How to Build Broader Shoulders (for Skinny Guys)
Is it possible for a skinny guy to build broader shoulders? If you’re a naturally thin “ectomorph,” chances are you have a thinner bone structure, which often includes having narrower shoulders. Perhaps that’s why you’re interested in finding out if you can build broader shoulders.
Wanting to build broader shoulders isn’t unique to us skinny guys. Lots of men are trying to make their shoulders broader. Lots of those men succeed. However, for those of us with shorter collarbones, the path there can be a little different.
Inside, we’ll discuss why so many guys want bigger, broader shoulders, what we can control and what we can’t, and then we’ll give you a step-by-step guide to help you add a few inches to your shoulder circumference.
- Why Do Men Want Broad Shoulders?
- Genetics: What We Can’t Control
- Building Muscle: What We Can Control
- Summary: How to Get Broader Shoulders
Why Do Men Want Broad Shoulders?
Both men and women find broad shoulders combined with a lean waist to be more attractive, with most research showing that it’s the most important aspect of our physiques (study, study, study). To understand why that is, we can try to understand what broad shoulders signal to others.
Having broader shoulders is a masculine trait. During puberty, testosterone causes our shoulders to grow broader, whereas estrogen causes our hips to grow wider. Men tend to have more testosterone and less estrogen than women, so men develop more of a V-tapered physique, whereas women develop more hourglass shapes. This means that men have naturally wider shoulders than women on average, not only in sheer size but also proportionally (study).
In addition to this, more masculine men naturally have more androgen receptors around their shoulder girdle, making them develop bigger muscles in their upper backs, chests and shoulders. And as we become stronger, this only becomes more and more pronounced. This means that in men, bigger and broader shoulders are also a symbol of full-body strength.
Finally, because men tend to store most of their fat in their stomachs, having broad shoulders compared to our waists means that we’re shaped more by muscle than fat. This is a great sign that we’re healthy.
The Ideal Shoulder Circumference for Men
When we’re trying to improve our appearance, it pays to focus less on specific measurements and proportions, more on the underlying factors. In this case, the underlying factor that makes broader shoulders more attractive is that it makes us appear stronger.
For instance, in this study, body proportions that signalled fitness and strength were the biggest indicators of attractiveness. Things like how big your waist is (to signal how lean you are), your waist-to-chest ratio (to signal how much muscle you have), and your weight-to-height ratio (again giving hints about leanness and strength).
A later study tested the same hypothesis using 3D models, confirming that women preferred men with more muscular upper bodies and smaller waists (study). The researchers dubbed this v-tapered physique the “inverted triangle shape,” saying that it was attractive because it signalled upper body strength.
The good news for us narrow-framed guys is that these studies don’t measure shoulder width; they measure shoulder girth—shoulder circumference. Plus, these studies also mention the benefits of having a high chest-to-waist ratio. So to improve our attractiveness, we need to build a bigger and stronger upper body. We can do this by building muscle in our shoulders, yes, and in our necks, chests, upper backs. This will make our shoulders look far wider and broader. We’ll look stronger, more masculine, and more attractive from every angle.
Genetics: What We Can’t Control
Let’s first distinguish between having a broad bone structure and having heavily muscled shoulders. There’s a big difference between the two.
We Can’t Change Our Bone Structure
Our genetics mainly determines our bone structure, so we can do little to change it. Research shows that our clavicles (collarbones) are already ossifying at just five-and-a-half weeks old! They continue growing steadily until we’re 12 years old, at which point we’ve reached 80% of our total clavicle length. Then the final growth picks up at an even faster pace as we go through puberty. By eighteen years old, our clavicles have reached their final length. They continue to ossify until we’re 26, but our shoulders won’t grow any broader (study). This means that if we’re eighteen or older, the only way to build broader shoulders is to gain muscle in our upper bodies.
Some people are blessed with good genetics, naturally growing long clavicles and narrow hips. This can give them pleasantly broad shoulders without them needing to gain much muscle. Even so, our overall muscularity is seemingly more important than how long our collarbones are, so it’s unclear if that would even help.
There are plenty of naturally skinny “ectomorphs” with broad shoulders compared to their waists. Here you can see the swimmer Michael Phelps, the Korean Actor RAIN, and Shane (one of the co-founders of Bony to Beastly). Once they gained some muscle mass, it became clear that their clavicles are actually fairly long even though they’re naturally skinny.
But where this gets interesting is when we look at Shane back when he was still skinny. Here’s a photo of Shane at 21 years old, after puberty, with his clavicles fully grown:
It looks as if he has naturally narrow shoulders, but it was just because he hadn’t built any muscle yet. As he went from 130 pounds up to 195 pounds, he gained 13 inches around his shoulders and just 2 inches around his waist. So although you might think you have naturally narrow shoulders, it’s also possible that you just haven’t gained enough muscle around your shoulder girdle yet.
Ectomorphs Have Genetic Advantages and Disadvantages
When it comes to our body type, ectomorphs have both genetic advantages and disadvantages when it comes to building broader shoulders. Mesomorphs tend to have broader shoulders and narrower hips (a v-shaped physique). Endomorphs tend to have narrower shoulders and wider hips (a pear-shaped physique). And ectomorphs tend to be shaped like rectangles, with narrow waists and shoulders. Since it’s our shoulder-to-waist ratio that matters most, we have the advantage of not needing to worry about shrinking our midsection. We can focus purely on building bigger shoulder muscles.
This means that we often need to build a lot of upper body muscle to build a v-tapered shape, but our bone structures will almost always allow it.
Keep in mind that these are just generalizations. Everyone is a little bit different, and most people have traits from more than one body type. If you’re curious about your own genetics, you can learn more about whether you have a thin bone structure here. Shane will teach you how to measure your bone thickness and shoulder circumference to see how you compare to the average man.
However, even if you’ve got naturally narrow shoulders—as I do—your clavicle length is just one aspect of your physique. We all struggle with different issues. And the good news is that everyone, including the hardest of hardgainers, can build muscle if they learn how to lift for muscle growth, eat a good bulking diet, and get a good night’s sleep.
Building Muscle: What We Can Control
Even as skinny guys with naturally narrow shoulders, the good news is that our shoulder muscles have a ton of growth potential. It’s possible to build the fronts of your shoulders (anterior deltoids) up to 5 times the size of the average untrained man, and it’s possible to build the sides of your shoulders up to 3 times the size of the average untrained guy. That’s enough growth potential that you can build impressively broad shoulders even with extremely short clavicles.
Second, we live in a three-dimensional world where our overall upper-body width and size are considered. In addition to bulking up our shoulders, we can also improve our physiques by building bigger chests and upper backs and making sure that our waists are lean.
Bulking Up Our Upper Bodies
How Much Muscle Do You Need to Gain?
Increasing our overall shoulder circumference means building muscle mass primarily in our upper bodies—and lots of it. Consider this scenario: we have three ectomorphs, all with the same bone structure. The first is skinny-fat and rounder in the mid-section, the second is a classically skinny ectomorph, and the last one has gained 20 pounds of muscle mass.
The skinny-fat guy will have the lowest chest-to-waist ratio (pear shape), the skinny guy will have a neutral shape (rectangle), and the guy who’s gained twenty pounds will have a prominent V-taper. They all have the same bone structure, but their physiques are shaped differently because of differing amounts of muscle mass and body fat.
Why twenty pounds? We’ve found that, generally, gaining twenty pounds of lean mass will bump us up a shirt size. So if you’re wearing a size small right now, adding twenty pounds will get your t-shirt up to a medium. For example, when I was 23, I added 5.5 inches to my shoulder measurements during my first 90 days of bulking. That brought me from a size small t-shirt up to a medium.
Today I’m now 44 pounds heavier than when I first started (130 pounds to 174 pounds), and I’ve moved up to wearing a size large.
Which Workout Program is Best for Building Broader Shoulders?
If you want help building muscle, I’d highly recommend checking out all of our full Bony to Beastly Bulking Program. In our experience, most skinny beginners can gain at least twenty pounds within the first 90 days of the 5-month program. And because the program includes plenty of shoulder training, you can expect to gain several inches around your shoulders within that timeframe. In fact, our bulking program now has even more shoulder emphasis than when I tested it, so you can expect even more shoulder growth than I got.
If you choose to follow another program, be careful to choose one that includes plenty of lifts for your shoulder muscles. For better and worse, the vast majority of bulking programs aren’t designed to emphasize shoulder growth. In fact, many lifting programs are heavily weighted towards bulking up our lower bodies. Bulking down, so to speak.
This lower-body emphasis is pervasive with casual strength-training programs, such as StrongLifts 5×5 and Starting Strength. Every workout starts with the squat, giving it by far the most emphasis. Only half the workouts include the bench press, overhead press, and conventional deadlift, and only after we’ve spent most of our energy squatting. That isn’t bad—squats are a great lift for building muscle—but it does shift more emphasis towards our lower bodies.
Our muscle mass will go to where it’s being told it’s needed, and if we start most of our workouts with squats, then we’ll build more muscle in our hips and thighs. That isn’t necessarily a problem, but if we’re training for overall strength, better health, or aesthetics, it’s generally better to use a more balanced approach. For example, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t put equal emphasis on the overhead press (which trains the fronts and sides of our shoulders) and the chin-up (which trains the back of our shoulders).
Since our program isn’t designed for powerlifting or modern bodybuilding, it takes what we consider a more balanced approach, which means quite a bit more training volume for our upper bodies, which is actually where most of us need extra muscle most. When carrying furniture, groceries, or even people, we’re usually limited by our grip, back, biceps, or shoulder strength.
When it comes to aesthetics, our attractiveness is almost perfectly linked to our overall strength. But what’s interesting is that because our upper-body strength almost always limits our overall strength, the muscles in our upper bodies contribute more to our overall attractiveness (study). The big three lifts—the squat, bench press, and deadlift—aren’t more functional than the chin-up and overhead press; they just happen to be the three lifts tested in powerlifting.
Also, keep in mind that posture plays a big role in how broad our shoulders look. If our upper backs are rounding forward and our shoulders are caving inwards, our shoulders will look far narrower than they actually are. (We’ll cover that in a second.)
How to Build Bigger Shoulders
Our shoulders are made up of three different muscles: the front delts (anterior deltoids), middle delts (lateral deltoids), and rear delts (posterior deltoids):
If we combine these into one muscle group—our deltoids—they become one of the largest muscle groups in our upper bodies. Our shoulders (400 cm³) are around 60% bigger than our chests (250 cm³) and 400% the size of our biceps (100 cm³). This gives them tremendous growth potential, and if you’re a skinny guy, you may be able to gain 5+ inches around your shoulders in just a few months. And as you keep getting stronger, your shoulders will keep growing bigger. For example, Shane added 12 inches to his shoulder circumference in two years.
However, unlike most other muscle groups, the three heads of our shoulders all have different functions. It’s not possible to train them all with a single lift. Our front delts push stuff away, our side delts lift stuff out to the sides, and our rear delts pull stuff in. This means that building broader shoulders requires doing more than just the bench press and overhead press.
Most of our shoulder size will come from our front delts, and most of our shoulder width will come from our side delts. These muscles can be trained by pressing horizontally (e.g. push-ups, the bench press) and vertically (e.g. the overhead press). As we mentioned above, these are powerful, beefy muscles with a ton of growth potential, as you can see above. They grow the quickest when combining heavy compound movements (such as the overhead press) with smaller isolation lifts (such as the lateral raise).
Our rear deltoids are smaller and have less growth potential, but it’s still important to train them. Not only will they make our shoulders much rounder, but once we get them strong enough, they can also help to hold our shoulders in the right place, improving our posture and range of motion. The rear delts work hard during bigger compound movements, such as rows and chin-ups. Then they can be targeted with the lighter assistance lifts, like face-pulls and rear-delt flyes.
Improving Our Shoulder Posture & Mobility
Because the modern lifestyle can involve so much time spent sitting at a desk, it’s common to adapt to that position, developing internally rotated shoulders. That may be just fine for typing, but it can limit our range of motion and shave inches off of our shoulder breadth. The best thing we can do to improve our shoulder posture is to develop the strength to hold ourselves in the correct position. For more on that, we have an entire article about building a bigger and straighter upper back.
To make a long story short, though, it can help to start with diagonal pressing variations, get strong at them, and then gradually work your way more vertical:
- The bench press or push-ups: especially if we use a narrow-to-moderate grip width, we can work our shoulders quite hard even though we aren’t pressing all the way overhead.
- The incline bench press or landmine press: this makes the movement a bit more vertical but is still within a comfortable range of motion for most of us, allowing our shoulders to get practice pushing things higher.
- The half-kneeling one-arm dumbbell press: once we’re ready to start pressing overhead, it helps to start with one arm at a time. It also helps to get down into a half-kneeling position to help keep our lower backs from rounding.
- The standing one-arm dumbbell press: once we comfortable pressing a single dumbbell overhead from a kneeling position, we can try it from a standing position.
- The overhead press: once we’ve got the hang of pressing with one arm, we can start doing both arms at once, either with two dumbbells or a barbell.
Once we can press weights overhead with a deep range of motion and good form, it becomes much easier to build broader shoulders. It still helps to use lighter isolation lifts, but our shoulders will get rounder and more aesthetic simply from getting gradually stronger at the overhead press.
If this still seems complicated, our bulking program will help walk you through the entire process of gaining muscle, improving posture, and building a strong overhead press.
Balancing Our Traps & Shoulders
Some people argue that we should limit the growth of our trapezius “trap” muscles. So, to get on the same page about what that means, our traps are the muscles that connect our shoulders to our necks, allowing us to shrug our shoulders upwards. They don’t help us build a thicker neck, per se, but our traps add a lot of muscle beside our necks, which can have a huge impact on our appearance.
We don’t need to give our traps special attention because they’re trained with a tremendous load when we deadlift, they go through a large time under tension we do loaded carries, and they’re trained through a full range of motion when we overhead press and do lateral raises. Because our traps are worked with both overhead pressing and lateral raises, as we build broader shoulders, we tend to build bigger traps. (It’s common to have sore traps when doing shoulder lifts, too.)
The rub is that some guys argue that having proportionally smaller traps will make our shoulders look squarer and broader by comparison. Maybe there’s some truth to that. Shane mocked up an illustration so that we can see how it looks to have bigger or smaller traps when every other factor is held constant:
As we can see, having small traps indeed makes our shoulders look broader and squarer by comparison, but I’m not convinced that’s a good thing. If broad shoulders are attractive because they symbolize strength and masculinity—and they do—then the same principle should hold with our traps as well. The bigger our traps are, the stronger we’ll be, so bigger traps should make us look more attractive.
Furthermore, as men, we have tons of androgen receptors in our shoulder girdles, meaning that the more masculine we are, the bigger our shoulders and traps will be. As a result, mountainous traps combined with broad shoulders can give us a distinctly masculine look. We’ll look like strong men who actually lift things.
Also keep in mind that most skinny guys have naturally longer and thinner necks, and building up bigger trap muscles is one of the best ways for a skinny guy to build up a more powerful neck.
Summary: How to Get Broader Shoulders
The good news is that even if you have a narrower bone structure, you can still build bigger, broader shoulders. You still have quite a lot of control over your shoulder-to-waist ratio. With a workout program that properly trains your shoulders and a good bulking diet, you can build noticeably broader shoulders within a few months.
Here are the three principles of building bigger, broader shoulders:
- Get stronger at the exercises that train your shoulders. For compound lifts, the bench press will train your front delts, the overhead press will train your front and side delts, and chin-ups and rows will train your rear delts. For isolation lifts, lateral raises and face pulls are a good place to start. If you focus on getting stronger at those lifts, your shoulders will grow, guaranteed.
- Make sure to eat enough food to gain muscle. This is where a lot of us skinny guys go wrong. We follow a good workout program, but because of our small stomachs or meagre appetites, we fail to eat enough calories to gain weight. And if we aren’t gaining weight, there are no extra resources to build muscle with. A good rule of thumb is to gain 0.5–1 pound per week.
- Improve your shoulder posture and mobility so that your shoulders look square instead of caving. Simply growing stronger at the compound lifts will often help to straighten out your posture. Front squats are great for this, as are deadlifts, push-ups, and overhead presses.
Alright, that’s it for now. If you want more muscle-building information, we have a free muscle-building newsletter. If you want a full workout and diet program, including a 5-month customizable full-body workout routine, a diet guide, a recipe book, and online coaching, check out our Bony to Beastly Program. Or, if you want a customizable intermediate muscle-building program, check out our Outlift Program.