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 see 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
- Key Takeaways
Why Do Men Want Broad Shoulders?
Both men and women find broad shoulders combined with a lean waist to be more attractive (study, study, study). This effect is so exaggerated that our shoulder-to-waist ratio is the most important aspect of our physique according to both women and other men. To understand why that is, we can try to understand what broad shoulders signal to others.
It’s clear that it’s a masculine trait to have wide shoulders. During puberty, testosterone causes shoulders to grow broader whereas estrogen causes hips to grow wider. Men have more testosterone and less estrogen than women, so this causes women to naturally develop more of an hourglass physique, whereas men naturally develop more of a V-tapered physique. This means that men have naturally wider shoulders than women on average, not only in terms of 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 by fat. This is a great signal that we’re healthy.
The Ideal Shoulder Circumference for Men
In this study, body proportions that signalled fitness and strength were the biggest indicators of attractiveness. Things like how big your waist was (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).
This later study tested the same hypothesis using 3D models, again confirming that women preferred the men with more muscular upper bodies and smaller waists (study). They dubbed this v-tapered physique the “inverted triangle shape.”
The study continued by saying that this inverted triangle shape was so attractive because it signalled physical strength and muscle development in the upper body. So keeping a lean waist while building up your upper body is key.
So why do men want broader and bigger shoulders? Researchers believe that a V-shaped physique is considered so universally attractive because it signals masculinity, strength, health, and virility. So it’s not too much of a stretch to think that men want to be as strong, masculine, and healthy as possible. Or maybe we just want women to find us more attractive. In either case, learning how to build broader shoulders will help.
The good news for us narrow-framed guys is that these studies don’t measure shoulder width, they measure shoulder girth—shoulder circumference. These studies also mention how attractive it is to have a high chest-to-waist ratio. This means that more than anything, these results give evidence that it’s our upper body strength and mass that matters, not how long our collarbones are.
This is good news because we can build up our chest and shoulder circumference by gaining muscle in our chests, shoulders, and backs. This will make our shoulders look far wider and broader, but also thicker and rounder. We’ll look stronger, more masculine, and more attractive from every angle.
But more on that later.
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
Bone structure is almost entirely determined by our genetics, and so there’s nothing that we can do to change it. Research shows that our clavicles (collarbones) are already ossifying at just five-and-a-half weeks old! There is steady growth from then up to about age twelve for boys. By then, boys have reached around 80% of their total clavicle length, and then the final growth picks up at an even faster pace. By eighteen years old, our clavicle growth has reached its final length. Our clavicles continue to ossify until around age 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 ectomorphs who have broad shoulders compared to their waists once they start lifting weights. Here you can see the swimmer Michael Phelps, the Korean Actor RAIN, and Shane. After gaining some muscle—Shane had gained roughly forty pounds by this point—it’s clear that even though they’re naturally skinny, their clavicles are actually fairly long.
You might think that you have naturally narrow shoulders, but it’s possible that you just haven’t gained enough muscle yet. By the time you gain 20–30 pounds of muscle, you may realize that you don’t need to give your shoulders any special attention.
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, without much shoulder muscle or fat around our waists. 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 on simply building bigger shoulder muscles.
This means that we often need to build quite 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. People like Shane, Phelps and Rain have longer clavicles but are still fairly classic ectomorphs (long limbs, very thin bones, fast metabolisms, etc.). 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 structure so that you can see if you have naturally narrow or broad shoulders.
However, even you’ve got naturally narrow shoulders—as I do—our clavicle length is just one aspect of our physiques. We all struggle with different issues, and if we’re concerned about our attractiveness, it’s important to realize what an amazing gift it is that we even have healthy bodies that give us the opportunity to lift weights and build muscle. No, building muscle isn’t easy. But 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 for us skinny guys with naturally narrow shoulders, the good news is that our shoulder muscles have a ton of growth potential—far more than most of our other muscles.
It’s possible to build the fronts of your shoulders (anterior deltoids) up to 5 times the size of the average guy, and it’s possible to build the sides of your shoulders up to 3 times the size of the average guy. That’s enough growth potential that you can build up 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 change the shape of our bodies by building bigger chests and upper backs, and also making sure that our waists are lean.
Bulking Up Our Upper Bodies
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 exact same bone structure underneath. The first is skinny-fat and rounder in the mid-section, the second is a classically skinny ectomorph, and the last one has gained twenty pounds of muscle mass, primarily around his shoulder girdle.
The skinny-fat guy will have a high waist-to-chest 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. He’s still an ectomorph because of his bone structure, but most people will mistakenly assume that he’s a mesomorph because of his broader shoulders.
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.
When I was 23, I added 5.5 inches to my shoulder measurements during my first ninety days of bulking. This brought me from a small tee 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.
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 are able to gain at least twenty pounds within their first three months of the five-month program. Because our program includes a fair amount 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, just be careful to choose one that includes plenty of lifts for your shoulder muscles. Believe it or not, 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 especially common with strength-training programs, as the main strength lifts are the squat, the deadlift, and the bench press. That’s already 66% lower body (depending on how we count the deadlift), and because most of the assistance exercises will be centred around improving our squat and deadlift, our lower bodies are prioritized all the more.
The same is true in many bodybuilding programs. Back in the “golden age” of bodybuilding, when guys like Steve Reeves, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Frank Zane were the big icons, there was an emphasis on building V-taper physiques, with broad shoulders and strong but not bulky lower bodies. Nowadays, the “X-taper” physique is more popular with bodybuilders, where the lower body is supposed to be just as big as the upper body.
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 quads, glutes, and adductors. That isn’t necessarily a problem, but it tends to line up more with the goals of powerlifters and modern bodybuilders, given the importance of squats in their sports. If we’re training for general strength, better health, or aesthetics, it’s generally better to have 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 to be 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 the most. When we’re carrying furniture, carrying groceries, or even carrying 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 overall strength is almost always limited by our upper-body 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 chin-ups and the overhead press, they just happen to be the three lifts that are 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 all of these together into one muscle group—our deltoids—then they become one of the largest muscle groups in our bodies. Our shoulders (400 cm³) are around 60% bigger than our chests (250 cm³) and 400% the size of our biceps (100 cm³). As a result, building bigger shoulders can have a large impact on our appearance and add quite a few inches to our shoulder circumferences. If you’re a skinny guy, you’ll probably be able to gain 5–10 inches in your shoulders. For example, Shane added 12″ around his shoulders in two years while gaining around fifty pounds overall.
However, unlike most other muscle groups, these three shoulder muscles have different functions. Our front delts push stuff away, our side delts lift stuff out to the side, and our rear delts pull stuff in. This means that building broader shoulders requires doing more than just the bench press and overhead press. That’s a good start, but at a minimum, it also helps to include lateral raises for the side delts and chin-ups for the rear delts.
Everyone has seen crazy-looking cannonball shoulders that look extremely round. And they look great because of what it signals: optimal shoulder health and strength. They have strength in all ranges of motion and that well-rounded strength leads to well-rounded shoulders. But most of us have terrible overhead mobility, often due to spending most of our days sitting and working at our desks. This causes our shoulders to cave forwards, making it far harder to press a barbell overhead and thus making it far more difficult to build broader shoulders.
To further complicate things, we often fall into the trap of only targeting the muscles we can see in the mirror, which in this case is our front and perhaps side delts. So keep in mind that we shouldn’t neglect our rear deltoids or the other postural muscles in our back, such as our external rotators.
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 with pressing both horizontally (e.g. push-ups, the bench press) and vertically (e.g. the overhead press). As we mentioned above, these are very strong, beefy muscles with a ton of growth potential, as you can see above. They grow the quickest when we combine 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 they’re incredibly important as well. 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, making our shoulders look far better, improving our range of motion, and reducing our risk of injury. 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.
Face-pulls are less common but incredibly effective, so here’s how you can do the face-pull if you have access to a cable machine. What makes the face-pull so great is that it will help bring 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 if you’re working out from home, you can do the bent-over face-pull as a dumbbell alternative:
Overall, the overhead press is the best exercise for building up your shoulders, provided there are no crazy compensations happening (such as bending your lower back). The idea is to move the most weight that you can with your muscles (muscle recruitment) with a heavy compound movement like the overhead press, then hit your muscles a bit more with some isolation work, adding more lifting volume.
Now, what’s interesting is that while the overhead barbell press is great, it’s actually the overhead dumbbell press that seems to stimulate your shoulder muscles the most effectively. Both are similarly effective, but don’t worry if you only have access to dumbbells—you can still build broader shoulders perfectly well.
If you’re someone who struggles with shoulder mobility, and you can’t do proper overhead presses without bending in your lower back, start with the landmine press instead. It’s great for building muscle safely, and it hardly requires any shoulder mobility. When combined with postural exercises, like the face-pull, soon you should be able to progress to a full overhead press.
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 muscular strength to hold our bodies in the proper 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 our way more vertical:
- The incline bench press or decline 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 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’re able to 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 even just from continuing to get 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, just 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 make our necks thicker, per se, but they do 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, this means that as we build broader shoulders, we tend to build bigger traps as well. (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 looks to have bigger or smaller traps when every other factor is held constant:
As we can see, it’s true that having small traps 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 exact same principle should hold true with our traps as well. The bigger our traps are, the stronger we’ll be, and so they should make us look more attractive.
Furthermore, as men, we have a large number of androgen receptors in our entire shoulder girdle, meaning that the more masculine we are, the bigger our shoulders and traps will be. If we build broader shoulders without building larger traps, it would just make us look less masculine. By that same token, 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.
We really hope that this article helps you build bigger, broader shoulders and that it gives you some peace of mind if you’ve been worrying about having a narrow bone structure. The good news is that even if we have shorter collarbones, we have quite a lot of control over our shoulder-to-waist ratios. With a workout program that puts more emphasis on your shoulders, you’ll have broad shoulders within a few months, not to mention being a strong man overall.
To summarize, here are our three tips for building bigger, broader shoulders:
- Even as a skinny guy with short clavicles, it’s still possible to build far broader shoulders. Our shoulders are huge muscles with tremendous potential for growth. Luckily, this is something largely under our control.
- Train your shoulders with a variety of compound and isolation exercises to make them bigger. For compound lifts, the bench press will train our front delts, the overhead press will train our front and side delts, and chin-ups and rows will train our rear delts. For isolation lifts, lateral raises and face pulls are a good place to start. Upright rows are another good lift for our shoulders if they feel good, but they can be finicky, especially if you have poor posture.
- Improve your shoulder posture and mobility so that your shoulders look rounder and more aesthetic. This will also stop our shoulders from caving in forwards, which makes them appear narrower. Front squats are great for this, as are face pulls.
And if you’re a naturally skinny guy who wants to be walked through the entire process of building bigger shoulders—and bigger muscles overall—you’ll love our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program.
Looking to learn even more about this? We’ve developed this free guide you can download below.
Free guide: How to build broader shoulders
- How Does Your Shoulder Circumference Stack Up Against The Average Man’s?
- What's the Best Way to Bulk up Your Shoulder Circumference?
- Setting Your Bulking Goals: How Big Should You Build Your Shoulders?
- How Much Weight Will You Need to Gain to Reach Your Ideal Shoulder Size?
- How to Avoid the "Just Lift Heavy" Trap (And What To Do Instead.)
- Do These Postural Exercises for Shoulder Breadth & Aesthetic Improvement
- 8 Reasons Why Most People Struggle to Grow Their Shoulders
- Building The Iconic V-Shaped Body
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