Beauty is, without a doubt, in the eye of the beholder. Most men, and many women as well, would do almost anything to attain broad, muscular shoulders and that coveted inverted triangle shape (or “V taper”) that bodybuilders are known for.
But there are other people — most likely women — who think of “broad shoulders” and wince. They would prefer to be known for their slender, svelte shape. Perhaps they desire toned, but slimmer shoulders.
As a woman who lives for resistance training, I personally love seeing people of all genders with broad, well-built shoulders. But if you prefer slimmer shoulders and less of a V taper, this article will point you in the right direction.
Limitations in changing body shape
First and foremost, we need to establish proper expectations for attaining slimmer shoulders.
You can’t change genetics
It’s important to recognize that a major part of how your body appears is your bone structure, which is hereditary and not alterable except through highly invasive and potentially dangerous surgeries.
With your upper body and shoulder muscles, the primary bone that determines the width of your shoulders is your clavicle bone (also known as the collarbone). The length of this bone is a huge factor in determining how wide your shoulders appear.
You can’t spot reduce body fat
Some training gurus claim that “spot training” will allow you to pick and choose which parts of your body to lose fat from. This has been demonstrated to be a myth.
Fat loss occurs when you are consistently in a calorie deficit — burning more calories than you take in. The primary factor in weight loss is diet, not training. When you lose fat, you cannot control the specific body parts that will slim down first.
If you are significantly overweight, reducing your body fat percentage is a good strategy to make your shoulders appear slimmer. The ideal way to accomplish this is to find a healthy diet that you can adhere to over time — not by finding a workout routine that has you doing 100 reps of shoulder presses or lateral raises with a tiny pink dumbbell.
What you can do to slim down your shoulders
Now that we’ve established realistic expectations, let’s cover some strategies for reducing the appearance of wide shoulders.
Lose body fat (if you are overweight)
If you are overweight, losing body fat will certainly make you appear slimmer and smaller all around.
How do we lose weight? There are several key factors to consider.
Find a diet that you can adhere to for a long period of time.
Eat enough protein (at least .8-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight).
Create a calorie deficit (there are good online calculators that can help you determine how many calories to shoot for as a starting point).
Avoid calorie-dense foods and liquid calories, such as sugary drinks. Examples of foods that are calorie-dense and devoid of nutrients are pure fats (i.e., oils, such as olive oil and coconut oil), and pure carbs (i.e., white bread, sugar).
Instead, eat whole, minimally processed foods that are nutrient-dense and provide ample nutrition without going overboard on calories. Examples include lean steaks, eggs, salmon, vegetables, fruits.
Use a well-balanced strength routine
Even if you’re looking to lose body fat, strength training is essential to improving your body composition. Resistance training isn’t just for people who are already lean — it’s for everyone who wants to improve their health. If you care about your overall health and longevity, you should care about your muscle mass, as part of a comprehensive training plan that also includes sufficient cardio training.
Your workout program should not simply train the “vanity muscles,” as the arms. It should be well-rounded and balanced, training both your upper and lower body.
Putting muscle on your lower body — particularly around your hips, upper legs, and glutes — will help your body proportions to be more balanced (rather than appearing wider at the top, around the shoulders).
A workout plan that includes basic compound exercises performed with heavy weights — upper body movements like bench presses, overhead presses, pull-ups, bent-over rows, as well as lower body movements such as squats, lunges, leg presses, and deadlifts — will help you build overall body strength and muscle and a well-proportioned body.
If you’re looking for a smart, well-rounded strength training program that will stimulate muscle growth and strength development over time, here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Skip shoulder isolation exercises
This point is more relevant the leaner you are. If you’re at a healthy weight and body composition and start to notice that your shoulders are disproportionately broad compared with the rest of your body, you may want to consider cutting down on some of the shoulder isolation exercises in your workout routine.
Wider shoulders can be created by the growth of the middle deltoids — the muscles that run along the side of the shoulder joint. Middle deltoids, along with the rest of the shoulder muscles, are targeted primarily by compound pressing movements — overhead presses, as well as horizontal or incline presses.
Middle deltoids are activated to an even greater degree by lateral raises, whether performed with dumbbells, machines, cables, or bands. Menno Henselmans points out that activation of the lateral deltoid is increased when lateral raises are done with the weight raised straight out to the side of your body, as opposed to lifting the weight up and out and slightly in front of your body.
It stands to reason that if you’re unhappy with your disproportionately broad shoulders, and if you’ve determined that these wide shoulders are due to over-developed muscles (and not just excess body fat or bone structure), you should do less volume for your shoulders. You could focus on doing just enough training for your shoulders to maintain their strength and muscle size, and focus instead on bringing up other body parts that aren’t so well-developed.
A good point to consider is that your rear delts are likely underdeveloped if you’re like the average weightlifter. Exercises like face pull and reverse flies target the posterior deltoid.
The inverse is likely also true — if you desire broader shoulders, giving them a little extra volume and throwing in some lateral raises one or two times per week, as part of a smart training program, can help you add size to your middle deltoids.