Shoulder pain can be a game stopper. Any injury that affects your ability to lift, reach, or carry is going to be a sharp reminder of how often you need to do those things. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a professional athlete, a homemaker, or a factory worker—a bum shoulder can cause you some serious trouble.
Fortunately, many shoulder issues can be resolved with an appropriate combination of rest and rotator cuff exercises.
What’s a Rotator Cuff?
The shoulder is a complicated joint involving a variety of bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. The four major muscles that help control and stabilize the shoulder are known together as the rotator cuff. These muscles are the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis.
Preventing Rotator Cuff Injury
Damage to the rotator cuff can occur due to a number of contributing factors, including trauma, overuse, and misuse. The best preventative measure you can take is to condition these muscles through regular strengthening and flexibility work. (You’ll find that rehabilitating your rotator cuff will involve similar exercises, but it’s always best to prevent the problem from happening in the first place.)
While it’s important to keep the rotator cuff muscles strong in order to keep the shoulder healthy, these aren’t the type of muscles you want to bulk up and make large like a bodybuilder. Instead, you should focus on functional endurance. That means doing more repetitions with lighter resistance, rather than few repetitions with heavy resistance.
It’s also important to do these exercises with proper form, because it’s repetitive motions with poor form that often get our shoulders into trouble in the first place. So if you feel pain with any of these exercises, back off. And if you’re unsure about how any of them should be performed, it’s best to seek instruction from someone who knows, such as a physical therapist.
9 Rotator Cuff Exercises for Strength and Flexibility
Preventing shoulder injury by strengthening the rotator cuff doesn’t require a gym membership or fancy equipment. You can easily perform any of these rotator cuff stretches and shoulder exercises at home.
This is a relaxing, loosening, warm-up exercise or stretch. You can perform these either with or without weight. If you’re injured, start with no weight or very light weight, then add weight as your recovery progresses. Lean forward and support yourself partially on something sturdy with one arm while the other—the arm you plan to exercise—hangs free. Gently rock your body side to side, front to back, or in a circular motion so that the dangling arms swings like a pendulum.
Isometric Internal Rotation
With isometric exercises, you contract the muscles without actually moving the limb or using the joint that the muscle controls. This is a good way to strengthen the muscles without aggravating an existing injury. This can be especially useful post-surgery during the initial stages of recovery. For the internal rotation exercises, hold your arm at your side with your elbow at 90 degrees, so that your forearm points forward. With the internal rotation, you would normally turn your forearm in toward your belly while keeping your elbow at your side. During an isometric exercise, however, you want to put resistance on your muscles without actually moving your arm. You can do this by either pushing your hands together or standing so that you press your hand against an immovable object such as a door jamb.
Isometric External Rotation
The concept is similar to isometric internal rotation, except in this case the rotation is outward instead of inward. Begin in the same position, with your elbow at your side and your arm bent 90 degrees. Now try to move your hand outward, away from your body, but prevent yourself from doing so either by holding your hand with your other hand or blocking the motion with a wall or door jamb.
If you’re not experiencing pain from the rotation exercise, and you’re not taking injury or post-surgery precautions, you can move on from isometric exercises to full-motion rotation. For resistance, you can either use resistance tubing anchored to a wall or door, or you can lie on your side and hold a dumbbell or other weight in your hand. For internal rotation, you want the resistance when you turn your forearm in toward your body. Remember to keep your elbow at your side. You might find it helpful to place a folded towel between your elbow and your torso.
As with internal rotations, you can perform these either standing with resistance tubing or lying down with a dumbbell. You’ll want the resistance coming from the opposite side, though, so that you feel it as you turn your forearm away from your body.
This is a simple exercise that’s harder than it looks. It’s a good warm-up and flexibility exercise for the shoulder that requires you to focus on proper form. Stand so that your head, upper back, and tailbone are all touching the wall. Bend your elbows and bring your arms back so that they are against the wall in a W shape. While keeping all points of contact against the wall (including your elbows and the backs of your hands), slowly slide your arms up and overhead. Then slowly bring them back down back into that W position. Repeat for up to a minute.
Serratus Scoop (aka Bear Hug)
Use resistance bands either anchored to the wall behind you or wrapped around your back. While holding the band in each hand with your thumbs upward, stretch out to the side then around and forward, as if you were giving a bear hug. Repeat to complete a set.
Begin this exercise with a similar setup as the Serratus Scoop, but in this case keep your arms stretched out in front of you. All the motion here comes from your shoulder blades as you move them forward then relax them back.
You can perform inverted rows by lying on your back and pulling yourself up to a stable bar (like a reverse push-up) or you can perform rows seated or standing with resistance tubing anchored to a wall or door ahead of you or wrapped around your feet. Hold the tubing in each hand, pull back to bring your elbows to your sides while squeezing your shoulder blades.