Top 3 Push up Variations for Shoulder Mass and Strength
Push ups are a compound movement that recruits many different muscle groups to contribute to the exercise. The primary movers of the exercise are triceps and chest hence why push ups are such an effective exercise for strengthening these two muscle groups.
The shoulders however bear significant tension through out the exercise too. With a few adjustments to the exercise you can shift the emphasis away from the chest and on to the shoulders for both increases in strength and muscle mass by changing the angle of push.
The top three push up variations to target shoulders are:
The Decline Push up
The Pike Push up
The Handstand Push up
These exercises can be further modified for muscle growth by adding external resistance in the form of a weighted vest…
Decline Push ups for Shoulder Mass
Decline push ups are the best exercise to start loading tension onto your shoulders as it is easy to scale in difficulty.
The steeper the angle of decline, the greater the tension on the shoulders.
Decline push ups are simply where you elevate your feet off the ground using a bench, chair, exercise ball etc.
The decline angle of the body places more tension on the shoulders to provide:
Stability for the upper body and…
Contribute more to the pushing motion of the exercise
With a regular push up you are pushing approximately 70% of your body weight, with other 30% supported by your feet.
But if you increase the angle of decline by raising your feet then your arms and shoulders have to support and push a greater proportion of your body weight. The steeper the angle, the more the shoulder are able to contribute to the exercise and the less the chest is engaged. This is because pushing upwards favours shoulder strength and pushing out favours the pectoral muscles.
The changing of the angle of a decline push up is a great way to scale the amount of workload on the shoulders. If the exercise is too difficult you can choose to only slightly elevate your feet, to build the required strength before trying a steeper angle.
As your shoulders get bigger and stronger, you can adjust the angle of decline to increase the intensity of the exercise in proportion to your strength and balance so that you can maintain a progressive overload.
A progressive overload is where you increase either the..
…of the exercise to increase the demands on the muscle in order to consistently grow bigger and stronger. In the context of decline push ups we can increase the intensity of the exercise by increasing the angle of decline to place more tension on the shoulders and force the muscle to take on a greater workload then it is accustomed to.
The increased workload will stimulate an adaptive response from the shoulders to grow bigger and stronger to cope with the increased demands and muscular stress on the shoulder muscles.
You should aim for 8-12 reps for 3-5 sets as this is the optimal rep range for stimulating muscle growth.
It is also important to consider your time under tension whilst executing push ups.
Time under tension refers to how long your muscle is under strain during a set. If you do 12 reps in 20 seconds then you will be shortchanging your muscle building potential.
The optimal time under tension for a set of push ups to induce muscle growth is around 45-70 seconds. To put this into context, that means 4-6 seconds per push up, for 8-12 reps.
Spending around 4 seconds per rep allows you to emphasise the eccentric portion of the exercise (i.e. the lowering phase) as well as the concentric phase (pushing back up).
It is tempting to skip the eccentric phase of the push up by not controlling your movement and dropping down quickly diverting all your efforts to the concentric or pushing phase in order to do the most amount of reps possible, but this can really shortchange your muscle building potential.
To do yourself and the exercise justice, in adding mass to your shoulders you need to put as much effort into both the lowering and pushing phases of the push up, as during the eccentric phase, the muscle is lengthening under tension contributes significantly to muscle growth.
So try to master 8-12 reps for 3 sets of push ups at a steep angle. When this becomes too comfortable you should try weighted decline push ups or move on to pike push ups.
Weighted Decline Push ups
An alternative way to increase the resistance for decline push ups is to add weight with a weighted vest or backpack. This may be an easier way to scale the workload on your shoulders, if you lack the flexibility (particularly in the hamstrings) to get into the position for a pike push up.
Also with a weighted vest, you can objectively measure your progress and precisely adjust the weight to suit your ability.
Of course this makes it easy to maintain a progressive overload,by adding a little bit more weight every week as you get bigger and stronger.
I would recommend investing in a weighted vest as they are far more comfortable then a weighed down back pack and the weight is distributed more evenly around your torso rather then being concentrated on your back.
Th vest also fits more securely around your body which is particularly useful when your body is at a decline angle, whereas with a backpack this can become impractical.
Pike push ups for shoulders
The pike push up is the next progression after the decline push up. This is a more substantially more difficult variation because nearly all of your body weight is now supported by your arms and stabilised through the shoulders.
Overhead pushing is the optimal angle for the shoulders to generate force and become the primary mover of the exercise instead of the chest muscles.
This allows you to focus the tension onto the shoulders to promote muscle growth.
How much body weight are you lifting with a pike push up?
I did my own experiment to find out what proportion of your body weight is supported during a pike push up by performing them with my hands on bathroom scales.
Depending at what angle your legs are it can be anywhere from 75% to 95% of your body weight. If you are able to adopt a position with your feet raised, where your body forms an L-shape you will be pushing towards 95% of your weight.
You can use your own intuition and proprioception to shift what proportion of your body weight is supported by the feet and how much is supported by the shoulders so you can adjust the intensity of the exercise to your individual level of strength.
Pike push ups can be significantly more difficult then the decline push ups because…
There is a greater level of balance and body control required
You have to adjust to a new angle of push
And of course you are supporting more of your body weight.
So you may have to do some strength development workouts to build the strength and get somewhat accustomed to performing a push up in this position before you really lock into the exercise and achieve enough good quality reps to build muscle to get the most out of the exercise.
You will build strength and muscle at the lower rep ranges because of principle of mechanical tension for muscle growth, but the optimal rep range is still in the 8-12 reps for 3-5 sets framework as with the decline push ups so this is the target you should work towards in your workouts.
The pike push up is a great way to develop the strength, balance and coordination to perform the final variation: The handstand push up…
Handstand Push up for Shoulder Mass
This is the ultimate advanced shoulder building calisthenics exercise. With the handstand push up your shoulders are responsible for pushing 100% of your body weight and nearly all of your balance (with some wall assistance).
Also, like the pike push up this is an overhead push so your shoulders are the primary movers and the chest is engaged more for stability rather then contributing force to the movement.
This ensures the workload is squarely placed on the targeted muscles.
The handstand push up is unique in that your feet have no significant part to play in stability as they no longer in contact with the ground so the muscles around the shoulder joint are recruited not only for strength but for balance for maximum engagement.
This is of course an exercise that you have to build up to by mastering the pike push up first. Once you can solidly rep out 10 pike push ups you will have definitely developed sufficient strength and coordination for a full wall assisted handstand push up.
For the purposes of gaining shoulder mass, the best form of handstand push up is to perform an handstand with your back against the wall with your heels in contact with the wall to provide some balance.
There is no need to develop the skills to do a full freestanding handstand push up (without wall assistance) when you are training for mass, because:
Free standing handstands are more of a gymnastic skill, then an exercise that builds muscle mass.
The Free standing variation requires a huge amount of proprioception, balance and coordination. These are all useful athletic qualities but take a long time to develop and don’t necessarily serve the goal of building bigger shoulders as efficiently as a supported handstand push up.
With a supported handstand push up you can rest your feet against the wall for support so your shoulders will not be overwhelmed with instability as with the free standing version.
There is still enough of an instability stimulus with this variation without dominating the exercise and detracting from your muscle building goals.
With the assistance of a wall you can lock in to the exercise and concentrate on putting your best effort forward to performing the best quality reps to build strength and muscle.
What if I can’t do 8-12 reps of Handstand Push ups?
The handstand push up is the body weight equivalent to doing an overhead barbell press, whilst upside down. So to do 8-12 reps in a 45-70 second time frame is unrealistic for most people.
This is okay because we can leverage mechanical tension in order to stimulate muscle growth.
Mechanical tension is another way to increase muscle mass and it is a great way to bust through plateaus if your muscle building progress has stagnated with the classic 8-12 reps for 3-5 sets muscle building framework.
Essentially the principle of mechanical tension is to increase the resistance so that you can only do around 6-8 reps before failure. This rep range is more about generating maximal force then developing muscular endurance or size.
The emphasis of this training will shift slightly towards to maximal strength development however mechanical tension will still induce a significant hypertrophy response from the body, meaning your shoulder muscle will increase in size as an adaptive response.
Think of mechanical tension as offering the body an alternative stimulus for muscle growth.
Mix in this principle of training with the more classic 8-12 reps with failure occurring at around 12 reps to continually surprise and challenge the body in order to elicit a muscle building response.
Deficit handstand push ups
If you really want to take your shoulder training to the next level then there is always room for progress with deficit handstand push ups.
However this exercise is so advanced it is better suited to strength development rather then inducing muscle growth.
That being said if your regular handstand push ups are becoming too comfortable then this is a very easily scalable option in terms of increasing the intensity of the exercise.
To scale the exercise you simply increase the range of motion by elevating you hands with push up bars, benches or wooden plyo boxes. This allows you to go much deeper then your normal handstand push up would allow.
I personally have only been able to do two full range of motion handstand push ups in a row with my shoulders touching the two benches on either side.
However just using a pair of regular push up bars which elevate your hands only a few inches above the ground I have been able to achieve 8 reps so you can definitely leverage mechanical tension to induce muscle growth using this variation.
If you get this far you will have incredible functional strength but in terms of muscle growth it would serve you goals better to decrease the intensity and increase the reps.
So the deficit handstand push ups essentially offer endless potential for increasing the intensity of an exercise due to its difficulty in the same way that you can add weight to a barbell and perform an overhead press.
However the great thing about handstand push ups is you can do this world class shoulder exercise wherever you are, with the minimal amount of equipment and space.
I would always recommend that regardless of your training background that you attempt the three variations in sequence going from beginner to advanced.
Even if you already have strong shoulders, you may not be accustomed to pushing from specific angles and may not have the coordination and body control to do these exercise correctly.
Just because you can shoulder press more with a barbell does not mean you will be able to do a handstand push up.
However the benefit of this is that these exercises will offer an alternative stimulus from a regular shoulder work out with weights.
This gives the body the opportunity to adapt (given the correct reps and sets framework) to grow and add to your shoulder mass.
With these three calisthenics variations you really can scale the intensity of your shoulder workouts and serve your goals of increasing your muscle mass without the need for weights or a gym.
Not only that you will increase you functional strength, coordination and overall body control which translates to improved athletic performance.