Generally speaking, in calisthenics, only a handful of compound exercises are truly effective for growing shoulders and those are definitely the handstand pushups. The majority of bodyweight exercises generate low resistance and tension and because of that, they are most effective for muscular endurance. The best example of light exercises would be pushups. They are easier than pull-ups or handstand pushups, and because of this, we need to accrue higher and higher volumes to compensate.
Don’t get me wrong, it is possible to grow muscles even with light exercises as food and recovery also play a very important role. But with shoulders, things are a bit different as they respond differently. You have to integrate exercises of higher intensity like handstand pushups to make sure that your training causes shoulders to grow in size.
How are handstand pushups (against a wall) different than regular pushups? Well, try to do the same amount of repetitions for handstand pushups and see what happens. I consider them of equal intensity with pull-ups, if not harder. As a consequence, they trigger hypertrophy and make the shoulders grow even bigger than they would if you were training only with regular pushups and dips.
I preach a lot about the benefits of high-volume training for muscle growth. People usually understand that high-volume means only light exercises because otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to do hundreds of repetitions. This is false! You don’t need definitions to know when you did enough.
In my opinion, doing as many handstand pushups as possible in a workout is also considered “high-volume”. You can do high volume handstand pushups workout. That counts for hypertrophy! But stating that you need harder variations to cause the muscles to grow doesn’t mean you can eliminate the others entirely. You rather need a combination of that, progressive overload and volume.
For instance, when you train in a pyramid method, you may start with the hardest variations and once you tire, continue with low-intensity exercises that attack the same muscle groups. You can’t reach the maximum potential by doing only hard or easy variations.
Getting back to our topic, it is the same with shoulders. Many athletes continue to ask me how to build size in them. In my opinion, you can’t grow your shoulders very big only with pushups, dips, and pull-ups. It is true that the shoulders get plenty of work from them, but if you need more mass, then handstand pushups are essential.
You Grow Shoulders with Handstand Pushups!
What makes handstand pushups so effective is the vertical position. Almost the entire body weight falls on the shoulders and triceps. A bit of resistance will be transferred to the lower back, spinal muscles, lats, and trapezes.
The legs are suspended in the air with a bit of support against a wall and that causes your upper body to support the whole weight:
There are multiple ways to do handstand pushups. I personally prefer to have my back against the wall. Having the face against the wall will emphasize the spinal and lower back muscles a lot more. This could be harmful if you have any issues in that area. However, you can observe in the video how shoulders and triceps get activated. The truth is that even the abs get a lot of work too.
I recall many handstand pushup sessions that left me with muscle soreness in my lats, abs, trapezes, triceps, and neck. It is a compound exercise and you need compound exercises to grow muscles and build functional strength.
- The surface needs to be glossy and slippery. If you support the legs as I do in the video, you will not be able to do as many repetitions as you wish
- You might not be able to do a full range of motion. Do half the motion and if you feel strong, then go even deeper
- In time you will get stronger but if you are unable to do any rep or half-rep, then focus on diamond pushups and pike pushups
- Intensities feel different from one individual to another. For me, regular pushups feel easy while for others they don’t. Handstand pushups are to be added in the workout once you can master a few reps
- Support your hand on a stable surface. You don’t want to slip and dislocate the shoulders
- Attempt handstand pushups only at the beginning of your workout. I once did them after training with dips, pushups, and pull-ups. Because my shoulders were too pumped, I lost my mobility, and I dislocated my left shoulder.
How Did I Build My Shoulders?
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For today I did: 1 pull-up -> 2 pushups -> 2 dips -> 10 leg raises 2 pull-ups -> 4 pushups -> 4 dips -> 10 leg raises 3 pull-ups -> 6 pushups -> 6 dips -> 10 leg raises ———————————————————————– 10 pull-ups -> 20 pushups -> 20 dips -> 10 leg raises . Then 5×5 Chinups . Total: 80 pull-ups, 110 pushups, 110 dips, and 100 leg raises = 400 total reps . Doable in less than 50 minutes. The pause is just to catch your breath . #dips #pullups #abs #6pack #calisthenicsworkout #highvolumecalisthenics #oldschoolcalisthenic #onnit
Handstand pushups were my weapon. But to get results, I had to train specifically and that is why I focused on perfecting form and positioning. The training method matters too. So these are the exercises that go along with handstand pushups:
- Pike Pushups, Diamond Pushups, Dips
- Wide Pull-Ups
My basic routine was:
- Wall-Assisted Handstand Pushups (5-10 sets of max reps)
- Dips (5 sets)
- Diamonds (4-5 sets)
- Wide Pull-Ups (5-10 sets)
After a short period, I found myself doing handstand pushups 3 times a week. Of course, then my volume dropped from one workout to another:
- Total volume for the first workout = 60-100 reps
- For the second workout = 40 – 50 reps
- Third workout = 30 – 40 reps
I kept this programming for several months and my shoulders got a lot bigger and stronger. I started from doing sets of 3-4 reps and ended up doing sets of 10-15. You also need to warm up extremely well, otherwise, you will have no strength to push. You can jog 10-15 minutes to assure that.
Growing bigger shoulders makes you look better in clothes. A jacket or a shirt will fit you way better than before. Plus, it has to do with the proportions of your body. Big shoulders make the midsection look better too and that gives aspect to your entire bodyline. And on top of everything is the raw strength. The only negative aspect is that you may lose a little elasticity, that depends also whether you do free handstand pushups and if you also include mobility training on a regular basis.
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