8 Bodyweight Shoulder Exercises That Will Help You Get Results

Street workout athlete performing Korean dips

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

However, just how effective are they?

You could have a look at a gymnast’s shoulders and make an idea for yourself. Yes, there will be a difference if you don’t use gymnastics rings; however, you can still build boulder shoulders with bodyweight exercises only.

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 those exercises. Once you are able to achieve those, you will no longer worry about having small shoulders.

Bodyweight shoulder exercises

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

In this article we’ll be focusing on the deltoid muscles and its three heads:

  • Anterior
  • Lateral
  • Posterior

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 those exercises. Once you are able to achieve those, you will no longer worry about having small shoulders.

We should note that in bodyweight fitness there aren’t lots of exercises for the lateral and posterior deltoid. However, they are synergistic muscles for most exercises, meaning that they engage and work in synergy with the target muscle.

As we’ll see, some of these exercises may be too difficult for now.

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

Proficiency in bodyweight fitness asks for strong shoulders; therefore, it’s not recommended to neglect this muscle.

1. Decline push ups

Man doing decline push ups for his shoulder workout

The first exercise on the list is a variation of the push up, which is the easiest shoulder exercise too. Most people will be able to do the exercise and may need to increase its difficulty with time.

How to do the exercise:


  • Find a surface that allows you to elevate your legs 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 the exercise harder:


If you can comfortably do it, then we recommend you to find a higher surface for your legs. 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 and can help you attain exercises such as the pike push up.

2. Pike push ups

Matt Hill doing pike push ups

Picture by MattHillPT

If you want to get into handstand push ups (HSPUs), then this variation will represent your building blocks. Doing it properly will mimic part of the movement in the HSPU while your lower body will take away some of the strain on your shoulders.

How to do the exercise:


  • 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.

How to make the exercise harder:


If you’ve worked your way up to a three-four sets of eight to twelve repetitions, then it may be time to make the exercise a bit more difficult to keep the intensity high.

The easiest way to increase the difficulty in most push up variations is to elevate your feet. The same goes for the pike. Place your feet on an elevated surface, get in the top position, then do the exercise. The more elevated the surface, the harder the exercise gets.

3. Handstand push up (HSPU)

Athlete at a hymnastics' gym performing wall assisted handstand push ups

For some people an HSPU is impossible, for others it’s just out of reach, while there are those who rep them out like they are nothing. The exercise is by no means an easy one. If you are serious about your shoulder development with bodyweight fitness, then the HSPU should be one of your goals.

Note that if you don’t have a solid handstand hold yet, you can take the exercise to the wall.

However, you should be doing the exercise with your belly facing the wall. The HSPU is done at an angle so your hands can be fairly away from the wall.

If you choose to do the variation in which your back is facing the wall, there will be a lot of unnecessary pressure placed on your lumbar spine. That is not desirable or desired by anyone.

How to do the exercise:


  • 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 from 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 keeping 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 an 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 pike - you could also start incorporating negatives into your workout.

Therefore, if you’ve done steps 1-3 from the above section, but you are unable to push back to the starting position, then simply descend slower. Once your nose touches the ground get out of the handstand.

For the next repetition get back into the handstand position, then out, and so on.

How to make the exercise harder:


An easy way to make exercises harder, in general, is to increase the range of motion.

The same applies to HSPUs. Start doing them on parallettes, or anything that allows you to go deeper. Elevate your hands so that the ground will no longer limit your range of motion.

4. Pseudo planche push ups (PPPUs)

Daniel Vadnal from FitnessFAQ demonstrating 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. Not to mention doing push ups in such a position.

Thankfully, there are exercises that mimic that position allowing you do to the exercise with a slightly decreased leverage. In this case, the exercise is the pseudo planche push up.

Note: 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 the exercise:


  • 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 proficient at the exercise in that body position, then lean a bit more forward.

How to make the exercise 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.

Instead of doing the exercise with your fingers pointing forward (which require quite a lot of wrist extension) or to the sides, you should do it 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 there is no counterbalance left. 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 - sometimes up to years - of consistent, specific training. But just as with the vast majority of bodyweight exercises, there are progressions that decrease the leverage of the exercise. 

The decreased leverage allows you to get some of the benefits of the planche, without having to do the full or straddle progression. Same goes for the tuck planche push ups.

How to do the exercise:


  • 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 in the scapula.

How to progress to this exercise:


There are different ways to build the necessary strength towards achieving your first tuck planche. What’s even harder is to do the 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 be sure to build up to the tuck planche and beyond.

Sven from CalisthenicMovement performing the advanced tuck planche

Picture from CalisthenicMovement.

How to make the exercise harder:


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 the range of motion.

Apart from that, you can increase the leverage by going in an advanced tuck planche (pictured above).

6. Dips

Sportsman at the gym doing parallel bar dips

We finish off the list of the exercises for the anterior deltoid with dips. It is a fairly easy exercise which can be loaded quite heavily.

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 your upper arms are parallel to the ground.
  • Push back up returning to the initial position.

How to make the exercise harder:


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, along with the other two fibers: anterior and lateral.

Most people training with bodyweight fitness suffer from a weakness in the posterior deltoid. As you will see there is not really a variety of exercises to target these fibers. Actually, we highly recommend you to use isolation exercises, such as the rope face pull, to strengthen the muscle and avoid injury.

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 the exercise:


  • 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 at the hips.
  • Return to the starting position.

How to make the exercise harder:


If the inverted row becomes too easy, you can either lower the bar if you’re using a smith machine, or you can elevate your feet. 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 of the exercise 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 exercise; however, it requires a good deal of compression strength and mobility. Once you are able to do the V-sit you will unlock other moves such as the press to handstand - if you have a solid handstand hold.

How to do the exercise:


  • Start in a seated position with your legs in front of you.
  • Place your hands by your side with the fingers pointing sideways or backward.
  • 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 this exercise:


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 apparatus, 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 to suit beginners, intermediates and advanced alike.

All you have to do now is create your routine and start working out.

Over to you.