5 Best Calisthenics Shoulder Exercises: Build Bigger Shoulders With Bodyweight Only

Nothing grabs attention like a well-developed pair of shoulders, but that’s far from the only reason you should train them. As the most mobile joint in your body, your shoulders are also the most susceptible to injury, so keeping them mobile, strong, and stable is crucial. In this blog post, you will learn just that.

The Importance of Shoulder Strength in Calisthenics

Strong shoulders are arguably the most important factor when it comes to learning calisthenics exercises and skills. Many calisthenics exercises, such as handstands, planche and dips heavily rely on shoulder strength to initiate and control the movements.

Targeting Specific Muscles in the Shoulders: Understanding Their Anatomy

The shoulder is a complex joint that consists of several bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. An understanding of the anatomy of the shoulder will help to provide insight into its function as well as help in targeting specific muscle groups during training.

The deltoid muscle, also known as the shoulder muscle, is a large muscle group that covers the shoulder joint. It consists of three main sections or heads: the anterior (front) deltoid, the medial (middle) deltoid, and the posterior (rear) deltoid. Each head of the deltoid has its own functions.

Anterior Deltoid:

Shoulder Flexion: The anterior deltoid assists in lifting the arm forward, as in front raises or shoulder presses.

Horizontal Shoulder Flexion: The anterior deltoid also aids in moving the arm horizontally across the front of the body, such as during chest fly exercises.

Medial Deltoid:

Shoulder Abduction: The medial deltoid is primarily responsible for raising the arm sideways away from the body, as in lateral raises.

Shoulder External Rotation: It helps rotate the shoulder outward, as in exercises like external rotations or throwing motions.

Posterior Deltoid:

Shoulder Extension: The posterior deltoid plays a key role in moving the arm backward, such as in rowing movements or reverse fly exercises.

Horizontal Shoulder Extension: It assists in moving the arm horizontally behind the body, like during reverse fly exercises.

Rotator Cuff: The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that stabilize the shoulder joint and help with rotational movements. These muscles are important to train because the rotator cuff muscles are commonly involved in shoulder injuries. By training and strengthening the rotator cuff muscles, you can help prevent injuries and improve the overall resilience of the shoulder joint.

The rotator cuff consists of the following muscles:

  • Supraspinatus: Initiates abduction of the arm and helps stabilize the humeral head. Infraspinatus: Responsible for external rotation and shoulder stability.
  • Infraspinatus: The primary function of the infraspinatus is to externally rotate the shoulder joint.
  • Teres Minor: Assists in external rotation and helps stabilize the shoulder joint.
  • Subscapularis: Facilitates internal rotation of the arm and provides stability to the shoulder.

Top 5 Best Calisthenics Shoulder Exercises

Now that you are familiar with the anatomy of the shoulders, you should choose some exercises that will effectively help you develop each part of your shoulders. To help you train your shoulder effectively, I’ve compiled a list of the best shoulder exercises.

1. Handstand Push Up

Handstand push up is the bodyweight equivalent to overhead press. Not only do these look awesome, they are arguably the best bodyweight exercise for developing the shoulders, especially the anterior deltoids. Incorporating handstand push-ups into your calisthenics routine can yield significant benefits for strength, stability, and body awareness.

How to perform Wall Handstand Push Ups(like a pro):

  1. Kick up into a handstand against the wall: You can start by placing your feet against the wall and slowly walking your feet up until your body is inverted and your hands are firmly planted on the ground.
  2. Engage your core and maintain a straight body alignment from your head to your toes.
  3. Bend your elbows and slowly lower your head towards the ground, keeping your body in a controlled descent. Aim to bring your head down to a comfortable depth, either touching the ground or reaching a point where your upper arms are parallel to the floor.
  4. Pause for a brief moment at the bottom position, maintaining control and stability.
  5. Push through your palms and press back up to the starting position, fully extending your arms. You can use your feet to take small steps up the wall for extra assistance if you need it.

Top tips for perfect execution:

  • Try to maintain a straight body alignment throughout the movement, and avoid excessive arching or sagging of the back.
  • Avoid flaring the elbows out to the side, keep them tucked in.

If you’re new to handstand push-ups or working towards building the necessary strength, you can use Pike Push Ups to build up strength and chest to wall handstand to get comfortable being up side down.

2. Pike Push Ups

Pike push up is the progression for handstand push up, but there are some real benefits of pike push up over handstand push ups. With the pike push up you don’t have to balance and stabilize yourself when performing the movement, which means you can perform more repetitions without the risk of losing balance. As a result, pike pushups are an excellent exercise for building muscle and strength.

How to perform the Pike Push Up:

  1. Start in a push-up position with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Walk your feet backward, keeping your legs straight, until your body forms an inverted V shape. Your hips should be raised, and your body should resemble an upside-down letter “V”.
  3. Ensure that your head is positioned between your arms, looking towards your feet.
  4. Engage your core muscles to maintain stability throughout the movement.
  5. Bend your elbows and slowly lower your head towards the ground, aiming to bring the top of your head towards the floor. Maintain control and a slow descent.
  6. Pause briefly at the bottom position, ensuring stability and maintaining proper form.
  7. Push through your palms and extend your arms, pressing your body back up to the starting position.

Top tips for perfect pike push ups:

  • The most common mistake people make when performing the Pike Push Up is not following the correct movement path, when perform the pike push up your should move slightly diagonally, creating a triangle with your head and hands at the bottom, not a straight up and down motion!
  • Also keep your weight on the toes, this is the best way to do Pike Push Ups.

To make the exercise harder you can elevate your feet, and use parallel bars for a larger range of motion.

3. Planche Push Up Variations

Planche push-up variations are highly effective for targeting the shoulders, the leverage and body positioning of planche push-up variations place a greater load on the shoulders compared to traditional push-up variations. As a result, the muscles of the shoulders are subjected to higher levels of tension and stress, leading to greater muscle recruitment and subsequent strength gains.

How To Perform Planche Push Up Variations:

  1. Start in a push-up position with your hands shoulder-width apart and your arms fully extended.
  2. Lean your upper body forward, shifting the weight onto your hands and shoulders.
  3. Lower your body by bending your elbows, keeping them tucked close to your sides, until your chest is just above the ground.
  4. Push through your hands and extend your arms to raise your body back up to the starting position.

Remember, planche push-up variations are highly challenging exercises that require significant upper body and core strength. It’s important to approach them with caution, proper progressions, and adequate preparation to minimize the risk of injury and ensure effective training. Begin with progressions and exercises that help you develop the necessary strength and stability, such as planche leans, tucked planche holds, and pseudo planche push ups.

4. Ring Face Pulls

Ring face pulls are an effective exercise for targeting the upper back muscles, including the posterior deltoids, rhomboids, and rotator cuff muscles. With all the internal rotation from the other exercises, ring face pulls can indirectly engage the rotator cuff muscles, particularly the external rotators, which is great for structural balance and injury prevention.

How to perform the Ring Face Pull:

  1. Walk your feet forward, leaning back slightly, so that your body is at an angle. Your arms should be fully extended in front of you, and your body should be in a straight line from head to heels. This is your starting position.
  2. Keeping your elbows high and out to the sides, pull the rings towards your face by retracting your shoulder blades. Aim to bring the rings above chin level.
  3. Pause for a moment at the peak of the movement, focusing on squeezing your upper back muscles and maintaining tension in the rings.
  4. Slowly and controlled lower your body back to the starting position, fully extending your arms.

You can adjust the difficulty of the exercise by adjusting the angle of your body, to make it easier move your feets closer to the rings and vice versa.

5. Ring Rear Delt Fly

Rear Delt Flys targets the posterior deltoids, promoting balanced shoulder development and improved shoulder stability. Performing the Ring Rear Delt Fly on gymnastics rings adds an element of instability to the exercise. This challenges your shoulder stability and activates the smaller, stabilizing muscles around the shoulder joint, enhancing joint integrity and reducing the risk of injury.

How to perform Ring Rear Delt Fly:

  1. Lean back slightly while walking your feet forward, so your body is at an angle. The arms should be fully extended in front of you, and your body in a straight line. This is your starting position.
  2. Keeping your arms straight, slowly raise your arms out to the sides in a wide arc.
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you raise your arms, focusing on contracting the rear deltoids.
  4. Pause briefly at the top of the movement, feeling the contraction in your rear delts.
  5. Slowly lower your arms back down to the starting position, maintaining control throughout the movement.

Use proper form and control during the movement for the best results. Performing Ring Rear Delt Flys with good form is hard, so don’t get frustrated if you’re nearly vertical at first.

Don’t skip this exercise! Maintaining a good balance between posterior and anterior shoulder development is essential for injury prevention.

Use Weights and Bands

Although calisthenics is our preferred form of exercise, we should not discount the benefits of using weights. It’s important to recognize that calisthenics and weight training each have particular advantages and that combining them can produce a more thorough training program. Specific muscle groups can be worked on and areas of weakness can be addressed using weights or resistance bands.

Lateral Raises

The middle deltoid is particularly hard to target without the use of weights, very few if any bodyweight exercises target this muscle optimally which is why it can be an advantage to use weights to build the middle deltoid effectively. A good exercise for this is the Lateral Raise, which can be performed both with weights and resistance bands.

How to perform Lateral Raises:

  1. Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with an overhand grip, palms facing down.
  3. Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, raise your arms to the sides until they reach shoulder level.
  4. Maintain control and focus on using your shoulder muscles, specifically the lateral deltoids.
  5. Pause briefly at the top of the movement, with your arms parallel to the floor.
  6. Slowly lower the weights back to the starting position.
  7. Perform the desired number of repetitions, usually between 8 to 15.

Lu Raises

The Lu Raise Popularized by Chinese Olympic weightlifting champion, Lu Xiaojun, These are a variation of the normal lateral raises with an extreme range of motion, lifting your arms all the way overhead until they meet. The Lu Raise is a great exercise for improving shoulder health, size, and mobility at the same time.

How to perform the Lu Raise:

  1. Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Start with your arms in front of you, the two dumbells touching each other.
  3. Raise your arms out to the side and all the way overhead in a circular motion.
  4. Pause briefly at the top of the movement, when the dumbells meet each other overhead.
  5. Slowly lower the weights back to the starting position.

Final thoughts

Strengthening and stabilizing the shoulders is key to progress and longevity in calisthenics.

By performing some, if not all, of the exercises listed above you should be well on your way to developing strong and healthy shoulders.
It is important to perform at least 1-2 exercises for the posterior part of the shoulders to avoid imbalances and injury.

These exercises can be incorporated into your regular push/pull split or full-body workout; performing them separately is inefficient and a waste of time.

What are your favorite shoulder exercises? Did I forget some? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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