A good shoulder workout should not only build up the strength, stability, and aesthetics of your shoulders, but it shouldn’t be too complicated or take up a ton of your time.
In this article and video I talk about the two-part combo fitting these requirements that transformed me from having shoulders so weak and overly flexible that they periodically popped out of their sockets, to being able to base acrobatic moves that require an incredible amount of overhead stability and shoulder stabilization.
The Origins Of My Shoulder Workout
By late 2011 I was fed up.
I was lean, and running farther and faster than I ever had before, but I was also weaker than I’d been five years previous. My pursuit of long-distance running had largely replaced the strength-based elements of my workout routine, and my muscles had atrophied, leaving me weak and looking like an undeveloped kid.
Because I’d been losing muscle while also doing some yoga, my shoulder flexibility kept increasing while my body’s ability to stabilize the shoulder joint kept decreasing. The result was that both shoulders started popping out of their sockets, which was incredibly painful and annoying. Over the course of a few years it happened at least eight times and almost happened dozens more (I could feel the shoulder slipping in an odd way and knew it was close).
I became oddly talented at popping my own shoulders back into their sockets using a railing, but I got sick of the situation, and decided to make a concerted effort to fix my problem.
Over the course of just a month of concentrating on part one of my two-part shoulder workout technique, my shoulders grew dramatically and felt much stronger and more stable. The next month I added the second element into the mix and found that my shoulders went from stable to incredibly rock solid over the course of the next two months.
My new shoulder strength, combined with already decent shoulder flexibility, left me able to do a number of partner acrobatic moves that many people find very challenging. And, of course, I haven’t had a shoulder dislocation since.
Over the years, I’ve been consistent with part one and periodically “top up,” with part 2 of my shoulder workout. Recently I’ve been getting more and more into partner acrobatics, and many of the moves I do work part two as I play.
The Aesthetics And Physiology Of Shoulder Strength
Many of you are looking for shoulder exercises because you think they’ll make you look better. And although subjective perception plays a big role here, you’re probably right.
Most people would agree that men without at least a reasonable level of shoulder development look boyish.
Even women with undeveloped shoulders sometimes look kind of gangly. This routine will help build up the deltoids, which are the primary muscles of the shoulder, and improve shoulder aesthetics.
The effect of this kind of shoulder workout will be relative. Women concerned about gaining too much shoulder mass too quickly probably don’t have anything to worry about. Because of hormonal differences, women tend to gain muscle much more slowly than men. If you think you’re gaining too much mass, just stop.
Personally, I’m not trying to add a lot of useless mass to my body, even if it would look aesthetically pleasing, since it limits some of what I like to do with my body. I strive to be strong while minimizing mass gain, which I do by limiting reps but still increasing intensity. Even so, my deltoids have slowly grown over the years as I’ve continuously upped the ante. They’re simply going to get bigger while doing this workout, even at lower reps.
Outside of aesthetics, you have to build up your deltoids if you’re interested in performance. The deltoids transmit force generated in your torso upward in most arm movements, so if they’re weak, the power of your arms and torso be compromised as well.
Building Badassity With A Shoulder Workout
I’m interested in physical pursuits mostly because those pursuits are fun and satisfying. I like to try new fun stuff and master it. These days I spend a lot of my free time doing partner acrobatics, and I’m pretty good at it.
One of the reasons I’ve gotten good is because I’ve learned to stabilize loads (i.e. humans) held overhead or at weird angles with more aptitude than your average base.
Basically that means that my deltoids are not only strong enough to lift people, but are also great at engaging and staying engaged to keep my flyers in place as our bodies move through space. This stability is built up mostly by the second part of my shoulder workout.
Want some examples of fun stuff you can do with this?
Shoulder Workout Part One: Pressing
Part one of my shoulder workout is the use of one or more exercises that feature a straightforward overhead pressing motion. Why pressing? Modern humans rarely push heavy weights straight over their head, or themselves off the floor when they’re in an upside down position. This means the deltoids aren’t used much, and they’re weaker than they could be. The simplest way to remedy this is to start pushing things upward.
Pushing your own bodyweight around tends to be safer than using weights, and almost never requires any coaching to make sure you don’t hurt yourself. If you’re new to fitness, bodyweight exercises are a good place to start. These shoulder strengthening exercises are also just as effective as weights, if you’re smart about it.
I rarely have access to a gym with weights, so most of my training is just bodyweight exercise, and it works.
The ultimate example of a bodyweight pushing exercise is the full-range handstand push up, which requires that you get into a handstand on a raised surface, such as a set of chairs or stacks of thick books, and lower down till your shoulders and hands are roughly lined up before pushing back to the top.
This is a very challenging move, and equivalent to strict pressing (military pressing) your entire bodyweight with a barbell. Most untrained individuals won’t be able to do this off the bat, so use easier regressions and seek to improve over time.
From harder to easier:
- Full range handstand push up (explained above).
- Partial handstand push up (Hands on ground, descend till the top of your head hits and then go back up).
- Half partial handstand pushup (With your hands on the ground, bend your elbow a quarter to half of the way and then push back up).
- Pike Press Handstand Push-Up (With your feet on a chair or other raised object, your hands on the ground, and your hips directly over your shoulders, lower till your head hits the ground and then come back up).
- Practice holding a static handstand against the wall
- Practice holding a static headstand against the wall.
Pressing With Weights:
Pressing a barbell loaded with weights overhead without momentum or hip movement, which is called a strict press or military press, is probably the best weighted alternative to the handstand push up.
For those who freak out over being upside down and who aren’t inclined to become more comfortable with it through practice, it may be the better option. It’s also very simple in that you can add small increments of weight to the bar and gradually progress rather than keep learning new bodyweight movements.
Another option is to take free weights, like dumbbells, and push them straight overhead.
Shoulder Workout Part Two: Overhead Stability
If you’re content to merely have shoulders that are stronger than the majority of the population, then you don’t really need to go past part one. Regularly practicing and improving your overhead pressing capacity will leave you strong, stable, and with well-developed deltoids muscles.
But if you want to take your shoulder strength to the next level, building your capacity to stabilize weight overhead as it and you move through space is critical.
Many partner acrobatic moves are built around these sort of movement patterns, but working with a static weight is also a great way to improve.
It’s probably wise to find someone who can teach you these exercises, as it’s not hard to do them wrong and hurt yourself if you’re a beginner.
The best starting place is probably the overhead squat, which is done with a barbell. After pressing or push pressing the weight overhead, you squat down as deep as you can for multiple reps.
There are several benefits to doing this. One of the biggest benefits is improved shoulder mobility, and the stretching out of tight pecs which impede your ability to keep the bar overhead as you descend. If your thoracic spine is tight, you also won’t be able to hold the weight overhead at the bottom of the squat.
Try holding the bottom of the squat for a minute and just letting the weight sit there. It will fall forward and back slightly, forcing you to make micro muscle engagements to keep it in place. This is really effective for building stability.
If overhead squats are easy, try power snatching the barbell off the ground and then squatting with it. The act of stopping the barbell as it flies overhead and backwards will do a lot to build up your shoulders.
Finally, although a bit more challenging than either of the other two, doing Turkish get-ups with a loaded barbell is a tremendous way to build up your shoulder stability, since the weight is far out on the ends of the barbell and you’ve only got one arm to hold it with.
Not only do you have to stabilize the uncentered weight, but then you have to sit up from your back and come to standing. The act of doing this further rocks the bar and forces you to stabilize. And as you move underneath it, your shoulder flexibility will be tested.
If you’ve never done a Turkish get-up, practice with a kettlebell before you move on to a barbell.
Sets, Reps, And Training Frequency
Training these two movement patterns two to three times a week is perfectly adequate.
Sets and reps will depend on what your goals are.
If you’re trying to pile on as much muscle as possible, then three sets with two to three minutes of rest between them is optimal. Each set should consist of 5-10 reps.
Training very frequently (multiple times per day), but only doing one set of 1-3 reps each time will lead to strength increases, but minimize muscle mass gain.