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Is it possible to do a burning shoulder workout without weights? It sure is! No more neglecting your shoulders because you can’t make it to the gym. Do any of the five shoulder exercises in this guide and your shoulders will be burning, and bulging in no time!

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About the shoulders

The shoulder muscle (deltoid), and shoulder joint, are among the most complex in the human body. They control the movement of the upper arm. It allows a massive range of motion in comparison to knees, and elbow joints, etc. However, this range of motion also makes it one of the most unstable joints in the body. The muscles in around the shoulder are easily injured when overloaded, or over-stressed.

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The muscle itself consists of three distinct muscle fiber sets, at the front, back, and side of the shoulder.

  • Anterior deltoid (front)
  • Medial deltiod (side)
  • Posterior deltoid (rear)

To effectively work the shoulder it’s important to do shoulder exercises that target all three areas.

Benefits of doing a shoulder workout without weights

Benefit #1 – Saves time and money

The value of this benefit cannot be overemphasized. Time is not often on anybody’s side, especially when it comes to doing workouts. Add in the commute to the gym, and you can see how the time soon adds up. So, save yourself loads of time, and some dollars too, by doing your shoulder workout wherever you blooming well please!

Benefit #2 – Compound exercise benefits

All the listed shoulder exercises are highly compound in nature. They work your shoulders hard, but not in total isolation like shoulder exercises would on a bench, or machine. Compound exercises transfer much better into normal, everyday movements. The strength you gain becomes more rounded and useful for everyday life.

Compound exercises also give you a better balance of strength between muscles. It’s less likely to develop strength imbalances between muscle groups doing compound exercises, than with isolation exercises alone.

Common mistakes when doing a shoulder workout without weights

Mistake #1 – Incorrect technique

The number one most common mistake, when doing a shoulder workout without weights, is poor form. This will most likely occur once your shoulder or arms are starting to fatigue. You want to get well into that burn zone, but stop once you can’t hold good form anymore.

Mistake #2 – Pushing too hard

We are all vulnerable to this mistake, myself included. Your shoulder is one of the most mobile, but least stable joints in the body. That means it’s easily injured if care isn’t taken with it. Progress slowly with these shoulder exercises. Take your time, and push just a little further each time. Injuring your shoulder will take weeks, if not months out of your workout plan. Overall, progressing slowly is almost always quicker in the long run.

List of exercises for shoulder workout without weights

#1 Plank Raise Tap Crunch

Harder than it looks, and perfect for incorporating into a shoulder workout without weights. Works most of the muscles in and around the shoulder, and many other muscles in addition. Proceed slowly if doing this shoulder exercise for the first time. Fatigue will likely occur in the core at the beginning while trying to hold the correct form. It takes a while to get the coordination, and balance right between hands and feet. More difficult than it looks.

How to do a Plank Raise Tap Crunch correctly.

  1. Assume a standard push-up position.
  2. Raise your right arm straight out in front.
  3. Return the right arm back down again.
  4. Raise your right arm straight out to the side.
  5. Return right arm down again.
  6. Lift your left hand and right foot and tap together.
  7. Return foot and hand back down.
  8. You have now completed 1 rep on your right side.

*Note – For this exercise, 1 set is x number of reps on your left side followed by the same number of reps on your right side.

It’s important to maintain good form when doing this shoulder exercise. Keep your body nice and straight when doing the arm raises. Avoid sagging yourself in the middle. If you feel your form starting to fall apart it’s probably time to stop and rest.

This version of the exercise switches between the arm doing the raises, and the one used to tap your foot. However, you may also use the same arm throughout the exercise, for each side, if you wish. This will also add some variety, further improve your coordination, and work the muscles a little differently too.

#2 Shoulder Circles

These look very easy, but don’t be fooled, they are a real burner when done correctly. They target all parts of the shoulder really well. Hold them until you start feeling a good burn, and push through a little longer. Start out by doing each stage of this shoulder exercise for 10 – 15 secs. Progress by doing them for progressively longer. Keep the neck and back straight while doing the exercise.

How to do shoulder circles correctly.

  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Point arms straight out from sides.
  3. Move arms in small clockwise circles
  4. Continue for 10 – 15 secs.
  5. Widen to medium-sized circles.
  6. Continue for another 10 – 15 secs.
  7. Further widen to full-sized arm circles.
  8. Continue for another 10 – 15 secs.
  9. Move back to small anti-clockwise circles.
  10. Widen to medium-sized circles.
  11. Continue for another 10 – 15 secs.
  12. Further widen to full-sized arm circles.
  13. Continue for another 10 – 15 secs.
  14. One set complete.

Do 5 – 6 sets of this as part of a shoulder workout.

This shoulder exercise can be as hard or as easy as you like. When done lightly, it’s great as a warm-up for weighted shoulder exercises like shoulder press, etc. To make it more intense try holding a 500 ml water bottle, or similar, in each hand while doing it.

For a variation on this progress through the circles as clockwise – small, medium, large – then anticlockwise – large, medium, small. A small change but it adds a little variety.

#3 Lateral Raises with water bottles

A fantastic shoulder exercise for hitting your medial deltoids, the outside part of your shoulder. Great for giving that wide look your shoulders. You won’t need much weight to really feel it when you do these.

How to do lateral raises with water bottles correctly.

    1. Stand straight up, feet shoulder-width apart.
    2. Start with arms by sides, bottle in each hand.
    3. Slowly lift both arms straight out and up, arms slightly bent.
    4. Stop once your hands are level with your shoulders.
    5. Slowly lower back down to start position.
    6. You have now completed one full rep.

Progress slowly with this shoulder exercise. Start with little to no weight when you first attempt these. You can do this by partially filling the bottles. Keep your back and neck straight, and shoulders pulled back throughout the exercise.

Progress by increasing the load, or the number of reps. Increase the load by using larger bottles, or any heavier item you can comfortably hold in your hand. Resistance bands are also great to use for this exercise. Just anchor under the feet and away you go.

#4 Rear Delt Row with resistance bands

This is a really great shoulder exercise for hitting the back of the shoulders. All that’s required is some good resistance bands.

How to do a rear delt row with resistance bands correctly.

  1. Stand straight up, feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Grasp part of the resistance band in each hand.
  3. Palms should face down.
  4. Fully extend arms straight out in front of shoulders.
  5. You are now in starting position.
  6. Begin to pull hands straight out to sides.
  7. Remember to keep the arms straight during the pull.
  8. Stop once the band just about touches your body.
  9. Move arms slowly back to the start position.
  10. You have now completed 1 rep.

*Note – Focus on keeping the shoulder blades stationary throughout the movement. Resist the urge to squeeze them together during the movement as this will bring the much larger muscle groups of the trapezius into play. You want your rear delts to do as much of the work as possible.

You can also do this exercise seated if you wish. Also, you can try adjusting the starting position of the hands. You can start with the hands a little higher, or lower, to work the muscles a little differently.

#5 Prone Swimmer

The prone swimmer exercise is a great shoulder workout without weights. These will really have your shoulders burning in absolutely no time at all.

How to do the prone swimmer correctly.

  1. Lay face down on a flat level surface.
  2. Fully extend arms, off the ground, in front of the head, palms down.
  3. This is the start position.
  4. Begin sweeping arms out, and down toward your butt.
  5. Keep arms straight until by your sides.
  6. Gradually turn palms so they face upward at bottom of the movement.
  7. Place hands together above your butt, or close as possible.
  8. Reverse the movement to return arms to start position.
  9. You have now completed 1 rep.

* Note – Keep the arms off the ground throughout this shoulder exercise. If you like, you can rest your head on the ground to take the strain off the neck. Rest your head on a towel or some similar soft item.

Don’t worry too much about touching your hands together at the bottom of this movement. If you are not flexible enough to do so then just go as close as you comfortably can.

Shoulder workout without weights at home

All of the above shoulders will be great for incorporating into a shoulder workout without weights at home. I generally do about 3 or 4 different exercises when I’m doing any sort of workout. The number of reps will depend a lot on your current fitness level, aim for around 10 – 15. For sets aim for around 3 or 4.

Push-ups are a good complement for these shoulder exercises. A wide, standard, or narrow grip is all good. I normally do 2 or 3 shoulder exercises and 1 push-up exercise for each workout.

Below is an example hard pyramid circuit style session. Use any of the above-listed shoulder exercises. Circuit 2 should be more or less your max reps, and circuit 3 should feel close to all out. Rest as long as needed between circuits, but keep rest between exercises as short as possible for maximum effect.

Example shoulder workout without weights – circuit style pyramid session

Circuit 1 (65 – 75% of max reps)

  • Shoulder circles
  • Standard grip push-ups
  • Plank Raise Tap Crunch
  • Lateral raises with water bottles

Circuit 2 (85 – 100% of max reps)

  • Plank Raise Tap Crunch
  • Prone Swimmers
  • Resistance band rear delt rows
  • Shoulder circles

Circuit 3 (max effort)

  • Prone Swimmers
  • Resistance band rear delt rows
  • Plank Raise Tap Crunch
  • Wide grip push-ups

In Conclusion

Being able to do a shoulder workout without is great. It removes the need to travel to, or pay for a gym. Something we can all do without, I’m sure you’ll agree. It’s one less excuse you’ll have not to blast your shoulders.

The burning sensation when doing the shoulder circles exercise is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. You would never think holding up your arms and turning could be so difficult, but it is. All of these exercises will test your shoulder muscles to the limit.

To develop extra muscle mass in the shoulders you will need to combine these exercises with a healthy, high protein diet. Any diet is good really, so long as it’s healthy.

I have deliberately left out pike push-ups, and handstand push-ups. Although these certainly will target your shoulders I have a major issue with them. That is, they both put your head in close to an upside-down position. I personally find this very uncomfortable, especially when doing an exercise. I usually want to stop, not because my shoulders are burning out, but because my head feels like it’s going to explode. I imagine this would also be the case for most others. So, that’s why I left them out.

As always, leave a comment if you found this guide useful, or for any pointers or useful info you might have.

Now go make your shoulders burn!!


Always consult your GP before undertaking any form of weight loss, fitness, or exercise.


Michael Duffy
Michael Duffy

Fitness, health, and outdoor enthusiast! 2 decade of experience training for, and competing in different sports. Boxer, runner, road cyclist, triathlete, and XC mountain biker. More about me here.

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