You can use rotator cuff exercises to strengthen your shoulder and help relieve shoulder pain related to a rotator cuff injury. You can also use rotator cuff exercises to help you improve the flexibility and strength of your surrounding muscles and tendons.
What is a Rotator Cuff?
Your rotator cuff is a group of four small muscles—the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. They’re located deep in your shoulder, surrounding the joint. The main function of your rotator cuff muscles is to help keep the ball-and-socket joint intact and provide dynamic stability to your shoulder joint.
Strengthening Your Rotator Cuff Muscles
Your rotator cuff muscles are a small group of muscles designed for endurance. Therefore, to exercise your rotator cuff muscles, you need to use light weights and do lots of repetitions. You should typically start with 3 sets of 15 repetitions and gradually progress up to 5 sets of 30 repetitions. When you perform your rotator cuff exercises, keep your movements slow and controlled. Use perfect form and stay within your pain-free range of motion.
Rotator Cuff Exercises
Here are some of the best exercises you can use to strengthen your shoulder and prevent rotator cuff injuries.
Side-Lying External Rotator
- Lie on your side on the floor or a bench. Place a rolled-up towel underneath your upper arm to help you keep your arm at a right angle.
- Keep your elbow in that 90-degree position and slowly raise your hand toward the ceiling. Stop just shy of vertical to keep constant tension on your rotators.
- Slowly lower the weight back down toward your abdomen and repeat.
Propped External Rotator
- Sit on a bench with a barbell beside you. Grab a dumbbell and hold it up so that your forearm is vertical. Then rest your elbow on the barbell so that your upper arm is parallel to the floor.
- Lower the dumbbell slowly until your forearm is parallel to the floor. Focus on contracting the small muscles in the back of your shoulder as you lift the weight back to vertical. Repeat.
External Rotator on Knee
- Sit on a bench with your foot on it and rest your elbow on your knee so that your upper arm is parallel to the floor.
- Start with your hand in the air. Keep your elbow at a right angle and slowly rotate your upper arm in an arc toward the midline of your body. Stop when your forearm is just above parallel to the floor.
- Arc your arm back up to vertical and repeat.
Shoulder Extension Exercise
- Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand in front of a mirror. Extend both your arms up above your head with only a slight bend in your elbows.
- Slowly bring your arms down in front of your body until they’re at shoulder height. Then rotate your arms so that your hands are facing upward.
- Rotate back and return to your original position. Repeat.
Horizontal Abduction Exercise
- Lie on your stomach on a table with your arm hanging over the side. Your thumb should be facing forward.
- Slowly raise your arm straight out to the side and stop when it’s parallel to your body. Lower your arm and repeat.
Elevation in the Scapular Plane
- Lie on your stomach on a table with your arm hanging over the side. Rotate your hand so your thumb is pointed 45° out to the side.
- Slowly raise your arm in a plane 45° forward and stop when your arm is just below parallel to your body. Lower your arm slowly and repeat.
Row with External Rotation
- Lie on your stomach on a table with your arm hanging over the side. Rotate your hand so your thumb is pointed towards your body.
- Perform a rowing motion with your elbow in the same plane as your shoulder and stop when your elbow is even with your shoulder.
- Rotate your arm upwards until your forearm is just below parallel with your body.
- Rotate your forearm back down to the previous position and then lower your arm back down to the starting position. Repeat.
Resistance Band External Rotation
- Stand and hold a resistance band across your abdomen. Place a rolled towel between your arm and body.
- Slowly rotate your arm out to the side until your hand is pointing straight forward. Hold this position for 3 seconds.
- Slowly return to the starting position. Keep your elbow at a 90° angle throughout the motion.
Resistance Band Horizontal Abduction
- Stand and face the attachment site of the resistance band, with your arm extended straight out in front of you.
- Slowly pull your arm backward and out to the side, keeping your arm at shoulder height. As you perform this motion, try to pinch your shoulder blade backward and inwards.
Resistance Band Rows
- Hold one end of the resistance band in each hand.
- Perform backward rowing motions, keeping your elbows elevated and at least 60° away from your body.
- When your elbows are approximately half of the way to your body, complete the motion by pinching your shoulder blades together.
Rotator Cuff Stretches
You can get some great benefits from rotator cuff exercises, but you should also add some stretches to your rotator cuff routine. Do these stretches after your rotator cuff exercises and hold each one for 30 seconds. You shouldn’t experience pain when you’re stretching, so be careful not to push too hard.
Parallel Arm Shoulder Stretch
- Start by standing up straight with your knees slightly bent and your legs shoulder-width apart.
- Extend your right arm across your body, ensuring that your arm stays parallel with the ground. Then pull your right elbow toward your opposite shoulder, using your left arm. Hold this stretch for 10 seconds and then let go.
- Repeat this exercise with the opposite arm.
Door Jamb Stretch
- You can use a door jamb, tree, or the corner of a building for this stretch. Start by extending your arm out from your torso at a right angle. Then bend your elbow 90 degrees.
- Place your forearm against a wall and lean forward. You can also stretch both arms at the same if you use a door jamb.
- Hold the stretch on each side for about 20-30 seconds.
Reverse Shoulder Stretch
- Start by standing with your back straight and knees slightly bent.
- Clasp your hands together directly behind the small of your back. With your arms fully extended, slowly bring your arms upward. Make sure that your arms are extended the entire time.
- Hold the stretch for 10 seconds and then release. If you do this stretch consistently, you’ll see an increase in your rotator cuff’s range of motion.
Hug a Tree Stretch
- Find a sturdy vertical surface, such as a squat rack, tree, or coat rack. Grasp it with both hands and stand with your feet about a foot away.
- Bend at your hips until your arms are straight. Be sure to keep your butt back and allow your head to relax between your elbows.
Developing Your Shoulder Strength
These are just a few rotator cuff exercises that you can use to strengthen your shoulders and relieve pain from a rotator cuff injury. While all of these are very good at isolating your rotator cuff, you shouldn’t perform them all during a single workout. Here are some great exercises to develop your shoulders despite an injury.