Here are 4 of my favorite rotator cuff strength exercises I give patients to strengthen the shoulder and reduce pain. Similar to low back strengthening, direct cuff work has benefits. Luckily (just like the back) you can still improve cuff strength with any exercises that uses the arms.
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The 4 Best Rotator Cuff Strength Exercises
- Seated External Rotation
- Single Arm Press
#1 Seated Rotator Cuff External Rotation Exercise
Good for: Shoulder external rotation strength
- Support the shoulder on the knee in the scapular plane
- Lower the weight slow and controlled and don’t let the shoulder dump forward
- Raise the weight with intent but without momentum from the body
- 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps
This rotator cuff exercise is thought to directly target the cuff. You won’t need a heavy weight, at least to start. Make sure you aren’t excessively shrugging the shoulder or using momentum to fling the weight up.
#2 Torches (Starts at 7:07)
Good for: Posterior rotator cuff and shoulder
- Hand should start about even with the neck
- Pull the weight straight up and act like you are pouring out water
- Keep the arm long as it moves up and down
- Be sure to feel this where the video discusses (infraspinatus)
- SLOW. CONTROLLED
- 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps. This one burns.
Abduction (moving the arm away from you) is another great rotator cuff exercise but often done poorly. This position helps to really isolate the movement and block compensations. You won’t need heavy weight.
#3 Crawling exercises for rotator cuff strength
Good for: All of it
These are all great variations. There’s “technique” with crawling but not as far as your arms and shoulders are concerned.
Pick 2-3, do 30 seconds of each.
Ideally pick 1 you like, 1 you hate.
#4 1-Arm Press for rotator cuff strength
Good for: All of it
- Use a kettlebell or dumbbell
- Can stand feet hip width apart, half kneeing, or staggered stance
- Don’t let the elbow flare out until it’s above the shoulder (see video below)
- PULL the elbow back to the start position
Since the press moves the arm through a full range of motion, this is a rotator cuff exercise by default. The cuff has no choice but to work. Pain with this exercise is most likely a shoulder mobility issue than it is a rotator cuff issue.
Strangely enough lifting overhead is usually the least painful. If it does bother you, try this one trick to keep the shoulder in the scapular plane.
Rotator Cuff Anatomy
We previously discussed shoulder anatomy and briefly covered the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is comprised of 4 muscles that attach to the humeral head in all directions. The cuff’s goal is to keep the humeral head “centered.”
Movement at the shoulder joint is measured in millimeters, so “centered” is really hard to define and measure. Shoulder blade position will matter more than shoulder joint position.
Rotator cuff related pain is usually diagnosed as shoulder impingement. Impingement is the result of repetitive movements that 1) use more strength than you have or 2) use more ROM than you have, or 3) both. Fixing impingement requires fixing the above things.
These 4 exercises make a good “mini-program” than can be incorporated into a general shoulder routine to improve strength and reduce pain, or they can be a stand alone program. Cuff specific work is great, but really as long as the arms are moving the cuff get adequate work.
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