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Strengthen Your Rotator Cuff

Strengthen Your Rotator Cuff

The shoulder joint is one of the most important joints in the body. Almost every movement with our arms requires action at the shoulder joint. So, for our athletes and our everyday clients, a strong, stable, and flexible shoulder joint is essential. 

In this article, we provide a basic understanding of the rotator cuff and its function as well as several exercises to help your clients strengthen the muscles of their shoulder joints. 

What is the Rotator Cuff?

The shoulder joint is a ball and socket joint which allows for rotation and movement in many different directions. The rotator cuff is a collection of muscles and tendons that help support this movement and stabilize the shoulder joint. There are four main muscles of the rotator cuff:

  • Teres Minor
  • Supraspinatus
  • Infraspinatus
  • Subscapularis

These four muscles are important for daily living. So, ensuring these muscles are strong helps support quality of life, reduces pain, and helps prevent injury such as a tear or strain. A rotator cuff tear not only means a delay in reaching fitness goals, but treatment can involve surgery and physical therapy.

The rotator cuff muscles are also incredibly important in the world of sport. When an athlete raises their arms to block a pass, throw a pitch, spike a ball, and everything in between, they are using their rotator cuff. Proper range of motion, strength, and stabilization are essential to prevent injury and perform at a high level. 

Keep in mind, if a client already has shoulder pain or a shoulder injury, they should discuss with their doctor before trying stretching or strengthening exercises.

Exercises to Strengthen the Rotator Cuff

There are three main components rotator cuff exercises should include to build a strong, mobile shoulder. We should focus on strength, flexibility, and stabilization:

  • Strengthening the shoulder joint
  • Increasing flexibility in the shoulder joint
  • Stabilizing the shoulder joint

There are a handful of different exercises to help strengthen, stretch, and stabilize the rotator cuff muscles. Here are some of our favorites.

Strengthening the Shoulder Joint Muscles

Try these strengthening exercises with your clients to help prevent an injured rotator cuff.

Lying External Rotation

Have the client begin by lying on one side with their arm resting on top of their side and their elbow bent to 90 degrees. Keeping the upper arm stationary, they will externally rotate at the shoulder joint. This will raise the forearm and then, with control, slowly lower the arm back down into starting position. Make sure to repeat with the opposite arm. And, keep in mind, clients can do this move with or without light resistance. Make sure to have them complete the exercise on both sides of the body for all sets.

External Rotation with Abducted Arm

This exercise is very similar to lying external rotation. The action is the same (external rotation). However, the movement involves standing up with the arm abducted out to the side of the body. This will create a 90-degree angle at the armpit. Keep the elbow bent at 90 degrees. It is important to keep the shoulders back and, just like the lying external rotation, the movement should be slow and controlled and with or without light resistance. Complete repetitions with the opposite arm as well. 

Resistance Band Internal Rotation

This movement is very similar to standing external rotation. But, instead of external rotation, the shoulder is internally rotating. The shoulders should be back, and the elbow bent at 90 degrees and tucked in close to the body. Anchor the resistance around elbow height and away from the body so that when the client holds the opposite end of the anchored band and internally rotates, there is resistance throughout the movement. Again, the movement should be slow and controlled. Complete the exercise with the opposite arm as well. 

Increasing Flexibility of The Shoulder Joint Muscles

Flexibility is just as important as rotator cuff strength. Try these flexibility exercises with your clients:

Doorway Stretch

Have the client lift their arms out to their side, creating a 90-degree angle in their armpit. Have the client bend their elbows so their fingers point up towards the ceiling and their forearms resting on both side of the door frame. With shoulders back, the client will slowly lean their torso forward, creating a stretch in the front of the shoulders and pecs. Hold the stretch for about 30 seconds. 

Straight Arm Stretch

The client will raise one arm and reach across their body. Using the opposite hand, they will press gently on the back of the upper arm, pulling the crossed arm closer into the body. Hold the stretch for about 30 seconds, slowly lower the arm. Repeat on the opposite side of the body. 

Pendulum Swing

The client should stand beside a table about waist high and hinge forward at the hips. They will rest their hand on top the table, letting their opposite hand dangle. They will slowly shift their weight back and forth while allowing their arm to swing freely from side to side. Relax the arm and swing from the momentum of the weight shifting back and forth. Other options include doing small circles or shifting the weight front to back. 

Stabilizing the Shoulder Joint Muscles

Check out these exercises to ensure all muscle groups are working together to stabilize the shoulder:

Turkish Get Up

With your client settled flat on the floor, place a kettlebell near one shoulder. They’ll roll to their side, grab the kettlebell with both hands, and roll onto their back. Legs are at a 45-degree angle to their torso. Left arm extends out to the side at a 45-degree angle. Bend the right knee and place the bottom of the right foot on the ground. Press the right arm (holding the kettlebell) straight in the air with shoulder, elbow, and wrist stacked, shoulder locked and stable. 

Slowly shift the weight to the left side of the body, with much of the weight in the left forearm. Transfer the weight from the forearm to the left hand and begin to press up so the torso lifts off the ground. Both shoulders and arms are stable and create a sideways “T”. 

Begin to raise the hips and pull the left leg in, bending the left knee and bring the left foot behind the body. Press up while rotating the torso and hips to face the same direction as the right foot. This will put the client in a lunge position with their back knee still on the floor. From here, they will continue to hold the kettlebell above their right shoulder and will press up through the feet to a standing position. Again, make sure to repeat on the opposite side. 

Modified Plank

Client will press their forearms into the ground to support the weight of the plank position. Toes are on the ground, spine is neutral, and hips are lifted. Eyes focus on the floor. Shoulders and elbows align and stack on to top of each other in a straight line with the shoulders. While pressing into the ground with the forearms, have your client focus on protracting their shoulder blades. They’ll hold the position for 20-30 seconds. 

If you are looking for some additional ways to help your clients prevent rotator cuff injury, check out this article.


A strong rotator cuff is essential for everyone. It is important to not forget about the smaller supporting muscles that supply so much functionality for our daily movements. Focusing on strength, flexibility and stability is the key to building a strong and functional rotator cuff.

Are you interested in helping your clients prevent muscle-related pain, improve range of motion, and improve quality of life? If so, check out ISSA’s Corrective Exercise Course!