Bodyweight Shoulder Exercises Vs. Equipment Exercises
Bodyweight shoulder exercises are not as easy to master as traditional weight shoulder exercises, at least to begin with. But the rewards, in the long run, will outweigh the hurdles of the initial learning process in terms of both raw strength and development.
Equipment exercises are straightforward to progress from and do not require a long adjusting period, as you can finely apply progressive overload with the simple addition or removal of plates or rack-pins.
Conversely, bodyweight shoulder exercises require a longish period of familiarization with the way your body leverage works. Bio-mechanics, balance, and coordination play a much more significant role than weight resistance training, particularly for the most advanced shoulder exercises like handstand, handstand push-ups, planche, and planche push-ups.
However, less demanding exercises do not offer the same level of challenge and can be used as a stepping stone toward more advanced exercises in a progressive way.
In addition to intensity levels and balance, the problem of hitting the whole shoulder complex for an excellent all-around development is not as intuitive as with free weights or machines.
For vertical pressing, it is evident that handstand push-ups act similarly to barbell or dumbbell presses, engaging the front and middle deltoid. However, the balance requirements are very different.
Other very effective bodyweight shoulder exercises for the front delts can be horizontal presses, particularly pseudo-planche push-ups and planche push-ups.
However, when it comes to the middle and rear parts of the shoulders, things start to get a little tricky, as hitting these parts may not come as straightforward as with equipment.
How can you do lateral raises or upright rowers for your middle delts with bodyweight exercises? What movement can specifically target the rear delts and traps, aside from Australian pull-ups?
The answer is that indeed there are several options available, and very effective too, even though you may have never considered them while there were sitting just under your nose all this time.
This article is divided into three sections for the front, middle and rear shoulder, bearing in mind that no exercise can completely isolate one part of the shoulder or another.
Best Bodyweight Shoulder Exercises For The Front Deltoids (And Upper Pecs)
Let’s start from the easiest to the most difficult ones, including dynamic and isometric exercises.
No surprise here. Push-ups are not explicitly intended for the front delts, but they work them anyway, particularly in the bottom part of the range. Any compound pushing movement calls the front delts into action, as the front shoulder muscle collaborates with the pectoralis.
Elevated Feet Push-Ups
Just like the standard push-ups, only harder. The elevated position offloads some weight off your feet and onto your hands while also changing the biomechanics of the push up toward an emphasis of the shoulder but less engagement of the pectoralis.
Pseudo Planche Push Ups
This is a significant and often underrated push-up movement. This is considerably harder than standard push-ups and a stepping stone toward full planche push-ups. Properly executed, it also helps toward building strength for the static planche, itself a considerable feat.
By moving your hands down on the side of your hips rather than just below the chest as in a standard push up, you change bio-mechanics and level of resistance entirely in 2 ways:
1 – Your shoulder scapula is protracted forward, and you should make an effort to keep it that way through the range of motion. This is the opposite stance of a bench press, whereas you squeeze the shoulder blades together and back to push up with your pectoralis.
As a result, the primary movers of the pseudo planche push up to become the front deltoids and the upper pectoralis.
2 – Because your hands are close to the center of gravity, the middle of your body, you end up lifting a much more significant portion of your body weight than in a standard push-up. Lowering your hand placement down even further will eventually result in a full planche push-up, repping with your whole body in the air and parallel to the floor, an incredible display of strength and balance.
While complex to begin with, the pseudo planche pushes up can be quickly escalated in progression by simply moving your hands lower and lower on your sides and leaning and far forward as you can as you get stronger with time.
Watch this tutorial of Daniel Vadnal from FitnessFAQs showcasing perfect pseudo-planche push-ups.
Maltese Floor Push-Ups
The Maltese floor push-up looks very similar to a standard pseudo planche push-up, but it differs in the hand placement. In a pseudo planche push up the hands are right next to your sides, while in a Maltese push up the hands are placed further out on the sides with your arms at about 30 degrees.
This change places a bit more stress on the deltoid but less on the upper pectoralis. The trade-off is that the range of motion becomes limited, so this exercise should occasionally be used as a variation of the pseudo planche push-up. The video below illustrates the difference well.
Full Planche Push-Ups
Full planche push-ups are one of the top movements in calisthenics and an excellent shoulder bodyweight exercise. They are the natural progression from pseudo planche push-ups and offer a tremendous carry-over effect into handstand push-ups and transition movements like the extreme 90 degrees push-up, where you push yourself up into a handstand from a planche position. Truly beast-level movement.
Full Isometric Planche
This is the isometric variation of the planche push-up and a feat in itself due to the high shoulder strength levels required. A full planche is achieved through different levels of progression starting from a tucked planche, followed by a frog stand, advanced frog stand, one leg straddle planche, straddle planche, and finally full planche with straight legs.
You can also work your way up to isometric planche from pseudo planche push-ups and full planche push-ups. Everything helps.
Pike push-ups are essential to progress toward achieving vertical pushing strength. They remove the balance skills necessary to master a full handstand push-up and some bodyweights off.
Pike push-ups can be done with feet on the floor, the easier variation, or with elevated feet, the more challenging move placing more of your body weight onto your hands.
The handstand is one of the milestones of calisthenics and one of the best bodyweight shoulder exercises. It is also the stepping stone to the more challenging handstand push-ups.
The isometric handstand is a challenge in itself because of the neurological adaptations necessary to master balance in an upside-down position. Many people find the upside-down position itself more challenging than the shoulder strength required to hold it.
Also, kicking into a handstand is yet another challenge that you can overcome only through repeated efforts over time, initially made more accessible and safer with the support of a wall.
A handstand can also be held facing a wall or back to the wall. The first variation may be easier for novices, as they can crawl back up to the wall into a handstand or side-kicking into the handstand. The wall gives some support, removing the balance coordination necessary in the vertical position while still working hard on the shoulders.
For the back to the wall variation, you need to be able to kick yourself into a handstand and place your hand at the proper distance from the wall. Too far from it, and you’ll end up in a banana handstand. Too close, and you won’t be able to hold it.
Handstand push-ups are the natural progression from the handstand and one of the best bodyweight exercises for shoulder development, together with planche push-ups.
You can build progression by increasing the range of motion over time, first by touching your head on the floor at the bottom of each repetition, then adding some spacers under your hands, like books, which increase the range of motion.
Over time, you should be able to use a full range of motion with the help of a pair of parallettes or parallel bars and even transition back and forth into a handstand from a planche position, the mighty 90 degrees push up.
To understand how the pushing progressions of pike push-ups, handstands, handstand push-ups, and 90 degrees push up all converge into one another, watch calisthenics master Alex Lorenz, aka El Eggs, from Calisthenics Movement showcasing how to execute them flawlessly.
Best Bodyweight Shoulder Exercises For The Side Deltoids
The side delts are the trickiest to target with bodyweight exercises, and indeed the range of options available is more limited. However, side delts are indirectly involved in all pushing and pulling movement simply because the front and the rear fibers of the side delts work in synchrony with the front and the rear delts.
This is so because no movement of any kind can isolate either front, side, or rear delts entirely as if they were different sections or different muscle groups.
Targeting one area will inevitably lead to a call for the assistance of the adjacent area to a lesser degree. For example, doing handstand push-ups will naturally call for half of the side delts to help the front delts for the push.
Conversely, doing rows will also engage the rear delts and some fibers of the more posterior part of the side delts. It all happens seamlessly with no clear-cut switch from one part of the delts to the next.
Having said all this, if you want to try isolating just the side delts with a bodyweight movement offering the same biomechanics of lateral raises with dumbbells, the following are two possible solutions to the problem, one a dynamic exercise, the other an isometric one.
Plank To Side-Plank Rotations (one arm at a time)
This is one of the bodyweight shoulder exercises that specifically target the whole side delts and is based on relative motion. It starts with a regular plank, and then you rotate your body on a side-plank while pushing with your side shoulders. It also calls for your core to stabilize your body during the movement.
The only drawback of this exercise is that you have to perform one side at a time or alternate sides, a bit like doing one side lateral dumbbell raises. Watch Jeff Cavaliere from AthLean-X below explaining the idea behind this movement and how to execute it properly.
Door Frame Isometrics
This isometric exercise is straightforward to perform, anytime, anywhere. Just push with your hands to the sides of a door frame as hard as possible and increase time under tension over time. Using this isometric exercise in conjunction with the side-plank rotations should give you a complete and specific workout for the side delts.
Best Bodyweight Shoulder Exercises For The Rear Deltoids (Plus Traps And Rhomboids)
Like for the front delts, there are many options available for the rear delts regarding bodyweight shoulder exercises. Most pulling movements engage the rear delts, but some more than others.
On a vertical plane, pull-ups with your back arched and your chest touching the bar offer a greater degree of stimulation to the rear delts than chin-ups. The pull-up also better targets the rhomboids, aside from the lats, but less so the biceps, unlike chins.
Wide grip rows are better suited to rear delts activation than narrow grip rows on a horizontal plane. The primarily last target your lats, while the former mainly target your rear shoulder and upper back.
Wide Grip Australian Pullups
Wide grip Australian pull-up is easy to perform and works well as an accessory exercise to the pull-ups and chin-ups. It is very safe and convenient, as you only need a low bar to do it and increase or decrease the intensity by adjusting your body position relative to the bar.
The higher your body, the easier it gets; the lower your body, the harder it becomes.
Isolation Rear Delts Exercise – Isometric And Dynamic Style
This simple move by Daniel Vadnal is an isolation bodyweight shoulder exercise for the rear delts. Deceptively simple, it is more complex than it looks and works very well, not just the rear delts but the whole upper back and trapezius.
All you need is a wall, and you can adjust the intensity by taking tiny steps away from the wall while keeping your arms just below 90 degrees with your hands closed in a fist for better activation.
It is a very technical exercise and easy to implement, instrumental in bringing the whole shoulder complex to complete development and balance. The rear delts and traps are often neglected compared to the front delts.
How Long To Progress With Bodyweight Shoulder Exercises?
Progressive overload is the game’s name when it comes to any form of resistance, be it bodyweight or equipment resistance. Muscles do not know whether resistance comes from your own body or some external gadget.
Providing that you workout regularly with good form and small incremental steps, ideal progression should be equivalent whether you use gear or just bodyweight exercises.
However, in the real world, things do not work reasonably as we would expect on paper, as other factors may chime in to twist the desired results, for better or worse.
In the case of bodyweight exercises or calisthenics, there is undeniably a bit longer “apprenticeship” phase, particularly for the more advanced exercises. Resistance and execution of free weights and machines are straightforward to manipulate.
However, bodyweight exercises require an initial period of “running in” to understand how shifting body position and changing leverage, even just a little, can have a profound effect on resistance intensity.
It is not as easy as adding a 5lb plate with bodyweight exercises as you would do with a barbell. This is because a simple change in hand position can lead to a 50lbs shift in resistance level.
Hence the need to develop a “feel” for the adequate intensity for your fitness levels.
With time, you will acquire the fine-tuning mechanism to effectively alter the resistance level by changing the gradient and hand position and progress from there.
Once you can master all major shoulder bodyweight exercises with good form, you may even introduce added resistance with free plates of weighted vests to bring your strength and muscle development to full potential.
Benefits Of Bodyweight Shoulder Exercises – Closing Thoughts
To sum up, shoulder bodyweight exercises or any bodyweight exercise can add an initial 1 to 2 months of initial adjustment compared to easy gear ready to be manipulated right from the start.
But after that, progression will be steady and more comprehensive for general strength and muscle growth, as all the bodyweight exercises belong to the safe, closed kinetic chain range of exercises, the one intended by nature to move your body around space. In contrast, you do not target just muscle groups like bodybuilding but whole chains of muscles for performance and athleticism.
On top of that, bodyweight exercises require minimal or no equipment and certainly not gym membership at all. As such, they offer a valuable tool for fitness as a lifestyle because they can be implemented anywhere, anytime, leaving you out of excuses for not working out.
Handstands, planche push-ups, or pike push-ups only need your body and gravity to be performed. These bodyweight shoulder exercises can be done wherever you are without expensive contraptions like barbells, dumbbells, smith machines, or pin stacks.
They are fantastic to perform and master, both for you and the casual observer. They are as cool as they get, and they cost nothing but your dedication but will reward you with a fantastic physique and incredible strength.
Jay always had a passion for fitness. A former skinny guy, he built himself 35 lb of lean muscle over the years using different training strategies, going through failures and eventually succeeding, and now wants to share his knowledge with those who value fitness as a way of life (See all posts by Jay Fielding).