Early in my weightlifting life, I wasn’t training my shoulders at all. I had been hampered by a left shoulder injury during my freshman year of high school, and it had been a nuisance ever since. To prevent any further exacerbation, I simply refused to do any sort of shoulder-targeted training whatsoever. Until that is, Julian, a fellow trainer at Bally Total Fitness and the staff bodybuilder, shamed me into it.
“You’re always doing all of this upper-body work, but you can only get so big if you don’t train your shoulders to tie it all together,” he explained.
Far be it from me — especially back then — to argue with a legitimate (and huge) bodybuilder. And so, I followed Julian’s advice, and my shoulders rounded out nicely. As an added bonus, each of my upper-body lifts also improved as a result of having strong shoulders to anchor the movements made by my arms.
Everyone should be so lucky as to have a hulking bodybuilder to critique them as they train. But what if I hadn’t had a gargantuan guardian angel lurking over my shoulder, admonishing me to reach for the iron? Were there other ways I could have gone about the process of acquiring bigger and better shoulders?
Is it even possible to train your shoulders without weights?
The slippery answer is, every essential load-bearing movement you’d ordinarily perform with free weights can also be performed with elastic bands. Loosely translated, this means that if your shoulder-training routine would ordinarily consist of some combination of military presses, raises for the anterior, medial and posterior deltoids and maybe some variety of shoulder rows or upright rows, all of these are movements that can be performed with an average elastic band set.
Beyond that, if you want to do face pulls, or would like to hit your shoulders from alternate angles while always standing fully upright, connecting your elastic band set to a door anchor is usually sufficient.
But what if I didn’t have weights or elastic bands at my disposal?
In cases like this, you need to get creative and take into consideration the angles at which your shoulders are being worked.
A perfect example is the pike push-up, which can be effectively used in a pinch to take the place of a military press. If you assume a push-up position while bending at the waist, and then you bend at the elbows and gradually lower your face to the ground, pressing downward will engage your shoulder muscles to a much greater degree than a regular push-up, and at a similar angle to a military press. To make pike push-ups simpler, you can execute them from your knees, and to raise the difficulty, you can try them out while elevating your feet off of the ground.
But perhaps the easiest way to attack your posterior deltoids without any weights whatsoever, and with technique that’s still very challenging is to perform inverted bodyweight rows. By keeping your hands placed widely on the bar and your elbows angled outward, much of the tension will be delivered directly to the rear delts.
You can also pretend you’re back in elementary school gym class doing relay races with your friends and do some crab walks. Supporting your entire body weight with your posterior chain while using your arms to provide your body with its forward propulsion is ideal for taxing the posterior delts.
Don’t all of those movements still require me to support a lot of weight, though?
Indeed. If you’re looking for shoulder exercises that don’t require you to support any body weight to speak of, you can use a set of letter-themed movements that a physical therapist might prescribe if you were suffering from a shoulder injury. Basically, you lie prone on the ground and perform repetitive arm raises where you lift and maneuver your arms in a variety of formations — usually I, T, W, Y and O. It doesn’t sound like much, but your shoulders will certainly feel the sting of muscle-challenging isometric tension afterwards.
None of these movements will pack muscles onto your shoulders with the speed and thickness of ballistic training, plyometric training or more controlled forms of weight training or resistance training. But if you find yourself trapped on a desert island without so much as a palm tree to suspend yourself from, they should enable your shoulders to sustain themselves admirably until help arrives.
You may also find yourself ingratiating yourself with any crabs that wander onto your island and are delighted to find you walking around like them, which is an added perk. It’s only when you find yourself chatting with them and understanding their replies that you know you’ve been stranded on that island for entirely too long.