Generally speaking, in calisthenics, only a handful of exercises are truly effective for muscle growth. The majority of bodyweight exercises create low resistance and because of that, they are most effective for endurance and shredding. 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 do a higher volume 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. In general, you have to integrate exercises of higher intensity like handstand pushups to make sure that your training causes your muscles to grow.
How are handstand pushups (against a wall) different than regular pushups? Well, try to do the same amount of repetitions for handstand pushups as for the regulars and notice that it’s impossible. I consider them to be of equal intensity with pull-ups. 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 technical definitions to know when to do a lot. In my opinion, doing as many handstand pushups as possible in a workout is also considered “high-volume”. You can do a high volume of handstand pushups, not hundreds, but a lot more than usual. 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.
For instance, when you train in a pyramid method, you may start with the hardest variations and once you can’t perform them anymore, it doesn’t mean you stop. Instead of that, you 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 them big and very strong. 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 pull-ups and dips, but if you need more mass, then a specific exercise is also required:
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The Wall-Assisted Handstand Pushup
What makes handstand pushups so effective is the vertical position. Almost the entire bodyweight will fall 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 and not my face. 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.
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.
You need to keep safe and learning from others mistakes is better. My experience taught me how to approach this exercise and train with efficiency. Now I can share my experience with you.
How Did I Build My Shoulders?
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)
I also did the other exercises on different days. My main focus was to do that particular routine twice a week. That ensured the fact that I did a high-volume workout for my shoulders.
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
- Third workout = 30 – 40
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.
Why Is Important to Have Big Shoulders
You will look better in clothes. A jacket or a shirt will fit you way better than before. Plus, it will make the core section look smaller.
On top of everything is strength. I was able to be more powerful in calisthenics.
The only downside of big shoulders is mobility. Flexibility will never be the same.