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4 Rotator Cuff Exercises That You Should Be Doing (and Why)

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4 Rotator Cuff Exercises That You Should Be Doing (and Why)

If you want a short, simple exercise routine for strengthening your rotator cuffs (and know why it’s important), you want to read this article.

 

“How much do you putting up on your triceps kickbacks these days?”

Asked nobody, ever.

What do they ask instead? You got it:

“How much do you bench?”

For whatever reason, the bench press gets an inordinate amount of attention among us weightlifters. Tumbleweeds blow through the gym on squat and deadlift days, but nobody skips chest days.

Well, while the bench press is a great exercise, it’s also one of the primary reasons so many lifters have shoulder problems.

Heavy benching with poor form is just a recipe for rotator cuff disaster, and heavy bench pressing with good form still places large amounts of stress on these small muscles.

In this article, we’re going to review what the rotator cuff is, why you need to protect it from injury, and which exercises are best for keeping it strong and healthy.

And then we’re going to get back to bench pressing. 🙂

What is the Rotator Cuff?

what is rotator cuff

The shoulder’s impressive range of motion is produced by two things: its structure and the rotator cuff muscles.

Structurally, it’s a “ball and socket” joint comprised of the top of the arm bone (ball) and the shoulder blade (socket).

Here’s how it looks:

rotator cuff example

As you can see on the left, the humeral head (top of the arm bone) and scapula (shoulder blade) form the core of the shoulder joint and are supported by the connection of the collarbone and acromion.

Now, on the right is the rotator cuff, which is a sleeve that enables the ball-shaped head of the arm bone to spin and roll while remaining in the socket of the shoulder blade.

This sleeve is comprised of four muscles and their tendons:

  • Supraspinatus
  • Infraspinatus
  • Teres minor
  • Subscapularis

Here’s a visual:

rotator cuff muscles

These muscles and tendons are quite strong but, when they become damaged, it can be extremely painful and debilitating. Nothing can put you on your ass faster than joint injuries.

And that’s why I’m glad you’re here. I want to help you “bulletproof” your shoulders.

Before we get into how, though, let’s take a closer look at the nature of rotator cuff injuries.

Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.

What Is a Rotator Cuff Injury?

rotator cuff pain

The two most common types of rotator cuff injuries are impingements and tears.

A shoulder impingement occurs when the soft tissues of the rotator cuff become swollen and inflamed.

This expansion in size leaves too little room for movement, which causes pinching between the arm bone and shoulder blade.

Here’s a simple diagram of how this looks:

rotator cuff injury

Those inflamed or torn tendons swell up, filling the space that is needed for proper range of motion. This, then, causes painful pinching of the muscles when the shoulder is moved.

Shoulder impingement can be caused by traumas such as falling or by repetitive use. Overhead motions like pitching in baseball or overhead pressing in weightlifting are known to cause inflammation that can lead to impingement.

A rotator cuff tear occurs when a rotator cuff muscle or tendon actually tears.

Tears can be minor or severe, as determined by the tissue(s) torn and the depth and thickness of the tear.

As with impingements, tears can be caused by acute traumas or the gradual wearing down of the rotator cuff muscles, which makes them more susceptible to tearing.

How Do You Treat Rotator Cuff Injuries?

rotator cuff rehabilitation

The proper treatment for a rotator cuff injury depends on the nature and severity of the injury.

In many cases, people can recover from rotator cuff disease or injury with rest and exercises that stretch and strengthen the muscles. Severe rotator cuff injuries like extensive tears may require surgery.

Determining how bad a shoulder injury is can be tricky.

  • Pain isn’t a reliable indicator of the severity of the injury. Tendonitis or bursitis can be very painful whereas a large tear can be less so.
  • Extreme muscle weakness can indicate a tear. People with large tears often find they can’t place their arm(s) in certain positions and are too weak to do simple actions like taking a gallon of milk out of the fridge.
  • Like pain, loss of motion isn’t a reliable yardstick. Any condition that produces pain will generally restrict range of motion, but sometimes people with severe tears will have normal motion.

If you know or suspect you have a rotator cuff injury and want to know exactly what’s going on, my best advice is to see a sports medicine doctor.

He/she will be able to determine with certainty the extent of your injury and appropriate course of treatment.

How Do You Prevent Rotator Cuff Pain and Injuries?

rotator cuff injury prevention exercises

The best way to prevent rotator cuff problems is to strengthen the muscles.

This is particularly important for athletes and weightlifters, who generally tend to focus on the major muscle groups and neglect “little” things like rotator cuff health, joint health, and overall mobility.

For example, many weightlifting programs involve a lot more bench and overhead pressing than pulling.

This causes an imbalance between the anterior muscles of the chest and shoulders and the posterior muscles of the back, which can cause bad posture and increase the risk of a rotator cuff injury.

If you’re following a well-designed program that involves a good amount of both pushing and pulling, however, that’s a good start.

Certain compound movements like the bench press, overhead press, and deadlift involve the rotator cuff muscles, there are several other exercises you can do to isolate them.

Whether you should do these exercises depends on your circumstances.

Personally, I started running into rotator cuff tightness on my right side after bench and overhead pressing significant (for me) amounts of weight for about a year (about 275+ pounds on the bench press and 205+ pounds on the military press).

The rotator cuff exercises I give below have helped eliminate the problem (along with some rather painful myofascial release work) but I may have been able to prevent it altogether if I would have started earlier.

The 4 Best Rotator Cuff Exercises

rotator cuff strengthening exercises

There are three types of movements that strengthen the rotator cuff muscles and four exercises that I recommend you do.

External Rotation

If you place your arm at your side, raise your forearm until it’s at a 90-degree angle to your upper arm, and rotate your hand away from your body, that’s external rotation.

Here’s how it looks:

external rotation exercise

Here’s how you turn this into an exercise that strengthens the muscles involved:

Internal Rotation

As you’ve probably guessed, internal rotation is the opposite of external rotation and involves rotating the hand toward the body.

Remember that these distinctions also apply to shoulder rotation when the elbow is raised:

internal rotation exercise

And here’s the exercise for internal rotation:

Scaption (Scapular Plane Elevation)

Scaption is a movement that’s in between a lateral and front raise.

Here’s a good explanation of it:

And the exercise is pretty obvious:

Face Pull

The Face Pull isn’t an exercise you see many people doing but it’s one of my favorites for training both the rotator cuff muscles and rear deltoids.

Here’s how they work:

Creating a Rotator Cuff Workout Routine

best-rotator cuff exercises

Now that you know which exercise you want to be doing, the next question is how you should program the workouts.

First, while I’m generally a proponent of heavy weightlifting, you don’t want to use heavy weights for rotator cuff exercises.

Yes, you want to get progressively stronger in these exercises over time (by lifting heavier weights), but I recommend that you work in the 10 to 12 or 12 to 15 rep range.

That means that once you can get 12 or 15 reps, you move up by 5 pounds on each arm. And if you can’t get at least 10 or 12 reps, the weight is too heavy.

In terms of volume (total sets) and frequency, a little bit goes a long way with rotator cuff exercises.

If you simply do one set of each of these exercises once or twice per week, that’s plenty. Personally I do rotator cuff exercises twice per week, after my bench and overhead pressing.

The Bottom Line on Rotator Cuff Exercises

rotator cuff exercises bodybuilding

Healthy joints are one of those things people just don’t fully appreciate until they’re gone.

They’ll rush to buy muscle builders, protein powders, hormone boosters, fat burners, and the like, but often overlook strategies to keep their shoulders, elbows, knees, and back healthy.

Well, take a page from professional weightlifters’ books and make sure you’re doing things to help your joints handle all the punishment and Future You will be thankful. 🙂

Happy benching!

What do you think about these rotator cuff exercises? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Thanks for stopping by and checking out my article! I hope you enjoyed it.

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  • Bryan Williams

    I have just started doing the face pulls and after 2 weeks I have had so much less pain from incline bench shoulder strain.. I’m not 100% on this but I think it helps your muscles to pin your shoulders back better during bench work as well so less pain from slipping a shoulder into a heavy last rep.

  • Patty

    THANK YOU so much for this! I get recurring front shoulder pain that comes and goes and am so grateful for help on this topic!! This will supplement my powerlifting program perfectly. Thanks again!
    Do you sell samples of your preworkout formula?

    • My pleasure! LMK how it goes performing these exercises!

      Unfortunately, we don’t have any samples. We have a great money-back guarantee though. So feel free to pick some up! If you’re not a fan, no worries. We’ll take care of you. 🙂

  • Chin

    I’ve often strained some tiny muscle in my rotator cuff during martial arts training – excessive internal rotation + constantly rammed by someone. More prone to it because of a joint deformity. Based on the muscle movements, I suspected the subscapularis, though it could be any other muscle or a combination of them. Since it’s a deep muscle, there was no way I could reliably stretch it.

    One day after some searching, I found a video that showed a self-massage trick that helped relieve the pain and restore painless range of motion within a few minutes of massage. The stretches in the video did not work for me. But the one bit about placing the hand on the nape and applying pressure with the other hand was helpful. I find that raising the arm allows me to apply pressure more directly to the rotator cuff muscles, which are normally covered by other muscles and/or bone (or I could just be very fat). I was fumbling at the start, but managed to find the right spot to press by poking around near my scapula till I found a sore spot.

    Could be helpful to some people with strains. Don’t try this if you think you tore something though.

    Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pe_D9EEa2JA

  • Jason Tsai

    Hey Mike,
    Could you do the external and internal rotation exercises while standing upright using a cable machine?

    Thanks!

  • Affan

    Another great column Mike. Thanks for the valuable info.

    I have been suffering from front delt pain for last 12-14 weeks . Its not severe but it is constant and i can almost do every task of daily life.Sometimes it increases. Based on the knowledge in this column i will consult a sports doctor .

    So far I have tried to read and tried to follow almost everything that i found but it has not gone

    I purchased BLS but immediately after that had this injury so could not apply it ….
    🙁
    If you any further advice please let me know

  • Nikki Gregoris

    Just in time, my rotator in my left side was beginning to feel a bit weak. its hard to find good information. Thanks Mike 🙂

    • Time to start doing these exercises! My pleasure. 🙂

      LMK how it goes.

    • Rusty

      Same here. I don’t know if it was from my weightlifting or from all the painting I’ve done lately but this was right on time.

  • Wesley L. Riojas

    Hi Mike, is there an instance where you’d recommend substituting these exercises for the regular BLS shoulder day? I worry about increasing the inflammation and injured shoulder.

    • You wouldn’t replace your muscle building exercises. You would do these after.

  • Kris

    Hey Mike,I’m on the bls program on the 3rd phase. There you’ve added the face pull twice a week per 3 sets. Should I add something else to the program (i’m following the year one challenge) or does the book contain everything that’s needed? Thanks

    • Nope you don’t need to do anything further unless you’re dealing with tightness/issues.

  • Zeke

    Excellent and relevant article Mike. I have been on a major fitness kick this year and have seen amazing results, but I will say I’ve had some challenges with the one shoulder, and even picking up my daughter was hard at times before taking a break.

    Knowledge is power! I’m going to integrate these recommendations into my workout asap and see how it goes. Thanks a bunch!

    • Thanks man. Glad you’ve been focused on your fitness of recent!

      Sorry to hear about the shoulder. LMK how it goes doing these exercises!

  • aidan

    any advice on dealing with golfers elbow and any back excerises you can do not to agrivate it while recovering??

    • mardy

      For your golfers/tennis elbow – http://www.powercompanyclimbing.com/2013/01/pushing-through-tweaks-twinges-and.html?m=1

      Eccentric exercises (tyler twist/therband) is the only modality proven to work consistently. It worked so well that the scientist had to stop the experiment early, as they felt it would be unethical to deprive the control of such an effective modality. Both groups we also receiving traditional physical therapy at the same time.

    • One of the keys is going to be just that–don’t aggravate it. That means avoiding any exercises/activities that cause it to flare up…

  • vadim dreyzin

    Hi Mike:
    Just wanted to say that I am very impressed by your articles. They are well researched and full of excellent information, and you have a real talent for expressing yourself. Keep up the great work!

  • Amy D

    Thanks for bringing attention to the RC. I am a PT and want to emphasize how important these are. Position is crucial. *** Put a rolled up towel under your armpit for IR and ER exercises to prevent pinching of the cuff. And please DON’T LIFT HEAVY WITH THESE MUSCLES. They are small muscles that need to fit in a restricted space anatomically. Bulk these muscles too much and you’ll get impingement. Thanks Mike!

  • lee

    God!! wish you put this up a week ago…severely jacked my left shoulder benching last week and last night(( Hoping to avoid the doctor but time will tell. Now have to take some time off.Will be applying your stretching exercises as a rehab slowly to see if I can recover it alone. As always love your insights and helpful articles.Great Job Mike!

  • Ray

    Just like to say thanks Mike and keep them coming, really enjoy your news letters, had a couple of your books too. On that subject are there any plans on a second shredded cheff,

    • Welcome Ray! Will do. 🙂

      Glad you’re enjoying everything and thanks for picking up my books.

      Working on the 2nd edition of TSC right now. Should be ready Dec or Jan. Stay tuned!

  • Mike P

    Funny this article just came out, as my workout partner just tore his cuff today!

  • Andy

    Having gone through physical therapy for rotator cuff related problems, I would emphasize the point that lifting heavy is not the goal here. Start very light–even a 3 pound weight may be enough, at least to start with, for these exercises. And, in addition to a dumbbell, you can also use a band (wrapped around a fixed object) for the internal and external rotation exercises. Also, if you have these problems, be very conservative in your pressing–whether overhead or on a flat or incline bench. You should start out light and build the weight up slowly. It may take months or even a year or two before you can get to a respectable weight, but that’s better than going too heavy too soon and having to start all over again.

  • Marian Boricean

    Another great researched article. This site is a treasure!
    Mike, I’m following your 1 year challenge routine. Where (which days) should I insert these exercises?

    Thank you again!

    • Thanks Marian! I do them after chest day and after shoulder day.

      My pleasure!

  • Yiannis

    My front delts are much bigger than the side and rear… except doing the rotator cuff exercises for occasional pains i have on shoulders, should i drop front raises and military presses, or should i do more sets on rear and side delts?

    • I wouldn’t drop them out completely. You still want to do some heavy pressing for the shoulders. I’d recommend lowering the volume on them and focusing on the side and rear delts. Thoughts?

  • Bill

    Do you need to do them after benching or pressing or you can get the benefits of the exercises even if you include them in the shoulder day

    • I recommend doing them after the shoulder workout. You can also do them after chest day if you’d like.

      You don’t want to do them before the heavy lifting because you want all the energy you can for the heavy lifting.

  • Phil Dixon

    Hey Mike

    Thanks for another excellent article. I’m on week 3 of BLS and have an aggravated RC that started a few weeks back on SL5x5 (I didn’t know what the discomfort was until I read this).

    The pain is now starting to effect my training (current DL 70kg/BP 55kg) and general being as it’s affecting sleep.

    I had some Naproxen (prescription NSAID) in the cupboard and a couple a day seemed to rid the pain, probably because it feels inflamed and being pitched.

    Moving on, what should I do about training? I’ll get some more Naproxen and the above RC excercises really highlight where the issue is. Should I leave off the heavy stuff? Work in the 10-12 rep range or dump the weights altogether (apart from the RC excercises) and concentrate on Abs and Cardio?

    Many thanks
    Phil

    • Sorry to hear about the RC Phil.

      Let’s take a week or two off from any exercises that cause pain or discomfort. You’re welcome to continue lifting on all other exercises. Then, when you’re ready to lift again start with lighter weight and work in the higher rep range. From there you can work your way down to the heavier weight and lower rep range.

      This will help too:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/how-to-improve-shoulder-flexibility-and-mobility/

      Thoughts?

  • Marion

    Thanks for the info, I’d always get rc injuries and had to stop working out. I will definitely be doing the exercises recommended.

  • Michael Bellino, MD

    Since I am 11days post rotator surgery due to a through and through supraspinatus tendon tear, prior to surgery I did rehab: Ext/int rotation, sheathing/unseathing, open/closed cans, alphabet/number writing (and several more). Lucky for me, my surgeon stated the tendon will retake due to healthy tissue. My injury is unknown but started to have inpingement syndrome and needed my clavicle shaved. Remember, you should do rotator cuff exercises and back exercises 2 times as often as chest. Your arms should lie at your sides and not in front. If lie in front, then you need to do back more often to strengthen your shoulders/back muscles to pull your arms back or you looking at rotator cuff surgery in your future. I learned this too late.

    • Thanks for the comment Michael. Great news on the tendon recovery though.

  • Bill

    Do you think it ould be better to do the rotations in 180 degrees with cables or limit it at 90?

    • I’ve always done them as they’re generally recommended, which is shown in this article.

  • Jonathan Stringer

    The fourth video down does not work for me. Any one else???

  • Ian

    Do recommend doing these rotator cuff exercises on shoulder day or should it be separate?

  • NATHAN GOWAN

    Very useful, especially considering i have issues with both shoulders and elbows but that was more to do with an injury years ago. struggling with training right now so hopefully this will help.

    thanks

  • KarenB

    Thanks for this great informative article, Mike. I can’t wait to try these exercises – I’ve been suffering with a rotator cuff injury for many months. I’ll keep you posted on my progress 😀

    • YW! Sounds good. I look forward to hearing how they work for you!

  • Rahul Vj

    Hi Michael, this article looks very informative and useful. I have had rotator cuff injury for almost 3-4 months. I have started taking animal flex. Would 2 days a week suffice? I was planning to use these 4 exercises as warm up, as my rotator cuff hurts even when i am idle.

    p.s – i dont have any tears. i checked with a doc. he says its probably inflammation from over use.

    • Hey hey! Hmm. First, I recommend taking a break from any exercises that cause pain or discomfort to allow the inflammation to come down.

      Great to hear there isn’t a tear of some kind!

      After that, I’d start doing these exercises and these:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/how-to-improve-shoulder-flexibility-and-mobility/

      Thoughts?

      • Rahul Vj

        Hey.. I.checked with my physical therapist again and she says that i.don’t have inflammation and its probably bcoz my lower traps are not as strong as my other muscles and has caused strain on my rotator cuff. Is this possible? Bcoz i didn’t know lower traps can affect rotator cuff’s mobility. Oh. Btw great link!

        • If you have an imbalance between your push and pull muscles, this can definitely cause problems.

          What kind of back training do you do?

          • Rahul Vj

            hey., i do reverse grip pull down, bent over barbell row, seated cable row and deadlift. I change my workouts every 4 weeks with other back exercises like v bar pull down, one arm dumbbell row etc. I do 8 reps of 3 sets each. I have been training for 5-6 yrs, with 3 yrs of serious training. I personally don’t think there could be an imbalance.
            The weird thing is the pain keeps cycling between both rotator cuffs. Its either the left or the right rotator cuff at pain during any given point of time. It generally shifts between the two rotator cuffs every 2-3 hrs. Any reason why is it like this?

          • Those are good choices. Sounds reasonable.

            It’s really hard to attempt a diagnosis of any kind with limited info like this.

            Would you be able to see a good sports doc/PT? I would look for someone that works with professional athletes as they tend to be very competent.

          • Rahul Vj

            Hey.. I saw an orthopedic surgeon today and he says the rotator cuffs are fine. It’s actually a SLAP tear type 2. He has asked me to rest for a couple of weeks. Should i resume with these rotator cuff exercises? Or any other that might help? Also, any idea how long this type usually takes to recover? The doc says let’s wait and see. Thank you!

          • Ah okay. Good to know!

            i wouldn’t recommend anything that you haven’t got the okay from the surgeon on…

            Let’s stick to his/her advice for now and see how it goes.

            Sorry I couldn’t be of more help! Talk soon.

  • Marc B

    Hey Michael, great article! After suffering a tear in my right shoulder performing close-grip bench press (without a spotter…yeah, I know), first thing I did was search your site for shoulder injury info. I appreciate you putting this information together for us, both online and in your BLS series of books. Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks! Sorry to hear about the tear. 🙁

      Happy to do what I do! Will do! Talk soon.

  • Jesse Rafter

    do these on off days ? twice a week? or on my workout days?

    • I do them twice week on workout days. You can do them on your workout days or rest days. Whatever you prefer.

  • Robert Perkins

    I’m sure I have a rotator cuff since Mar 8 th and I got slammed on my arm with my arm out and today may 7th I’m losing motion to reach aside to the right my entire shoulder moves with my arm in the direction how I retain my motion in my arm what exercises .either one

    • Hey Robert! Sorry to hear about the injury. I’m not sure what’s going on there. I’d check with a doc to find out exactly what happened to your shoulder and what you can do.

      Sorry I couldn’t be of more help! LMK how it goes.

  • brendan9696

    Fantastic article, marry useful tips,
    Great video demos,
    The symptoms diagnosis is brilliant info ,
    I have been to specilast , physio etc .
    Had the symptoms for just two years ago ,
    But unles u r crippled in pain, they don’t want to know (my specialist said “stay out the gym ,in six months never lifted a bean, he then said no injury , nothing wrong , no tear” ”
    “, why can’t I lift even 5 kg , his reply , “one of those things”)
    Six months without lifting and the biceps curl and overhead press are always weaker when it flares up. .

    I Will be implementing your exercises before returning back to training as shoulder injury flared up recently and have been unable to train as in pain.
    Have got bands rather than dumb bells to start with ,
    Many thanks for info and keep that articles coming

    • Thanks!
      Sorry to hear about your injury and less than stellar experience at the physio specialists. Get well soon.

  • Arafat Sultan

    Hey Mike, awesome article. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us. You suggest lots of exercises on your website like this and others (example: grip exercise etc) which is not a part of your BLS routine that we are following. If I am to add these exercises to my BLS routine, will I risk myself to fall into over-training?

    Thanks
    Arafat

  • the incredible Holg

    Hey,

    just a few lines of feedback…

    There’s just one thing I regret after reading your books and following you on muscleforlife Mike.

    I will never be able to thank you adequately for your great work and input.

    I made more progress within 8 weeks since I read Bigger Leaner Stronger than within the 8 months of hard training that went before.

    Thanks so much, Mike. Keep it up!

    Holger

    • Thanks for that, Holger! I really appreciate it. That’s really awesome you’ve made such great progress in the past 8 weeks. Keep up the good work!

  • Charles Lea

    I’m a new RC “patient”. No surgery, just exercises to strengthen the RC. You’ve got a good list of exercises and it seems that 2 to 3 times per week is the preferred number of days. What’s the preferred number of reps for each exercise daily? Thanks for your help!

  • James

    I understand the context of this article, how important this type of exercise is, as well as the rep cadences. But how do you determine the start weight? Surely it is not 85% of 1RM! Please suggest/advise.

  • James

    Roger, Is it max weight within 10-12 reps or a lighter weight that feels comfortable? I am some what new at lifting.

    • Like all lifts, it will be the highest weight where you can perform the exercise with proper form. I’d practice with lighter weight first, if you’re new to lifting or to the exercise.

  • Joar Vidfält

    Hi Mike!

    I want to start of by saying that this is a really well written artical. I have some questions for you that I hope you can answer. You mentioned that your RC got tight after benching and overhead pressing a lot of weight, was it your internal or external rotators that became tight? I have clicking/clunking noises in both of my shoulders, my physio said that I have tight infraspinatus and she suggested that I release it by using a lacrosse ball. She also said that the clicking/clunking sound occurs because I also have weak external rotators. Could you explain how the infraspinatus can be tight and weak simultaneously? I also have poor internal rotation (only around 45°, you aswell as a lot of other sources suggest that you should atleast have 70°) which Im trying to increase. Is it possible that the clicking/clunking noises occur because of tight and weak infraspinatus aswell as poor internal rotation?

    Thanks for taking your time reading this, Im looking forward for some answers.

    Sincerely Joar

  • Briscan Andrei

    Can we continue do this routine during our strength and deload weeks ? (BLS )
    Also , can we continue to train abs and calves during our strength and deload weeks ? (BLS )

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