How To Build Broader Shoulders

Written by Jared Polowick on April 15, 2017

Is it possible to build broader shoulders? If you’re an ectomorph, chances are you have a thinner bone structure build, and perhaps that’s why you’re interested in finding out if you can build big, broad shoulders.

Lots of guys want broad shoulders, but why? Inside we’ll discuss why men want broad shoulders, what we can control and what we can’t, and some action steps so you can add a few inches to what your measurements currently are.

Interested?

Why do men want broad shoulders?

Don’t worry. Today we won’t be diving too deep into the somewhat pseudo-scientific world of how men ended up wanting broad shoulders. But we will probably both agree that wide shoulders look pretty remarkable. And we can understand some of the realities of what broad shoulders might signal outwardly.

Compared to women, it’s clear that it’s a masculine trait to have wide shoulders, as we naturally have wider shoulders than women (study). Not only do men have wider shoulders in just sheer length, but also when compared to their hips. Broad shoulders paired with a narrow waist makes that classic, aesthetically pleasing V-shape body, and both men and women find broad shoulders combined with a lean waist attractive on men (study, study, study).

But why is being broadly shouldered attractive? Researchers believe it’s because it signals strength, health, and virility by carrying lots of muscle mass in your upper body.

Body Proportions Matter When It Comes To Attractiveness

In this study, body proportions that signaled fitness and strength mattered quite a lot for attractiveness. Things like how lean your waist was, your waist to chest girth ratio for muscle mass, and your weight to height ratio (BMI).

This later study built on top of that using 3D models and confirmed again that the waist-to-chest ratio was hugely important in terms of attractiveness (study). The lower your ratio was between your waist and your chest girth, the better. (e.g. a 30″ waist divided by a 43″ chest gives a 0.7 ratio, which is very low.)

So, naturally, the study found that women most preferred the broad chest and shoulders to waist on men, which the research paper dubbed as the inverted triangle shape.

The study continued by saying that this inverted triangle shape was the shape of physical strength and muscle development in the upper body. So keeping a lean waist while building up your upper body was key.

The good news for us narrow-framed guys is that we’re not just seen in two dimensions, but in three dimensions. It’s a shame that the study didn’t include back measurements in the study just to be crystal clear, but with these results giving evidence that it’s really upper body strength and mass that matters, we can build up the size of our entire shoulder circumference, which includes your chest, shoulders, and back.

But more on that later.

First, The Bad News: What We Can’t Control

Let’s first distinguish the difference between broad bone structure and heavily muscled shoulders.

You can’t change your bone structure

Bone structure is more or less determined by your genetics, and once it’s established, there’s nothing that you can reasonably do to change it. Research shows that your clavicles (collarbones) already start to ossify at just 5 1/2 weeks old! There is steady growth from then up to about age 12 for boys. By age 12, boys have reached around 80% of their total clavicle length, but then the final growth picks up at a faster pace. By 18 years old, the clavicle growth of the men had reached 100% of it’s final length. For the curious, the clavicle does continue to ossify until around age 24–26, but the growth in terms of width is done (study).

Some people are blessed with the genetics of long clavicles and narrow hips and can capitalize on the attractiveness boost without needing to add much muscle mass. Swimmer Michael Phelps, Korean Actor RAIN, and Shane are a couple of good examples of naturally having a wide upper body bone structure with a narrow hip bone/waist.

Naturally Wide Bone Structure

Ectomorphs Aren’t In The Best (Or Worst) Position

Us ectomorphs are in neutral standing. It’s a mesomorphic trait to have a natural V-taper bone shape with broad shoulders and narrow hips. It’s an endomorphic trait to have narrower shoulders and wider hips. Ectomorphs are more shaped like a rectangle, with neither broad nor narrow shoulders. It means we often need to build quite a lot of upper body muscle to build a v-taper shape, but our bone structures will almost always allow it.

Keep in mind that these are just generalizations. People like Shane, Phelps and Rain are still quite ectomorphic (long limbs, thin bones, etc.) but can also end up with long clavicles. If you’re curious about different body types, we have an article here on the differences between somatotypes.

Wide Shoulders, Mesomorphs, Ectomorphs, and Endomorphs

If you’ve got narrow shoulders and are feeling a bit envious, keep in mind that those with wide clavicles suffer by never being able to comfortably sleep on their side. And clothes never fit them.

On a more serious note, your clavicle length is just one aspect to your overall frame. For some who might feel like they’re obsessing over this, it’s important to realize what an amazing gift it is that we even have healthy bodies that we can train and build up through muscle.

We all struggle with different issues. And if your main concern is attractiveness, there are many other areas that you can control in terms of your physique. You can check out our Ectomorph Aesthetics and our follow-up article Ectomorphs Aesthetics #2 that has more of the how-to.

Now, The Good News: What We Can Control

Alright, now time for some good news for guys with shorter or average length clavicles. First, we can make our shoulders appear far wider by building up bigger shoulder muscles. Second, we live in a three-dimensional world where our overall upper body width and size is considered. We can radically change the shape of our bodies by building up bigger backs, shoulders, and chests.

Adding Lots Of Mass To Your Upper Body

Increasing your overall shoulder circumference means building muscle mass primarily in your upper body—and lots of it. We have another article here that walks through the science of building muscle.

Consider this scenario: we have 3 ectomorphs all with the exact same bone structure underneath. One is a bit skinny-fat and rounder in the mid-section, one is skinny all around, and the last one has built lots of muscle mass. The former will have a very high waist to chest ratio, but the latter will have a prominent V-taper, oftentimes similar to an athletic mesomorph.

Skinny-Fat Ectomorph, Skinny Ectomorph, And Ripped Ectomorph

We’ve found that, generally, gaining 20 pounds of lean mass will bump you up a t-shirt size. So if you’re wearing a size small right now, adding 20 pounds will get your t-shirt up to a medium.

When I was 23, I jumped up 5.5 inches in my shoulder measurements during my first 90 days of bulking. This brought me up from a small to a medium size tee.

Today I’m now 44 pounds heavier than when I first started (130 pounds to 174 pounds), and I wear large tees.

If you need help building lean mass, I’d highly recommend checking out all of our free content and our full program. Many training programs are only focused on getting stronger, which may not get you bigger. The goals of some programs may be different than your goals.

For example, some very popular training programs are heavily weighted towards building more lower body mass than upper body mass. This is common with strength programs, as the squat and deadlift are such important strength lifts. When combined with a diet to build muscle, that mass will go to where it’s being told it’s needed—to the lower body. Since our program is designed to build balanced and functional mass, we have lots of exercises that not only get you big in an aesthetic way, but also help to restore a neutral posture and build lots of upper body mass.

Building Up Bigger Deltoids

Your shoulders have 3 sets of fibres, the front delts (anterior deltoids), middle delts (lateral deltoids), and rear delts (posterior deltoids). Building up your strength and size in all 3 sets of fibres can add a couple inches to your shoulders.

Many people have terrible overhead mobility, often due to sitting and working at the desk too much, so their rear delts don’t get a lot of shape since they’re never properly worked.

Everyone has seen crazy looking cannonball shoulders that look extremely round. And they look great because of what it signals: optimal shoulder health. They have strength in all ranges of motion, and that mobility and strength shows. We all fall into the trap of only targeting the muscles we see in the mirror, so it’s a good thing to keep in mind not to neglect our rear deltoids and other postural muscles, such as the external rotators.

Most of the bulk of your shoulder width will come from your front and side delts, and these muscles can be trained with heavy pressing, both horizontally (bench press) and vertically (overhead pressing). Your rear deltoids may seem like a smaller and less visible muscle group, but they’re important too. They’ll help hold your shoulders in the right place, which will keep them looking good and injury free. They will even add some of that round “pop” to your shoulders from the side view.

In terms of exercises, the side lateral raise hits the middle delts really well. It’s a lift best done with volume (not heavy weights that require low reps). The rear delts can be hit through bigger compound movements first, like rowing and chin-ups. Then they can be targeted a bit more with the lighter assistance lifts, like facepulls or rear delt flies.

Here’s how you can do the Facepull if you have access to a cable machine. The added benefit of the Facepull is it’ll also help with getting your shoulders back into a neutral position, which we discuss in the next section.

If you don’t have access to a cable machine or you’re working out from home, you can do the Bent Over Facepull as a dumbbell alternative:

Overall, the overhead shoulder press is the best exercise for building up your shoulders, provided there’s no crazy compensations happening (ribs flaring, etc.). The idea is to move the most weight that you can with your muscles (muscle recruitment) with a heavier compound movement like the overhead press, then hit your muscles a bit more with some isolation work, adding volume.

If you’re someone who struggles with shoulder mobility, and you can’t do proper overhead presses without bending in your lower back, you can still get down to work by starting with the landmine press. It’s great for building muscle safely and hardly requires any shoulder mobility. With time, especially when combined with postural exercises, it should help you progress to a full overhead press.

Get Those Internally Rotated Shoulders Back Into A Neutral Position

Again, because of our modern lifestyles of sitting at the desk, many of us have internally rotated shoulders, which is shaving off inches from the front view. A big piece of posture is muscular strength, which is required to hold your body in the proper position. But it also requires good movement patterns, and sometimes doing some correctional exercises like the one’s Marco has demonstrated here and here. Following an intelligently programmed mass building program like ours, where we focus on gaining size and strength in a  way that also focuses on posture, can help a lot.

Fixing up your posture ties back into the earlier section on the roundness of your shoulders as well. Fixing your posture will naturally lead to better function and athletics. Marco’s hypothesis is that once you’re in a more neutral movement pattern and able to lift through full range of motion, your shoulders and upper body will get rounder and more aesthetic because you’ll be using your entire muscles to lift instead of just bits and pieces.

Your Call: Consider Your Traps When Compared To Your Shoulders

Some bros on the internet say to consider limiting the growth of your trapezius “trap” muscles that sit on top of your shoulders. This would make your shoulders look squarer instead of rounder. Maybe there’s some truth to that.

Or maybe not. While being a man will not only lead to longer clavicles (study), it also leads to larger trapezius muscles. Men have a lot of androgen receptors there, meaning that men will naturally build a lot of muscle in their shoulders and their traps as they bulk up.

Broad Shoulders and Trapezius Muscles

So you could say that strong looking traps, like broad shoulders, can give you a distinctly masculine look. Plus, if you get good at carrying heavy things, which you most definitely should do, your traps will grow accordingly. As such, the traps are one of the best muscles to signify functional strength. Your call.

Bonus: The Fit Of Your Clothes

If having an inverted triangle shape matters for attractiveness, it might help if your clothes didn’t fully cover up the shape of all your hard work. Most t-shirts are cut to fit like a box. If you build up a nice V-taper shape with a big chest, shoulders and back, and then buy a tee that fits your shoulders, it may drape loosely around your waist. Your shoulders will still appear broad compared to your head and legs, so your work will still show, but it will be greatly minimized.

Some people recommend getting your tees tailored to bring in the excess material to display your natural waist. Some recommend buying shirts with an athletic cut to start. Some other people, like Shane, just tuck in their shirts. This saves him the cost and hassle of tailoring. It does, however, leave him with a tucked in tee…

Summary

We really hope that this article has given you some action steps to build up a huge shoulder circumference, and some peace if you’ve been worrying about your narrow or average bone structure width. Wherever you find yourself, you do still have quite a lot of control over your ratio, but it may take a bit more effort to reach your goals. On the plus side, you’ll get pretty wickedly strong by building up your shoulders 🙂

So to recap:

  • Your three-dimensional (3D) body shape matters. So if you’ve got short clavicles, you can still improve your ratio by building up a big back, chest, and shoulder muscles while staying lean in the stomach/waist area.
  • Work on your overall posture, your shoulder mobility, and your shoulders with a variety of compound and isolation exercises to develop broader, rounder and more aesthetic looking shoulders.
  • Be grateful for the unique frame you own, and that you have a healthy body that you can train.

Did we miss anything? If you have any thoughts to add, just comment below!

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So, what'd you think? 9 responses below.

DavidG

Another awesome article. Thanks Jared!

It can’t be stressed enough that, in addition to aesthetics and strength, the b2B program is all about health. You touched on it in your write up, but I wanted to highlight the point. My back and shoulders still thank you every day 🙂

Jared Polowick

Thanks for reading and for the kind words David. Makes me so happy you’ve had a good experience and that your back/shoulders are feeling solid!

Nodetails

Is there a good way to measure clavicle length or be able to instantly tell if you have a long or short clavicle? Checking that study, it mentions the mean / SD clavicle length being 161 +- 11 mm, which are very small increments making it difficult to get the actual result if the starting / ending positions are slightly off.

Thanks in advance.

Jared Polowick

In one of the studies, I believe they used a computer to measure radiographs (x-rays) of the clavicles because they can be hard to measure because of their shape. It’s also common to use a osteometric board (photo) and tape measure.

So I think our best bet is to use a tape measure, it’s a real tool. But just realize it won’t be 100% accurate since we can’t take our bones out of our body and measure it several different ways. But it’s still pretty good.

Clavicle length was defined as the straight distance between the lateral-most point of the clavicle in the acromioclavicular joint (closest to your arm) and the medial-most point of the clavicle in the sternoclavicular joint (your sternum).

It might be helpful to take a marker, and make a little notch on your body at the points where you think it’s widest. Then measure those points with the measuring tape.

One other thing to keep in mind is your left and right clavicle may not be symmetrical. In this study, it found that almost 30% of people had asymmetrical clavicles. If you’re asymmetrical, it’s your call, but I’d be more tempted to use the longer clavicle as my base… you could also add up both clavicle lengths and divide it by 2 and get the average of them.

I hope that helps a bit!

Dave Francis

No doubt about, broader shoulders are definitely a confidence builder. I’m still havin issues eliminating my midsection, but the growth of my shoulders definitely gives that V-taper impression with the right clothing.

In regards to the tuck in/tailor debate – tailor, definitely. If you’ve been a lifelong skinny fella, putting on a tailored T for the first time afte growth in the chest/back/traps/shoulders area feels glorious!!!

Jared Polowick

Definitely!

I’m sure you’ve seen our skinny-fat article Dave? Best to tackle one thing at a time. Building up your upper body and shoulders is nice to have first though, that way you don’t feel like you’re just getting smaller when you decide to cut the fat off.

I’ve yet to personally get a boxy-tee tailored, but I do know that a nicely cut/athletic shaped tee does make a difference. Glad to hear you’ve got something good working for you 🙂

RB

Great article Jared, and your shoulder gains are immense!

Just to encourage anyone struggling with their shoulders that while the medial deltoids/middle shoulder muscles contribute the most to adding shoulder width, they are also amongst the slowest muscles to respond to training and develop. This is because their primary physiological function is not to be strong, but to move the arms around. While your pecs, biceps and lats will start to grow noticeably after a short amount of training, it takes much longer for your medial deltoids to develop. With this in mind, don’t be tempted to compensate by over-training your shoulders or lifting weights that you find very heavy, causing clicking, popping, or forcing your core to move out of a strong neutral stance. The shoulders are complex joints and highly vulnerable to injury. Train with weights that allow you to complete 8-12 reps and in the meantime do plenty of pull ups – these will widen your back and contribute to your v-taper before your medial deltoids step up.

Will Chou

I enjoyed this. Thanks!

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