4 PT-Approved Rotator Cuff Exercises to Relieve Shoulder Pain

IF YOU EVER felt a pinch of pain in the shoulder when you reached for something above your head, you know how important proper joint function is to your daily life. Once you hit the gym, good shoulder function is even more important. The muscle group is a major mover in major upper body lifts such as the overhead press, triceps extensions and rows.

But nagging pain and popping in the shoulder can put a damper on your lifts (and your life). These malfunctions are often caused by problems with the rotator cuff. Philip Tam, PT, DPT, of Bespoke Treatments takes us through four exercises that are great for strengthening and stabilizing your rotator cuff.

What is the Rotator Cuff?

The rotator cuff consists of four muscles: the infraspinatus, the subscapularis, the supraspinatus, and the teres minor. The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint, meaning the arm bone forms a ball that slides around the inside of the concave portion of the shoulder blade. These four muscles are known as the “cuff” because they form a hood around the ball area and act as a catalyst for a wide variety of movements.

What Does the Rotator Cuff Do?

The subscapularis sits at the front of your shoulder blade, the supraspinatus sits on top, and the infraspinatus and teres minor both sit at the back. With the shoulder blade covered on all sides, the rotator cuff muscles rotate and abduct the shoulder, helping to pull the arm away from the body. These muscles are the reason you can open a door or throw a football.

Together they are also responsible for stabilizing the joint. You can thank them for keeping your shoulder from popping out of place when you hold a plank or throw a fastball. Because these muscles are in constant use, they can become painful if not trained properly. If you feel pain in one part of your shoulder, or if you hear irregular popping or clicking sounds, your rotator cuffs may need some TLC.

Try these four exercises if your shoulder feels weak or sore.

4 exercises to strengthen and stabilize the rotator cuff

Lateral external rotation

Try this move to warm up for your next chest day. Strengthening the muscles used for external rotation will be beneficial in helping to stabilize the shoulder, especially for movements such as bench presses. It can also help relieve pain you feel in the front of the shoulder by releasing some of the load.

You’ll want to start with a small weight for this one. Think of a 2 or 3 pound barbell. (No, no one will judge you for picking up the small weights.)

How to do that:

  • Start on your side, with the upper arm tucked into the ribcage
  • Bend the elbow to 90 degrees while holding the barbell.
  • Rotate by lifting the wrist toward the ceiling, without letting the elbow slide off the ribcage.
  • Only turn to where it is comfortable.
  • Start with 10 to 12 reps with very light weight. If you get to 10 and it feels good, feel free not to go up more than a pound. Small raises make a big difference with small muscles like this.

Lateral horizontal abduction

This exercise relieves the back of your rotator cuff. Use it to warm up for your next back day, or any exercise where your arm goes into extension, such as bent over rows.

Be prepared with a yoga block or rolled towel and that extra light dumbbell for this one.

How to do that:

  • Start on your side, placing the towel or yoga block under the head to keep the neck neutral.
  • Hold both arms straight out in front of you with a gentle bend at the elbow — just enough to keep the joint from locking.
  • Hold the dumbbell in your top hand.
  • Rotate by lifting the wrist toward the ceiling, without moving past your body.
  • Slowly lower the back to the floor.
  • Aim for 10 to 12 reps for 3 sets on each side.

Swimmer’s exercise

We challenge you to use this as a conclusion to your next shoulder-heavy training day. You take every movement of the rotator cuff with you and also give the back and core some extra challenge.

How to do that:

  • Lie flat on your stomach, with your neck relaxed.
  • Start with your palms on the back of your head and squeeze the shoulder blades together to lift the elbows off the floor.
  • Swing the arms back and down, pronating the palms toward the ceiling by the time they reach the hips.
  • Keep tension on the shoulder blades as you bring the arms back to the head.
  • Aim for 8 to 10 reps for 3 sets.

Striped Scaptions

This move uses resistance to target all four rotator cuff muscles, which can help improve shoulder stability. This is another great move to incorporate into your shoulder day.

In this example we anchor the band with the feet, but we can also do this movement by anchoring with a chair or a bench.

How to do that:

  • Anchor the belt. If you use your feet, start with them close together. (Once you’re done, you can take them apart to add more resistance.)
  • Raise arms at a 45-degree angle to the side, thumbs pointing toward the ceiling.
  • Only lift at eye level.
  • Find a resistance that is easy enough that your shoulders don’t try to struggle up to your ears.
  • Aim for 8 to 12 reps for 3 sets.

Perform all of these moves slowly and steadily, moving only with a comfortable range of motion. Start with light weights – it doesn’t take much to wear out these little muscles. If you feel like you want to increase resistance, do so gradually. If something causes more pain, call your physical therapist or doctor to get it checked.

Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a Certified Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.

4 PT-Approved Rotator Cuff Exercises to Relieve Shoulder Pain

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