7 Unique Rotator Cuff Strengthening Exercises for Solid Shoulders

Gain Shoulder Strength, Stability and Mobility

By Coach E

7 Unique Rotator Cuff Strengthening Exercises for Solid Shoulders

Don’t wait until a painful injury knocks you out to worry about your shoulder health. These rotator cuff strengthening exercises will build strong, stable and mobile shoulders – helping you stay active and pain-free.

An injured rotator cuff is painful, frustrating, and, unfortunately, very common. So common that rotator cuff issues sent 2 million people in the US to see a doctor in 2013 [1].

But what if many of those visits could have been avoided with a little preventative self-care?

And what if some of the patients who endured months of rehab could have sped things up and got back into the gym faster by incorporating some simple moves?

I think this is more than likely the case. Luckily, I’ve got 7 creative and powerful rotator cuff strengthening exercises that can greatly improve the health of your shoulders.

That goes for folks just trying to stay mobile, active and healthy, AND those recovering from a nagging shoulder injury.

So let’s get into it. First, let’s take a look inside your shoulder to better understand the factors that contribute to injury.

Rotator Cuff Anatomy

Your rotator cuff consists of 4 separate muscles – the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis – all of which run from your scapula to the head, or upper region, of your humerus.

Where the muscles attach to your humerus, their tendons come together and form a sort of casing around the humeral head [2].

 rotator cuff strengthening exercises - rotator cuff

Your supraspinatus originates on the scapula’s supraspinous fossa – a depression above the spine that runs along the posterior side of your scap. It attaches to your humerus’ greater tuberosity and plays a big role is arm and shoulder abduction (2).

 rotator cuff strengthening exercises - rotator cuff muscles

Image by physioworks.com.au

Your infraspinatus connects the infraspinous fossa (below the spine) of your scap to the humeral greater tuberosity. It is key to external rotation.

Your teres minor runs from the lateral edge of your scapula to the greater tuberosity on your humerus, and also plays a major role in external rotation.

Lastly, your subscapularis originates on the underside of your scapula, the subscapular fossa, which lies deep to the shoulder blade. It inserts at the lesser tuberosity on the anterior side of the humerus, and helps create internal rotation.

Beyond Rotation

We’ve touched on a few of the biomechanical functions of your rotator cuff muscles, including those that come straight to mind based on the name of this group – rotation.

Yes, these muscles do provide external and internal rotation to your shoulder joint. They also help in other arm and shoulder movements, like abduction and flexion [3]

However, the KEY role of these muscles as a group is DYNAMIC stabilization of the humeral head.

What does this mean?

Well, where your humeral head comes together with a slight cavity on the lateral edge of your scapula (the glenoid cavity), it creates a very shallow ball-and-socket joint.

This super shallow joint means your shoulder is highly MOBILE. But, it also means your shoulder is highly UNSTABLE.

It requires stabilizing forces to allow for mobility while protecting from injury. That’s where the rotator cuff comes in.

Your rotator cuff muscles are responsible for keeping the head of your humerus securely within the shallow socket of the shoulder joint as it moves throughout a wide range of motion [4]. THIS is their primary function.

How Do Injuries Occur?

It’s clear that the rotator cuff is crucial to how we live, move and stay active. And for most folks, rotator cuff injuries (usually strains and tears) occur with activity, in the form of overuse injuries.

The injuries typically begin with fraying in your rotator cuff tendons, which can eventually progress to partial or full tears [5].

This fraying typically comes from repetitive shoulder movements that cause repetitive stress.

Athletes who participate in sports like tennis, rowing, weightlifting and baseball are common victims of rotator cuff injuries.

rotator cuff strengthening exercises rowing-boat

Just think about the repetitive shoulder motions required when rowing, for example. That’s miles of rep after rep, each requiring a ton of shoulder motion.

But it’s not just what you do in the gym, on the water, or on the court that can contribute to rotator cuff injuries. For some folks, it’s repetitive stress from motions in their everyday life that lead to injury.

Like, perhaps, you do a lot of painting, maybe for your job or otherwise – that extended time in an overhead position could increase the risk of injury.

And regardless of what movements may be contributing, a lack of blood supply that can come with aging can also make rotator cuff injuries more likely [6].

Rotator Cuff Strengthening Exercises

If you’ve ever been diagnosed with a rotator cuff injury and you went to physio to rehab it, chances are you were given a handout that might’ve looked like this:

 rotator cuff strengthening exercises - rehab handout

While these are useful in the early stages of rehabbing a rotator cuff strain or later stages of a Grade 3 tear, you need to do more if you want to get back to a sport or for training hard in the gym.

Most people are missing the bridge between rehab and performance and that’s what the unique rotator cuff exercises you’re going to discover today are all about.

They’re just as important for injury prevention, especially if you like to push yourself because there’s nothing worse in the way to achieving fitness goals than getting hurt.

So let’s get into the rotator cuff strengthening exercises so you can start building healthier shoulders.

The Lasso

This move incorporates Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) techniques as it moves your rotator cuff muscles through rhythmic contract-relax phases.

By utilizing this move, you’ll not only improve your shoulder’s capabilities for rhythmic stabilization, you’ll also improve your ability to maintain good posture.
rotator cuff strengthening exercises - the lasso

  • Tie a rope around a ring or wrap a tennis ball in a hand towel and tie a string or rope securely around it
  • Grip the rope about a foot and a half back from the ring or ball
  • Stand in a neutral position with shoulders back
  • Keep your right elbow in by your body as you start to swing the rope in a clockwise direction
  • Swing the rope to make circles in front of your body, focusing on using your shoulder to swing
  • Swing for 30-60 seconds
  • Switch to swing with the left arm for 30-60 seconds (swinging counter-clockwise now)

Twisting Wall Press

This drill is great for developing good control and stability in the shoulders, while also opening the chest and the thoracic spine. It will work your rotator cuff muscles at their end range, with the shoulder abducted horizontally.

As you perform this move, try to keep your hips square the entire time. This will help improve your rotational mobility through both the hips and the spine.
rotator cuff strengthening exercises - Twisting Wall Press

  • Stand facing away from a wall with feet shoulder width apart
  • Rotate to the right and place your right hand flat on the wall
  • Bend into your elbow as you lean toward the wall
  • Press into the wall to re-straighten your arm and return to the starting position
  • Repeat on the opposite side, rotating toward the left
  • Complete 4-8 reps per side

Side Support Shoulder Sweep

The Side Support Shoulder Sweep accomplishes a lot at once. It will work dynamic stability in your supporting arm while building strength in your moving arm.

What’s more, it will be building strength in that moving arm as it executes dynamic motion through the horizontal abduction. This is great for both functional strength and mobility.
rotator cuff strengthening exercises - Side Support Shoulder Sweep

  • Come into a side plank position with your right hand on the ground and your feet either staggered or stacked
  • Grab a dumbbell with your left hand
  • Retract your right shoulder and keep your body stable and still as you sweep your left arm to lift the dumbbell up and over your shoulder
  • Lower back to the starting position, staying still through the torso, and repeat
  • Complete 6-12 reps per side

Supine External Rotation

This simple bodyweight move is aimed at helping you focus on and improve your alignment.

If your positioning, posture or alignment is off as you work on your shoulders, you may end up doing more harm than good in the long run.

But this supine external rotation will help you key in on and solidify proper alignment in the shoulders.
rotator cuff strengthening exercises - Supine External Rotation

  • Lay supine with elbows bent, upper arms pressing into the ground and fingers pointing up
  • Retract the scapulae, pinching them together
  • Externally rotate to bring the backs of your hands back and down toward the ground
  • Once you reach the ground, press your forearms into the floor for 3-5 seconds
  • Return to the starting position and repeat, keeping scaps retracted
  • Complete 6-10 reps

KB Bottoms Up Press

The KB Bottoms Up Press is a great strength builder – not only for your shoulders, but for your grip as well.

The drill also works dynamic stability under a load, working to improve that crucial function of the rotator cuff – shoulder stability.
rotator cuff strengthening exercises - KB Bottoms Up Press

  • Grab a kettlebell with your right arm
  • Bend your right elbow so the kettlebell is right by your shoulder
  • The kettlebell should be in a “bottoms up position” as you hold on to the handle
  • Press the kettlebell up overhead, and return back to the starting position
  • Move slowly and with control throughout the exercise
  • Complete 6-12 reps per side

Shoulder PNF

This drill also utilizes PNF techniques to help your shoulder not only work through a FULL range of motion, but to develop CONTROL throughout that range.

This move has a scouring effect on the joint, helping to increase mobility and reduce discomfort and tension.
rotator cuff strengthening exercises - Shoulder PNF

  • Reach your right arm in front of and across your body, palm up
  • Keep arm straight as you continue to sweep it up and over your face
  • As you’re reaching up by your ear, internally rotate your arm and reach behind yourself
  • Externally rotate so that your palm is facing up as you return to your starting position and begin again
  • Complete 3-5 reps

Cuban Rotation

This last technique is another strength-builder.

It will help you build up strength in your rotator cuff muscles, thus allowing for more power behind your movements and behind stabilization efforts, as well.

Plus, the Cuban rotation will work proper scapular alignment, helping you improve your posture and reducing injury risk.
rotator cuff strengthening exercises - Cuban Rotation

  • Hold a barbell in front of you with both hands
  • Abduct the shoulders and bend at the elbows to bring the bar up slightly
  • Keep the scapulae set and avoid downwardly rotating the shoulders
  • From here, rotate through the shoulders to bring the bar up near your forehead
  • Lower down, moving with control throughout the range
  • Repeat, completing 8-12 reps

Whether you’re recovering from a persistent rotator cuff injury that’s just not improving as you’d like, or if you’re hoping to prevent being taken out by shoulder problems, these moves will help tackle shoulder health from every angle.

These 7 rotator cuff strengthening exercises will improve shoulder mobility while simultaneously improving the muscle’s key function of dynamic stabilization AND building strength.

Stick with them and before long, you should start to see a difference in how your shoulders move, feel and function.

About the Author

Eric Wong (aka Coach E) is the founder of Precision Movement and has a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. He's been a coach since 2005 and spent his early career training combat athletes including multiple UFC fighters and professional boxers. He now dedicates himself to helping active people eliminate pain and improve mobility. He lives in Toronto (Go Leafs Go!) with his wife and two kids and drinks black coffee at work and IPAs at play. Click here to learn more about Eric.