Shoulder (deltoid) muscles and their function
When someone is said to have developed and broad shoulders, this can actually mean several different muscles. If the person is referring to shoulder width and a V-shaped figure (narrower waist and broad back), then it is more likely describing the effect of strong back muscles (especially the latissimus dorsi). Another may mean large trapezius muscles resembling a bull’s neck. Today, however, we will focus specifically on the shoulder muscle itself (the deltoid muscle).
The deltoid muscle is divided into three parts (heads) that perform three different functions (I’m simplifying this a bit for the purposes of the article). The anterior part of the deltoid muscle provides extension (flexion) of the forearm, the middle head provides extension (retraction), and the posterior head provides extension (extension). Other functions, such as rotation, can be omitted for now because they do not play a major role in the exercises I am about to describe.
Those who can describe the movements described can guess which head will be involved in which exercise. In horizontal pressing (e.g. benchpress, push-ups), the front head helps the pectoral muscles, which in practice means that the front side of the deltoid muscle is very well exercised by most exercisers (those who exercise outdoors do push-ups, those who exercise in the gym certainly do benchpress).
The back of the head helps the back muscles in different kinds of deadlifts, but more in the horizontal deadlift and most of all in the kind of horizontal deadlift where we extend our arms (front lunges, inverted butterfly…). So if you train your back muscles honestly with different exercises, the rear deltoid muscles will not remain neglected.
Unfortunately, the popularity of push-ups over pull-ups (everyone benches in the gym, while few row with the same intensity with a big barbell) means that many people have a more worked-out front side, which can lead to various problems such as upper back hunching and shoulder internal rotation. The solution to this problem is to train the back muscles more intensely and stretch the strong pectoral muscles and anterior deltoid muscles more.
The middle part of the deltoid muscle, which is responsible for the extensor muscles and contributes to uprightness, tends to be the worst. Contributing to this is the fact that these movements are harder to practice without equipment, but also in the gym, vertical push-ups (pushing the dumbbell overhead) and stretching are less popular than horizontal push-ups and their variations. So let’s take a look at the possibilities of a full shoulder workout that doesn’t require access to a gym or your own equipment.
Shoulder strengthening without equipment
As we can notice, the deltoid muscle is relatively small compared to, for example, the adjacent pectoral or trapezius muscles. This is indeed the case, except perhaps for top strength athletes and bodybuilders. This means, of course, that the deltoid muscles don’t exert as much force as the back or leg muscles, or typically (for beginners and intermediates) we don’t need particularly large weights to stimulate them.
The problem is that the shoulders are one of the muscles that are harder to train without equipment, or there are fewer exercises available, and therefore there are greater jumps in difficulty between exercises (and exercise variations). The front of the shoulders get a workout on push-ups and dips (push-ups on the trapeze bar), so we’ll look at exercises that engage the middle head of the deltoid muscle as well.
The simplest exercise is the deadlift and holding the deadlift either unloaded or with a small load (a liter bottle of water in each hand). For most people, this exercise will be too simple to produce any results, but for a complete beginner or a skinny untrained lady, it can be a good start. If you think the exercise is pointless, try holding yourself in a fully upright position for 2 minutes with a slight upward sway.
The key to strengthening your arms without equipment, however, is the handstand and its variations. If you don’t yet have the strength for a simple handstand with your feet braced against the wall, I recommend starting with push-ups first and progressing through push-ups with an elevated leg position, you’ll soon build confidence with the handstand. This is because the handstand requires strength not only in your shoulders, but also in your triceps (and to some extent your trapezius and midsection muscles, but these are rarely a hindrance, at least at first).
How to do a handstand, more advanced exercises for the shoulders
If you feel strong enough to do a handstand, I recommend starting with a handstand with your feet braced against a wall. This will get rid of the balancing, which will make the exercise easier, but your shoulders will still come into their own. However, even with the wall handstand, we need to be careful with our technique so that we don’t learn the exercise incorrectly from the start.
The position of your hands should approximately follow the width of your shoulders or be just a little wider. The body is aligned in a straight line perpendicular to the floor, which of course means that the hands must be close to the wall, otherwise the line is tilted, not properly vertical. This is where mistakes are often made – for example, pelvic laxity and lumbar spine laxity are common, which you address by engaging the abdominal and gluteal muscles.
It is also necessary to keep the elbows extended (an exception for hypermobility – the elbows must not be bent, but straight) and to actively put pressure on the ground with the shoulders, thus avoiding instability of the shoulders and elbows. Otherwise, we should try to push the shoulders as high as possible.
The moment you have mastered this exercise correctly and can stay in it for a long time (for example, at least 40 seconds), it is time to start learning to stand without support. For a true handstand, all of the above rules apply, but you need to follow technique and maintain balance. Therefore, it is of course advisable to start on a softer surface and try to fall down properly a few times so that we don’t hurt ourselves when we lose our balance.
The next step after mastering the handstand can be walking on your hands. This is a great exercise that makes the handstand itself more difficult (we have to shift our weight to one hand) and also makes coordination and balance a bit more difficult.
This is where the attentive reader should slowly realize the lack of training the shoulders with the handstand, namely that the handstand trains the shoulders (and triceps) isometrically in maximal contraction, not dynamically through the full range of motion. The handstand is an excellent comprehensive exercise, but it is not a complete and comprehensive shoulder workout on its own.
We must acknowledge the standing squat as the king of inappropriate shoulder exercises, which unfortunately is so demanding that even most advanced athletes cannot master it. Here we run into the problem of the big jump in difficulty. I can advise you to try to do push-ups with increasingly higher leg support (that’s how you’ll eventually get to the standing squat), but I must confess that I’ve never been able to do a strict standing push-up without leg support.
Whether your path to standing push-ups is via incline push-ups, barbells, or with the help of a training partner (who can help you with a slight upward pull on your ankles, for example), one thing is clear. If you work yourself into shape enough to be able to do a handstand, you’ll have stronger arms than the vast majority of the population without having to pay for equipment or a gym membership.
Shoulder aesthetics and the “V” shape
In addition to the role they play in all kinds of push-ups, strong deltoid muscles even help prevent shoulder injuries. Especially in people who have ever dislocated their shoulder, strong muscle plexuses around the shoulders are a protection against re-injury and weakening.
Unfortunately, working on the deltoid muscles doesn’t help us much from an aesthetic standpoint. Since it is a relatively small muscle, efforts to increase volume will be long and (without the use of steroids) will never produce extreme results. However, the deltoid muscle itself is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to “broad shoulders” and a V-shaped physique.
A strong back contributes the most to shoulder width and massiveness. In particular, the broad back muscle directly creates the desired V-shape. Strong intercostal muscles, in turn, ensure the correct upright posture of the upper back, which is much more aesthetically pleasing than a hunched, rounded back (which also visually adds width).
If you are really concerned about appearance, a narrow waistline will help you considerably, as it is a kind of measure of the overall appearance to the eye (it’s not about absolute size, but about the proportions of the circumference). If one is all bulky (including the waist), shoulder width naturally doesn’t stand out as much. On the other hand, an overall leaner person with developed back and deltoid muscles will look more muscular, even though they may be much weaker overall than a bulky, “chubby” individual.