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?
- First, what we can’t control
- The good news: what we can control
Why do men want broad shoulders?
Both men and women find broad shoulders combined with a lean waist to be ideal (study, study, study). Men want to build broader and bigger shoulders, and women find those broader shoulders incredibly attractive. This effect is so exaggerated that your shoulder-to-waist ratio is actually the most important aspect of your 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. Testosterone causes our shoulders to grow broader, whereas estrogen causes our hips to grow broader. 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, broad and big shoulders are also an incredible symbol of full-body strength. (In women, hips tend to be a better indicator of strength.)
Finally, because men tend to store most of their fat in their stomach, 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 signaled 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.
First, 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.
You can’t change your bone structure
Bone structure is almost entirely determined by your genetics, and once it’s established, there’s nothing that you can do to change it. Research shows that your clavicles (collarbones) are already ossifying at just 5 1/2 weeks old! There is steady growth from then up to about age 12 for boys. By 12, boys have reached around 80% of their total clavicle length, and then the final growth picks up at an even faster pace. By 18 years old, your clavicle growth has reached 100% of its final length. The clavicle continues to ossify until around age 26, but your shoulders won’t grow any broader (study). This means that if you’re 18 or older, the only way to build broader shoulders is to gain muscle in your upper body.
Some people are blessed with good genetics, naturally growing long clavicles and narrow hips. They can capitalize on the the attractiveness boost without needing to gain as much muscle—although remember that muscularity is arguably more important than how long your collarbones are.
You’ll even find a lot of ectomorphs who have broad shoulders compared to their waists once they develop a decent amount of muscle. Here you can see the swimmer Michael Phelps, the Korean Actor RAIN, and Shane. After gaining some muscle (Shane had gained roughly 40 pounds by this point), it’s clear that their bone structures actually feature longer clavicles and narrower hips.
You might think that you have naturally narrow shoulders, but it’s possible that you just haven’t made the most of your physique yet.
Ectomorphs aren’t in the best (or worst) position
When it comes to building broader shoulders, we ectomorphs are in neutral standing. We don’t have a genetic advantage or disadvantage.
It’s a mesomorphic trait to have broad shoulders and narrow hips (v-shaped physique), and it’s an endomorphic trait to have narrower shoulders and wider hips (pear-shaped physique). Ectomorphs tend to be shaped like a rectangle, with neither broad nor narrow shoulders. More on the male body types here.
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.
If you’ve got narrow shoulders and you’re feeling a bit envious, keep in mind that ectomorphs with wide clavicles suffer by never being able to comfortably sleep on their sides…
On a more serious note, your clavicle length is just one aspect of your overall frame. We all struggle with different issues. And if your main concern is attractiveness, it’s important to realize what an amazing gift it is that we even have healthy bodies that give us every opportunity to lift weights and build muscle.
The good news: what we can control
Alright, now for the skinny guys with naturally narrow shoulders—guys like myself. 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 is considered. In addition to bulking up our shoulders, we can also change the shape of our bodies by building up bigger chests and upper backs, and also making sure that our waists are lean.
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.
Consider this scenario: we have three ectomorphs, all with the exact same bone structure underneath. One is skinny-fat and rounder in the mid-section, one 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 now-broad shoulders.
Why twenty pounds? We’ve found that, generally, gaining twenty pounds of lean mass will bump you up a t-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 in my shoulder measurements during my first 90 days of bulking. This brought me from a small size tee 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 size large.
If you need help building lean mass, I’d highly recommend checking out all of our free content and our full Bony to Beastly Bulking Program. In our experience, most skinny beginners are able to gain at least twenty pounds within just three months. As you do that, we put extra emphasis on building broader shoulders, so you can expect to gain several inches on 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 lines up with your goals. The vast majority of bulking programs are not designed to emphasize shoulder growth. In fact, many lifting programs are heavily weighted towards bulking up your lower body. Bulking down, so to speak.
A lower-body emphasis is especially common with strength-training programs, as the main strength lifts are the low-bar squat, the deadlift, and the bench press. That’s already 66% lower body, and because most of the assistance exercises will be centred around improving your squat and deadlift, your lower body will just be emphasized all the more.
You see the same thing in most modern 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 a V-taper physique, with broad shoulders and a strong, but not bulky, lower body. 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.
In either case, when combined with a muscle-building diet, your muscle mass will go to where it’s being told it’s needed—to your lower body. Since our program is designed to build a classically masculine, athletic and attractive physique, we put most of our bulking priority on your upper body, which is actually where most guys need extra muscle the most. When you’re carrying furniture, carrying groceries, or even carrying people, you’ll probably struggle because of your grip, back, biceps or shoulder strength—upper-body issues.
We also designed our program to help you look good, so we’ve put even more emphasis on your shoulders, chest and upper back. Besides, looking as attractive as possible is “functional” in its own way, and it’s also a visual signal that you’re building a balanced, healthy, masculine physique—that’s why it looks so good in the first place. So we consider building broad shoulders incredibly important.
Also keep in mind that posture plays a big role in how broad your shoulders look. If your upper back is rounding forward and your shoulders are caving inwards, it will make your shoulders look far narrower than they actually are. (We emphasize posture in our program as well.)
How to build bigger shoulders
Your shoulders are a group of three muscles: the front delts (anterior deltoids), middle delts (lateral deltoids), and rear delts (posterior deltoids). Building up your strength and size in all three sets of fibres will allow you to add quite a few inches to your shoulders. If you’re a skinny guy, you’ll probably be able to gain 5–10 inches in your shoulders.
However, unlike most other muscle groups, these three shoulder muscles have different functions. For example, the front delts push stuff away, whereas the rear delts pull stuff in. This means that building broader shoulders requires more than just overhead pressing.
Furthermore, many people have terrible overhead mobility, often due to spending most of their day sitting and working at their desks. This causes their shoulders to cave in forwards, making it far harder to press weight overhead, and thus far more difficult to build broader shoulders.
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 shows. We often fall into the trap of only targeting the muscles we can see in the mirror, so keep in mind that we shouldn’t neglect our rear deltoids and our other postural muscles, such as the external rotators.
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 pressing) and vertically (overhead pressing). As we mentioned above, these are very strong, beefy muscles with a ton of growth potential, as you can see above. They’ll grow the quickest when you combine heavy compound movements (such as the overhead press) with some shoulder isolation lifts (such as the lateral raise).
Your rear deltoids are smaller, and they have less growth potential, but they’re incredibly important as well. Once you get them strong enough, they’ll help hold your shoulders in the right place, which will make your shoulders look far better, improve your range of motion, and reduce the risk of injuring your shoulders (and lower back). They’ll even add some of that round “pop” to your shoulders from the side view.
In terms of exercises, fairly heavy bench pressing and overhead pressing will stimulate the fronts and sides of your shoulders quite well, and then push-ups and lateral raises make for a good lighter lifts to do afterwards.
Your rear delts are best stimulated with bigger compound movements first, like heavy rowing 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’s 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 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 facepull, soon you should be able to progress to a full overhead press.
Bring your internally rotated shoulders back to neutral
Again, because the modern lifestyle can involve so much time spent sitting at a desk, it’s common to develop internally rotated shoulders, which is shaving inches off of your shoulder breadth. The best thing you can do to improve your posture is to develop the muscular strength required to hold your body in the proper position. But you also need to work on your range of motion and movement patterns, so it often helps to do correctional exercises like the ones Marco demonstrates here and here.
Best of all, you could follow an intelligently programmed muscle-building program, like ours, where we focus on gaining size and strength in a way that also considers posture.
Fixing up your posture ties back into the earlier section on the roundness of your shoulders. Once you’re able to lift heavy weights through a full range of motion with good form, your shoulders will get rounder and more aesthetic because you’ll be using the entire length of your muscle fibres when lifting. (This is also why learning to use a deeper range of motion when squatting will lead to better leg development.)
Your call: how big do you want your traps?
Some bros on the internet advise limiting the growth of your trapezius “trap” muscles. Your traps are the muscles that connect your shoulders to your neck. They argue that having small traps will make your shoulders look squarer instead of rounder. Maybe there’s some truth to that.
However, if broad shoulders are so attractive because they symbolize strength and masculinity, then the exact same thing should be true with your traps. Men have a disproportionately large amount of androgen receptors in their entire shoulder girdle, meaning that the more masculine a guy is, the bigger his shoulders and traps will be.
So you could say that mountainous 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—then your traps will grow accordingly. As such, the traps are one of the best muscles to signify functional strength.
Also keep in mind that most skinny guys have naturally thinner necks, and building up bigger trap muscles is one of the best ways for a skinny guy to build up a thicker, stronger neck. (Look at how the above illustration changes the shape of the guy’s neck even though his neck muscles haven’t been enlarged.)
Bonus: the fit of your clothes
Given that having an inverted triangle body shape will make you look more attractive, it also helps if you choose clothes that give you a v-tapered silhouette. Most t-shirts are cut to fit like a box, so building up bigger shoulders and upper body muscles can cause your shirts to drape more loosely around your waist. Your shoulders will still appear broad compared to your head and legs, so your hard work will still be visible, but it won’t be emphasized.
Some people recommend getting your tees tailored to remove the extra material around your waist. Some recommend buying shirts with an athletic or slim-fit cut. And some other people tuck in their shirts (which is what Shane does). This saves him the cost and hassle of tailoring. It does, however, leave him with a tucked in tee…
We really hope that this article helps you build broader, bigger shoulders, and gives you some peace of mind if you’ve been worrying about having a narrow bone structure. Wherever you find yourself, you have quite a lot of control over your shoulder-to-waist ratio. It just might mean choosing a weightlifting program that puts more emphasis on your shoulders relative to your hips and legs.
And as a bonus, by the time you finish building broad shoulders, you’ll also be a truly strong man.
To summarize, here are our four tips for building bigger, broader shoulders:
- Even if you’re a skinny guy with short clavicles, you can still build up far broader shoulders. But keep in mind that your three-dimensional (3D) body shape matters too, meaning that you can improve your shoulder-to-waist ratio even more by also bulking up your back and chest.
- Work on your shoulders with a variety of compound and isolation exercises to make them bigger.
- Improve your overall posture and shoulder mobility so that your shoulders become rounder and more aesthetic. This will also stop your shoulders from caving in forwards, which makes them appear narrower.
- If you want broader and bigger shoulders, you can build them. Be grateful that this is something largely under your control.
And if you’re a naturally skinny guy who wants to be walked through this entire process, you’ll love the Bony to Beastly Bulking Program. We specialize in skinny guys, hardgainers, and ectomorphs. We also know how important building broad shoulders is, so we’ve heavily emphasized shoulder growth in our workout programming.
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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