muscles divide the outer part of the shoulder into three sections which, when put together, form the rounded shape of your shoulder. 

The anterior deltoid is located on the front of your shoulder and it runs up and down right alongside your chest muscles. Whenever you lift your upper arms forward or over your head you are using this muscle heavily. Any resistance exercises involving those motions will also exercise this muscle. Normal gym-based exercises, like the barbell overhead press or push press, work the anterior deltoid.  

The lateral deltoid runs up and down the middle of your shoulder in between the other deltoids. This is considered the deltoid head and when it is really well developed it gives you the appearance of having especially broad shoulders. Don’t fall into the trap of only working this muscle though. It’s important that you work all the deltoids appropriately. The lateral deltoid really goes to work whenever you raise your upper arms forward or out to your sides. Lateral lifts are usually the go-to for building this muscle. 

The posterior deltoid is located along the back of your shoulder and its function is all about shoulder extension. Whenever you pull your upper arms backward and bring your shoulder blades together you are recruiting the posterior deltoid. You work this muscle best with pulling exercises like rowing. This muscle is often overlooked in fitness regimens that focus too heavily on push exercises. Developing the other deltoids and neglecting the posterior can lead to posture problems and even injury. This is why it’s so important to include push and pull exercises into your workout.    

While the deltoids comprise the major muscles that impact the physique there are muscles buried deeper in the shoulder that are also essential for function. These are the four small rotator cuff muscles (infraspinatus, subscapularis, supraspinatus, and teres minor). These muscles surround the ball and socket joint and they allow your upper arm to rotate through a wide range of motions while also stabilizing the joint. Exercises targeting the deltoids will also benefit these muscles but it helps to know that they are in there. 

Your Bodyweight Shoulder Workout 

All exercises are not created equal, everyone is not at the same level of fitness, and that is totally fine.  If you are just starting out with home fitness or bodyweight exercises you should begin with the beginner bodyweight shoulder exercises and see how you feel. It is better to start there and work up than to start with something too hard and injure yourself. If you feel your fitness level is more intermediate or advanced you can start at your respective section and change the sets and reps or start at the beginner level as a warm-up. 

Beginner: Bodyweight Shoulder Exercises for Home 

Exercise 1: Arm Circles 

Arm circles are a great warm-up exercise. This mostly targets the lateral deltoid muscles but also recruits the rhomboids as well. To do these correctly you should start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Keeping your arms relaxed but straight raise them both to your side at about shoulder height. Keeping the arms straight and not bending at the elbow roll your arms forward at the shoulder for a set number and then roll them backwards the same number of times.

Exercise 2: Crab Bridge 

The crab bridge can be a bit challenging if you are just starting out but it is one of the few beginner exercises that can really target your rear deltoids. To do this static exercise you start on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Use your arms to push yourself up so your belly is up in the air and parallel to the floor. Control your breath throughout the movement and continue pushing into the ground. Your hands will be pointing up towards your head and your arms should be straight. 

Exercise 3: Mountain Climbers 

Mountain climbers are a great full-body bodyweight exercise that should be incorporated into everyone’s workout routine at some point or another. This exercise heavily targets your front deltoids, reinforces your core, and recruits many other muscles in the body. Start in a push-up position with your hands directly underneath your shoulders. Keep your core tight and your butt low as you step one leg forward and bring a knee up between your arms. Then, in one motion, jump up from both legs bringing the other knee forward as the first leg goes back straight. Repeat for as many reps and sets as you need. 

Intermediate: Bodyweight Shoulder Exercises for Home   

Exercise 4: Elevated Pike (Handstand) Pushup 

Don’t worry, if you aren’t familiar with this exercise it doesn’t require you to do a full handstand pushup. That’s an advanced exercise for sure. This is more of a lead up to that exercise. This version of pike push-ups simultaneously hits your anterior and lateral deltoids and with only a few reps you’ll start to feel it. Start by putting your feet up on a good sturdy chair or ledge and then place your hands down on the ground about three feet from that point. 

To do this you’ll end up partially upside down with your head facing down. Next, bend your elbows as you would in a pushup and slowly bring your head down towards the ground. Keep your upper body straight as you do this and make sure you maintain control throughout the exercise. You should not push yourself to the point of failure doing this because that can be dangerous so if you start to get too wobbly move on to another exercise.

Exercise 5: Advanced Table

The advanced table position is a harder version of the crab bridge. Again, this targets your posterior deltoids and your triceps but there is a slight twist. To do this exercise assume the same inverted plank position that you did with the crab bridge. This means hands and feet on the floor, belly up to the sky, and parallel with the ground. The key difference here is that instead of pointing your fingers towards your head you must point them towards your feet. This requires a certain degree of strength and flexibility and you shouldn’t force it if you can’t do it.         

Exercise 6: Handstand

A handstand will really tax your front deltoid and trapezius muscles but it is truly a full upper body exercise. It takes the right amount of strength, flexibility, and balance to pull one off correctly. To build the muscle in your shoulders you should do a handstand and then hold it for 30-60 seconds. You should use a wall to help you get into the handstand position and you can even use it to help hold you up if needed. The focus in this case is less on doing a proper handstand and more on the shoulder strength it takes to hold yourself up. 

Exercise 7: Elevated Hand Walk

The elevated hand walk is another excellent intermediate shoulder bodyweight exercise that targets your rear deltoids and triceps. If the crab bridge or advanced table is too much for you this exercise is a really good substitute. Start by doing a plank about half a foot in front of a sturdy chair or ledge. Keep your core tight and then lift one hand on to the chair followed by the other hand so you end in a plank position up on the chair. Next, lower your hands back to where you started so that you return to a plank on the ground. Repeat this for as many reps as needed.  

Advanced: Bodyweight Shoulder Exercises for Home  

Exercise 8: Handstand Push Up 

A proper handstand pushup is the holy grail of fitness. Doing even one will impress most fitness junkies because it is simply that hard to do. It is only hard though, not impossible. To do a handstand pushup you need to be able to easily shoulder press your own body weight, that’s effectively what you’re doing here. A continual and well-rounded exercise regimen building your upper body, core strength and flexibility will inevitably lead to you including handstand pushups in your workout. 

This is one of those exercises that you especially want to maintain control with. Once you lift yourself into a handstand position slowly lower your head and slowly bring yourself back up. If you are trying the handstand pushup for the first time prepare to bail out at the bottom or have a wall you can lean against. Strength is only part of the equation with this exercise, balance, and focus are also important. 

Exercise 9: The Crow Pose

The crow pose is another stationary exercise that is drawn from the practice of Yoga. balancing in this position works your front deltoids and trapezius muscles. To do this pose start with your palms on the ground about two feet in front of your feet and bring your shoulders to the insides of your knees. Slowly lean forward and bring your weight on to your arms as your feet lift off the ground. Maintain control as you lift yourself into this position and then hold yourself at the top. Hold that position for a set time and then slowly lower yourself back down, repeat as needed. 

Exercise 10: The Wall Walk Pushup 

If you didn’t like the handstand pushup you’ll like this more difficult exercise even less. This is the exercise you progress to when handstand pushups are no longer a problem. Start this exercise by doing a handstand in front of a wall with your body facing the wall. Begin with one normal handstand pushup and then put your feet against the wall. Slowly walk your body away from the wall with your hands until you are nearly vertical with the ground, then do another pushup. Next, walk yourself back into a handstand position and do another push up there. Repeat this for as many reps as you need. 

Exercise 11: Superman Pushup 

This is an especially challenging modification to the classic pushup. You start as though you are going to do a regular pushup but then place your arms straight in front of you. Keep your palms flat on the ground with your fingers spread out for stability. With a tight core and straight back slowly bring yourself down. Then exhale as you slowly push yourself back up. Keep your arms extended as much as possible throughout the duration of the exercise. This will brutally target your deltoids and help you build the shoulders you want.      

A man working out in a gym.

A Note on Preventing Injury 

Building your shoulder muscles with a bodyweight workout and no equipment can still lead to serious injury. It’s important to listen to your body and to not overextend yourself. If something leaves you especially sore, don’t ignore it. If something leaves you in pain, pay attention, and take care of yourself. Some of the more intermediate and advanced exercises can lead to injury and should not be attempted lightly. 

If you don’t regularly exercise or haven’t worked on your shoulders before you should start slowly. Proficiency with beginner exercises is a great place to start. As you gain strength and shoulder mobility you will still need to warm up before every workout session. Those four little rotator cuff muscles we went over before are especially prone to injury if you don’t properly warm-up and stay in shape. Proper exercise, hydration, and stretching will go a long way towards preventing an injury.

Age and the wear and tear of life do unfortunately make someone more likely to sustain a shoulder injury. Conditions like osteoarthritis and bursitis can especially make things difficult. That isn’t to say that age or a preexisting shoulder condition should stop you from working out. It just means you need to go about it the right way with the guidance of a trained professional.

Building Your Shoulders No Matter What 

Improving the strength and mobility of your deltoids and rotator cuff makes you much more functionally fit. Shoulder strength is an essential prerequisite for building more strength in the rest of your upper body too. This is especially important for daily life since there isn’t a day that goes by where we aren’t using our shoulder muscles for something. They are just that important.  

No matter where you are you can build and maintain the strength of your shoulders using the bodyweight exercises we covered here. Start at a level that suits you and build from there. Before you know it you will have strong and powerful shoulders giving you a rock-steady base for the rest of your upper body.