Your rotator cuff is a group of muscles that stabilizes your shoulder and moves your upper arm (humerus).
In this article, you will learn about the anatomy and function of the rotator cuff, as well as exercises to strengthen it. In the end, we’ll put it all together into a rotator cuff workout.
Rotator Cuff Anatomy
Your rotator cuff consists of four muscles. Each one originates from your shoulder blade (scapula) and inserts on your humeral head (the head of your upper arm, humerus).
The four muscles and their location are:
- Supraspinatus sits high on the back of your shoulder blade, above the spine of your shoulder blade, hence its name. It inserts high on your humeral head.
- Infraspinatus sits below the spine of your shoulder blade and inserts on the back of your humeral head.
- Teres minor sits below infraspinatus, on the back of your shoulder blade, and inserts slightly further down your humeral head.
- Subscapularis is, unlike the other three muscles, not located on the back of your shoulder blade, but on the front, in the space between your shoulder blade and your ribs. It inserts on the front of your humeral head.
Together, these muscles are known as the rotator cuff.
One of the most important functions of your rotator cuff is to act as an anchor and hold the head of your humerus in place while you are exerting high forces with your pecs, lats, or deltoids.
Pressing (such as the bench press and overhead press) and pulling movements (such as pull-ups and rows) all work this function of the rotator cuff.
When You Push, Your Rotator Cuff Pulls
Your rotator cuffs are very active in upper body pushing and pulling exercises, but maybe not in the way you think.1 2
- When you’re bench pressing, your chest muscles pull your humerus forward. In order to stop your humerus from being pulled out of its shoulder socket, the posterior rotator cuff muscles pull your humeral head back to keep it in place.
- When you’re rowing, your lats pull your humerus back. Hence, your anterior rotator cuff muscle (subscapularis) pull your humeral head forward to keep it in place.
Your rotator cuff acts as an anchor for your humeral head, activating reciprocally to the large, strong muscles of your chest, shoulders, and lats. When you push, your rotator cuff pulls.
In addition to working like shoulder stabilizing anchors, your rotator cuff muscles have additional functions.
- Supraspinatus, with its high origin and insertion, abducts your arm (=lifts it out to your side).
- Infraspinatus adducts and externally rotates your arm.
- Teres minor, similar to infraspinatus, adducts and externally rotates your arm.
- Subscapularis adducts and internally rotates your arm.
Rotator Cuff Exercises and Training
Building on what we just covered: how do you train your rotator cuffs?
Well, how you should train your rotator cuffs depends on your current status, and also your goals.
- The strength or physique athlete that already train his or her shoulders plenty using different pushing and pulling exercises, likely do not need any specific rotator cuff training at all. If they are pain-free and maintain good technique and shoulder stability in their upper body training, their current training is probably well and enough to maintain or increase the size and strength of their rotator cuffs.
- The injured athlete that is rehabbing a shoulder injury might need a different approach, combining both simple rotational exercises for the rotator cuff, with more complex compound movements that will retrain the rotator cuffs’ strength and coordination for their shoulder stabilizing work.
Below, we will outline five different exercises that train your rotator cuffs. They range from more complex compound exercises, to simpler isolation exercises.
This is also a sensible way to incorporate rotator cuff training into your workouts.
Don’t begin your workouts by tiring out your rotator cuffs with isolating exercises during your “warm-up”. That might cause them to fail later in the workout during your heavier exercises, which are likely more demanding in terms of shoulder coordination and balance. That might in turn increase your shoulder injury risk, instead of lowering it.
Instead, follow the same principle as in all strength training: lead with the more complex compound movements, and finish with simpler isolation exercises.
The exercises below are chosen because they are often easy to do at home, since the need for equipment is low, at least if you are doing them for rehab. Being able to do the exercises at home is an advantage when you are rehabbing an injury, since you usually want to train light but often initially.
Initially, you can use filled water bottles for weights. Or, light dumbbells or an elastic band, both of which are cheap. Then, as you progress, you can move on to slightly heavier weights, eventually progressing all the way back into doing regular compound exercises like pressing and pulling again.
1. Overhead Press
The overhead press might seem like an aggressive exercise for your rotator cuffs, but consider these two points:
- You can regress the difficulty of the overhead press all the way back to using no weight at all initially, and just try to increase your currently available range of motion.
- The overhead press will train your rotator cuffs’ stabilizing function in a natural movement pattern, getting you ready for the real world again.
No matter if you are using a barbell, kettlebell, dumbbell, or no weight at all initially, overhead pressing is great for increasing your shoulder strength, mobility, and function.
If you are rehabbing your shoulders at home, a progression for this exercise might be that you initially do the exercise with no weight at all, then move on to pressing bottles filled with water, and then move on to press gradually heavier dumbbells.
2. Inverted Row
The overhead press worked your posterior rotator cuff muscles in a pushing exercise, and now the inverted row will work your anterior rotator cuff in a pulling exercise.
The inverted row is chosen for its stability, and because it too is often possible to do at home. You can hang under a sturdy table, hang from a broom stick laid over two sturdy chairs, or maybe hang some kind of straps or gymnastic rings from your ceiling.
If you are unable to train inverted rows or want to start out even lighter, you could substitute this exercise with dumbbell rows, or any other rowing variant. A harder substitute, for when you are further along in your strength training, would be pull-ups.
3. Dumbbell Lateral Raise
You’ve trained pressing and pulling, and now you’ll train abduction with the dumbbell lateral raise. This exercise will train your rotator cuffs’ strength and function in yet another way compared to the previous two exercises: your supraspinatus will aid in abducting your arm, while the lower rotator cuff muscles will hold your humeral head down against the pull of your deltoids.
This exercise can also be regressed all the way back to doing it without weights at all. The next step might be to use filled water bottles, and finally, you might progress to using light dumbbells.
4. External Shoulder Rotation
Allright, let’s wrap up with some “isolating” rotator cuff exercises! These last two exercises won’t train your rotator cuffs stabilizing function as much, but rather their rotational function.
External shoulder rotations can be trained with an elastic band (like above), a cable pulley, or a dumbbell. The important thing to note is that you should keep your upper arm steady against your side, and make sure that you are rotating your arm against the direction of resistance. That means, that if you are using a dumbbell, you should be lying down on your side in order to work in the right direction. In that case, filled water bottles can once again function as light homemade resistance initially.
- Lying Dumbbell External Shoulder Rotation
- Dumbbell Horizontal External Shoulder Rotation
- Cable External Shoulder Rotation
5. Internal Shoulder Rotation
These internal shoulder rotations will work the other side of your rotator cuff, namely the subscapularis on the front of your shoulder blade.
Once again, you can choose between a band, cable, or dumbbell (if you’re lying down). Make sure to keep your upper arm snug against your side, and focus on only rotating your upper arm.
- Lying Dumbbell Internal Shoulder Rotation
- Dumbbell Horizontal Internal Shoulder Rotation
- Cable Internal Shoulder Rotation
Rotator Cuff Workout
So what does an effective rotator cuff workout look like?
Building on the exercises above, let’s construct an example workout, drawing on several principles:
- Based on your weight selection, you can adapt this workout all the way from acute rehab to heavy strength training.
- The workout begins with the most complex and technically challenging exercises first. Train the most demanding exercises while your head and rotator cuff muscles are still fresh, and finish up with the isolation work.
- The exercises focus on both functional stabilization in common movement patterns, as well as isolating the rotator cuff’s torque producing functions.
- You can do this workout from home if you are currently rehabbing a shoulder injury, as the exercises might be challenging enough already with very light weights.
Let’s have a look at the workout, and then go through why it looks like it does.
StrengthLog’s Rotator Cuff Workout
- Overhead Press: 3 sets x 5–10 reps
- Inverted Row: 3 sets x 5–10 reps
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 sets x 10 reps
- External Shoulder Rotation: 3 sets x 10 reps
- Internal Shoulder Rotation: 3 sets x 10 reps
This rotator cuff workout begins with two compound movements: the overhead press and the inverted row. These will challenge your rotator cuffs’ shoulder stabilizing function, and their coordination in working with your other large shoulder muscles.
Do these exercises with control, and maintain a good technique. Make sure that your shoulder feels stable and centered.
If you are currently rehabbing an injury or trying to regain function in your shoulders, you might begin with very light weight in these exercises (perhaps substituting the inverted row with dumbbell row), and try to progress weekly from there. The point is to regularly increase the weight you can lift while maintaining good technique.
Then, you’ll move on to the dumbbell lateral raise, which doesn’t involve quite as many muscle groups, but still train the coordination of your shoulder muscles. In this case, your rotator cuff resists the pull of your deltoid when it is pulling your arm upwards.
Finally, you’ll finish off with two exercises that almost isolate the rotator cuff’s internal and external rotators. You can train internal and external shoulder rotations with bands, cables, dumbbells, or other tools. Make sure to do these exercises at the end of your workout, after your heavy shoulder training is done. That way, you don’t run the risk of tiring out your rotator cuffs before your more demanding exercises, which could make them unable to stabilize your shoulder properly, and thus increase your injury risk instead of lowering it.
Begin your workout with the more complex compound exercises, and move towards simpler exercises as you get tired.
And that’s it! Hopefully, by now you have a good grasp of your rotator cuff anatomy, what some effective rotator cuff exercises are, and how you can combine them into a workout that will develop strong and resilient shoulders.
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