Bodyweight shoulder exercises

Bodyweight shoulder exercises

8 Bodyweight Shoulder Exercises That Will Help You Get Results

Street workout athlete performing Korean dips

There is a large amount of bodyweight shoulder exercises, most of which are really cool.

How effective are these exercises though?

If you take a look at most calisthenics athletes, you'll notice the majority have cannonball shoulders.

We can guarantee you that it is not by chance.

In this article, we’ll break down the best shoulder exercises performed with one’s own body weight. 

We’ll present them based on the muscles they are working...

And we’ll teach you how to build up to the harder progressions of each exercise.

Let's get started.

Bodyweight shoulder exercises

Diagram of the deltoid muscle and it three heads: anterior, lateral and posterior

As you can see in the picture above, the shoulder (deltoid) muscle is comprised of three sets of fibers, also know as "heads":

  • Anterior
  • Lateral
  • Posterior

We should note that in bodyweight fitness there aren’t lots of exercises for the lateral and posterior deltoid.

Thankfully, they are synergistic muscles for most exercises. This means that they engage and work in synergy with other muscles.

Before we begin, note that you may not be able to perform some of the exercises we'll be presenting.

Therefore, we recommend you to see them as goals and challenge yourself to achieve them.

In the meantime, we’ll provide you with the progressions to work towards them.

Anterior

The anterior deltoid is the frontal part of the shoulder.

It originates from the lateral of the clavicle and inserts into the upper part of the humerus.

If you want to be able to do advanced exercises, such as the planche or handstand push-ups...

You will need very strong shoulders.

Therefore, we do not recommend you to neglect this muscle.

1. Decline push-ups

Man doing decline push-ups - one of the best bodyweight shoulder exercises

The decline push-up is the easiest shoulder exercise on this list.

Most people will be able to do the exercise and may need to increase its difficulty with time.

If you can't do a push-up yet, make sure to check this article.

How to do it:

  • Find a surface that allows you to elevate your feet from the ground.
  • Move your feet up to that surface and get in a push-up position.
  • Squeeze your abs and glutes to keep your body in a straight line, then descend until your chest barely hit the floor.
  • Push back up to the initial position to complete one repetition.

How to make it harder:

  • Elevate your feet even more
  • Use a weighted vest
  • Do the exercise slower

The more elevated you are, the more work your anterior deltoid will have to do to perform the exercise.

This variation is a great exercise to build foundational strength in your shoulders, which is going to be useful later down the road.

2. Pike push ups

Matt Hill doing pike push-ups for his bodyweight shoulder workout

Picture by MattHillPT.

If you want to start training for handstand push-ups (HSPUs), then this is one of your building blocks.

The pike push-up mimics part of the movement in the HSPU.

However, your lower body will take away some of the load off of your shoulders.

How to do it:

  • Start in a high plank position - just like the top position of a regular push-up.
  • Work your feet up towards your hands raising your hips, until your body has an upside down V shape.
  • Lock your knees, elbows, and push as hard as you can through your shoulders so that they cover your ears. This is the starting position.
  • Bend at the elbow and start descending until your forehead or nose touches the ground, then push back to the starting position.
  • Keep the elbows tucked in at all times. Do NOT flare the elbows to the sides.

When you lower, do NOT go straight down. Descend at an angle so there is a tripod shape between your hands and head at the lowest position. (see picture above)

How to make it harder:

  • Elevate your feet on a surface
  • Do the exercise slower

The easiest way to increase the difficulty in most push-up variations is to elevate your feet.

Same goes for the pike push-up.

Place your feet on an elevated surface, get in the starting position, then do the exercise like that.

The more elevated the surface, the harder the exercise gets.

3. Handstand push-up (HSPU)

Athlete at a gymnastics gym performing wall assisted handstand push-ups for his shoulder muscles

If you are serious about your shoulder development with bodyweight fitness, then the HSPU should be one of your goals.

What if you can't do a handstand yet?

You can still train for the handstand push-up by doing the exercise on the wall, with your belly facing it.

If you choose to do the back to wall variation, there will be a lot of unnecessary pressure placed on your lumbar spine.

That is not desirable or desired by anyone.

How to do it:

  • Get in a handstand or walk your feet up a wall. If you’re doing the wall assisted variation, keep a 4-5 palms distance between your wrists and the wall.
  • Push through your shoulders until they cover your ears, tilt your pelvis backward to engage your core, and point your toes. This is the starting position.
  • Descent at an angle until your nose touches the ground. Focus on squeezing your glutes and preventing your lower back from arching.
  • Push back up to the starting position.

How to progress to this exercise:

If you don’t have the necessary strength to do a HSPU yet, you can revert a few steps.

Apart from the bodyweight shoulder exercises presented above - such as the pike push-up and the elevated push-ups - you could also start incorporating negatives into your workout.

How?

Get on the wall with your belly facing it. Descend slowly at an angle until your nose or forehead touches the ground.

Instead of pushing back up, exit the handstand and repeat.

For the next repetition get back into the handstand position, descend, exit the handstand, and so on.

How to make it harder:

  • Increase the range of motion by elevating your hands
  • Do the exercise slower
  • Add a weighted vest

4. Pseudo planche push-ups (PPPUs)

Daniel Vadnal doing a bodyweight shoulder exercise - the pseudo planche push-up

Daniel Vadnal from FitnessFAQs in the picture.

The planche is one of the best shoulder exercises.

However, achieving it requires a great deal of strength and dedication.

You can still enjoy its benefits though, using beginner friendly variations that decrease the leverage, making the exercise easier.

In this case, the variation is the pseudo planche push-up.

If you don’t have good wrist mobility, we recommend you to do the exercise with the fingers pointing to the sides instead of forward.

How to do it:

  • Get in a push-up position, protract your scapula, then lean forward as much as you can while still maintaining good form.

    You should already feel pressure on your anterior deltoid. This is the starting position.
  • Start descending to the bottom position while still keeping the lean active.
  • Push back up to the starting position, fighting to keep the lean throughout the movement.

How to progress to this exercise:

If you don’t have the necessary strength to do a PPPU you can start from a regular push-up. Lean just a bit forward, get used to the exercise in that body position, then lean a bit more forward.

How to make it harder:

As mentioned, the easiest way to make most push-up exercises harder is to elevate the feet.

With the PPPU there is another subtle change that will make the exercise considerably more difficult.

Start doing the exercise with the fingers pointing backward.

This will take away from the pressure placed on the wrists, transfer most of it on your elbows, and increase the difficulty of the exercise.

It becomes more difficult because you eliminate any counterbalance.

If you’re doing the PPPU with the fingers pointing forward or even to the sides, you can use them to some extent to hold yourself from falling over.

Doing the exercise with the fingers pointing backward will force most muscles in your body to do more work to stabilize the movement.

5. Tuck planche push-ups

Man doing tuck planche push ups, a bodyweight shoulder exercise

The planche is a demanding exercise that takes months of specific work to achieve.

But just as with the vast majority of bodyweight exercises, there are easier progressions you can do to build the necessary strength to achieve it.

Which brings us to the tuck planche push-up.

How to do it:

  • Start in a push-up position, protract your scapulas, then lean forward until you get into the pseudo planche push-up position.
  • Start compressing your abs by sliding your legs towards your chest.
  • Lean just a bit more and get your knees to your chest, balancing only on your hands.
  • From here bend at your elbows and go down until your knees block the range of motion.
  • Push to return to the initial position, while making sure to hold the protraction of the scapula.

How to progress to this exercise:

There are different ways to build the necessary strength towards achieving your first tuck planche.

The difficult part is doing push-ups while you are in the planche position.

To build up the necessary strength, we recommend you to work with pseudo planche push-ups (PPPUs) and planche leans.

The planche lean is the top movement of a PPPU that you hold for a certain amount of time.

Work them together for a few weeks, a couple of times per week, and you will build up to the tuck planche and beyond.

How to make the exercise harder:

  • Increase the range of motion
  • Work through the progressions - advanced tuck planche, straddle planche, etc.
  • Use a weighted vest

If you want to make the exercise harder, the first step is to increase the range of motion.

Elevate your body on parallettes and perform the exercise on them. Your knees will no longer limit the range of motion.

Apart from that, you can increase the leverage by doing harder progressions, or adding weight.

6. Dips

Sportsman at the gym doing parallel bar dips

We finish off the list of the exercises for the anterior deltoid with dips.

We consider dipping one of the best bodyweight shoulder exercises because it can be loaded quite heavily.

Your shoulder is neither internally rotated, nor externally rotated. Therefore, it is not in a potentially vulnerable position, so you can add a lot of weight.

How to do the exercise:

  • Grab the parallel bars or the handles of the dip machine and push yourself up until your elbows are fully locked.
  • Lean a bit forward (to favor anterior deltoid activation), then lower your body until there is a 90-degree angle at your elbow pit
  • Push back up returning to the initial position.

How to make the exercise harder:

  • Do the exercise slower
  • Add extra weight

There aren’t any progressions of the dips for deltoid engagement, so your best bet would be to increase the intensity of the exercise.

You can increase the difficulty by doing the eccentric phase (negative) of the movement slower...

Or by adding weight to your body using a weighted vest or a weight belt and plates.

Thanks to its versatility, the dip is one of the greatest bodyweight shoulder exercises to add to your training program.

Posterior

The posterior deltoid is the muscle that originates from the spine of the scapula and inserts into the humerus.

Most people training with bodyweight exercises suffer from a weakness in the posterior deltoid.

As you will see the number of bodyweight exercises to target these fibers is limited.

We highly recommend you to use isolation exercises to strengthen the posterior deltoid to avoid injuries.

1. Inverted row

Man doing inverted rows on gymnastics rings

The inverted row is a horizontal pulling exercise and one of the progressions towards achieving a pull-up.

It mainly targets the latissimus dorsi (lats) and trapezius (traps) muscles.

However, the posterior deltoid works synergistically to assist the aforementioned muscles to complete the movement.

How to do it:

  • Find a bar that is waist height and position yourself underneath it using a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.
  • Squeeze your glutes and abs and keep your body in a straight position the entire time. There should be a straight line from your head to your heels.
  • Pull your chest towards the bar making sure to not thrust the hips forward.
  • Return to the starting position.

How to make it harder:

  • Get parallel to the ground, instead of working at an angle
  • Use a weighted vest
  • Do the exercise slower
  • Work through the progressions

Since inverted rows are done at an angle, you can increase the difficulty by elevating your feet.

You can do that until you are parallel to the ground.

Additionally, you can add weight to your body through the use of a weighted vest or a weight plate on your stomach.

Another way to increase the intensity is to work through the progressions, such as the archer inverted row or the one arm inverted row.

2. V-Sit

Gabo Saturno performing a clean V-sit

V-sit by Gabo Saturno.

The V-Sit is an amazing core and straight-arm strength exercise.

Even though it is a core exercise, it is also a very efficient posterior deltoid exercise.

How to do it:

  • Start in a seated position with your legs in front of you.
  • Place your hands by your side with the fingers pointing forward, sideways or backwards.
  • Push through your arms, depress your scapulae as much as possible, lift your legs off the ground and bring your knees as close to your face as possible.

How to progress to it:

There are quite a few requirements for this exercise since it is a combination of both strength and mobility.

You can start building up to it by doing the L-Sit variation and progressions.

If you don’t have enough strength to depress your scapulae, simply do the exercise on parallettes.

This will take away from the difficulty of the exercise.

Conclusion

As you can see there are lots of bodyweight shoulder exercises for the anterior deltoid, while the posterior and lateral heads lack the diversity.

In fact, you cannot find too many exercises for the lateral head.

Therefore, we strongly recommend you to try using weights for the development of the lateral and posterior heads.

You can either use free weights, such as dumbbells, or machines, such as the cable machine.

Lastly, if you want a routine that is ready-made, do not forget to check our bodyweight shoulder workout.

The routine was created and changed accordingly to suit beginners, intermediates and advanced alike.

If you don't want a ready-made routine, you can use the above list of the best bodyweight shoulder exercises to create your own.

Over to you.