5 Best Subscapularis Exercises for Rotator Cuff Rehab

Plus 2 Major Mistakes to Avoid for Shoulder Pain Relief

By Coach E

5 Best Subscapularis Exercises for Rotator Cuff Rehab

In this article you’ll learn five subscapularis exercises to decrease pain, increase strength, and improve your range of motion in general or for rotator cuff rehab.

The subscapularis muscle is the most neglected rotator cuff muscle that needs just as much attention as the other three. Unfortunately, when it is targeted, there are two common mistakes that lead to poor results.

Today, we’re going to go a little bit into the background and our approach as to why we choose the exercises that we do. We will get into a little bit of the why behind the what but don’t worry, this won’t make you think that you’re diving into a medical textbook.

As always, if you want a video to follow along with, head over to YouTube for Is Your Rotator Cuff Rehab Missing These 5 SUBSCAPULARIS Exercises?

Anatomy of the Subscapularis

The subscapularis is the only rotator muscle controlling internal rotation. It’s a muscle that’s often neglected. When it is trained, it’s trained without a couple of really, really important cues to get it working effectively.

The subscapularis is part of what’s known as the rotator cuff group of muscles. That’s the subscapularis, the supraspinatus, the infraspinatus, and the teres minor.

Because of the name rotator cuff, you may think that all the muscles do is rotate the arm towards the body (internally), or away from the body (externally). In reality, the rotator cuff has the most important job of keeping the ball of the shoulder perfectly centered on the socket where ever your arm is positioned in space.

subscapularis anatomy

The rotator cuff is more important for dynamic stability of the head of the humerus and of the shoulder joint. It keeps the head of the humerus centered in the socket as you move around. When you lose that centration, you run into problems like impingement, rotator cuff tendonitis, and all of the different shoulder pathologies that you can be diagnosed with.

Now, the subscapularis itself is the biggest rotator cuff muscle. That’s important. If it’s big, it probably needs to be doing something and needs to be trained, just like the others. Plus, it’s the only one that does internal rotation of the shoulder. So it’s the only one that provides stability in that motion.

rotator cuff anatomy

Now, with respect to other internal rotators and synergists  of the subscapularis, you’re looking at the pec major, which is a very strong muscle in a lot of people (especially those who are raised on a diet heavy in bench press when there were kids, like me.)

There’s also the teres major, another muscle that likes to work, and is another superficial muscle like the pec major. Finally, to a lesser extent, the anterior deltoid.

So that’s a really quick rundown of the anatomy of the shoulder and the subscapularis.

Two Big Mistakes

But before we get into the exercises, you should know about the two big mistakes that I see all the time.

The number one is that when people think of the rotator cuff and the subscapularis, they immediately go to internal rotation. They think, “Okay, we’re gonna train those exercises that mimic the movement that you’d see in sport, like throwing a fastball or a serve in tennis.” The common thought is to focus on just about any exercise where the shoulder does internal rotation.

However, as I mentioned already, the subscapularis and the rotator cuff as a whole must provide stability throughout the range of motion to maintain centration of the head of the humerus in the joint as opposed to providing internal rotation force.

The second big mistake that I found with subscapularis rehab strategies and exercises that I’ve seen elsewhere is that there’s little to no mention of the importance of posterior tilt of the scapula.

The scapula is right here.

posterior scapular tilt

Posterior tilt means if there were a glass of water balanced on the top of your scapula, it would spill down your back.

With posterior tilt, there should be concurrent activation of the serratus anterior muscle. The serratus anterior with posterior tilt of the scapula provides stability to the scapula so that the other muscles that are attached to the scapula have a stable foundation from which to work.

serratus anterior muscle

If the scapula is not stable, you’re not going to get the most out of any rotator cuff exercises that you do, neither in internal nor external rotation.

To illustrate this phenomenon, I found a really great article on post-surgical rehab in The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. In this article, they provide a multi-phase approach from immediate post-surgery to return to sport. [1]

Despite the fact that this is a peer reviewed published article on shoulder rehabilitation, there’s only one mention of the serratus anterior muscle and no mention of the movement of posterior tilt.

We want to emphasize the importance of this scapular motion, we all must be able to control the posterior tilt and stability of the scapula using the serratus anterior for all rotator cuff training that you do.

Subscapularis Exercises

Now, we’re going to get into the exercises to get your subscapularis strong and functioning properly.

I’m going to talk about my approach as we go so you understand why each exercise has been chosen.

Exercise 1: Pec Major Stretch

First up, we’re going to do the wall pec stretch.

If you’ve been reading our articles or following our YouTube channel for a while, you know that we’re not big on stretching. However, I usually say there’s a time and place for it. In this case, it’s beneficial because we’re not going to stretch the subscapularis. We’re going to stretch the pectoralis major, which is a synergist for the subscapularis in terms of internal rotation.

We’re going to stretch it so we can shut it off. That way, when we get to the exercises, it’s not overworking and dominating, allowing the subscapularis to do its thing.

For this, we’re just going to lift the arm up on a wall and put your hand on the wall at about shoulder level or just above shoulder level, depending on how your shoulder is feeling right now (if you are too sore or stiff, just go as high as you can comfortably).

pec stretch - subcapularis exercise

  1. Stand with one side toward a wall
  2. Place the palm of your hand, pointing backward, on the wall
  3. Push your shoulder forward to feel the pec stretch
  4. Take deep, slow breaths and hold for 30-60 seconds
  5. Switch sides

Do 2 reps per side.

Your goal is to stretch out the pec major. Once you feel that stretch, you can typically be a little bit aggressive with it because it’s very strong once you’re in that position, take deep, slow breaths. You’re going to inhale and expand that rib cage, which is going to give you a little more stretch, and then slowly exhale, which is going to help you relax and deepen the stretch.

Again, this is not stretching the subscapularis. It’s stretching one of the synergists, the pec major.

Exercise 2: Active Self-Myofascial Release – Teres Major

Next up, we’re going to do some active self-myofascial release for the teres major.

For this, you’ll need a massage ball. You can use a lacrosse ball, tennis ball, or other fairly hard ball of that size. Place it right below and a few inches behind your armpit.

It’s another synergist. It controls internal rotation. If we can shut that off when we do exercises that do internal rotation, we can hope that the subscapularis is the one that’s doing most of it.

For this exercise, place the ball on the teres major and lean into the wall. It can be very tender, especially if you do a lot of pull-ups and chin-ups.

asmr teres major - rotator cuff exercise

  1. Place the ball on the teres major and lean on it into a wall
  2. Start with your arm on the wall and then just roll horizontally as you flex the shoulder
  3. Reset, get the arm on the wall in a slightly different position, then roll and rotate away from the wall as you horizontally extend or flex the shoulder.

Do 1 minute per side.

It’s not a huge muscle, so you don’t need to spend too much time on it to cover the whole area.

Make sure you’re relaxed, breathing, and the muscle is not contracted. Otherwise, you’re not going to be able to release it.

That’s how to release the teres major and improve the tissue quality. Again, that’s going to shut it off so that we can get the subscapularis working.

Exercise 3: 3-Way Subscapularis Isometric

Now, we’re going to get your subscapularis working with the 3-Way Subscapularis Isometric.

3-Way Subscapularis ISOs - subscapularis exercise

The first way we’re going to do it is with the hand on the belly. It allows us to get good subscapular activation in a position that’s very safe for the shoulder. It’s a neutral position. So if you’ve got pain or a suspected injury, this is an exercise that you would start off with because it’s very, very safe.

Belly Position

  1. Place your hand on your belly
  2. Activate your serratus anterior
  3. Ramp up activation of the subscapularis, keeping your shoulder in place
  4. Hold for 5 – 10 seconds
  5. Ramp down the activation

Repeat for 2 – 4 reps with 5 – 10 second holds.

Reset with good spine posture, good shoulder position, and good scapular position. Get that serratus anterior on first, then press into the hand or belly. If you need to, you can just shake it out in between.

Remember, the key is proper alignment of the scapula with a little bit of posterior tilt to get that serratus anterior activated again.

If you don’t know how to do that, or your serratus anterior is very weak, or you just don’t know how to connect to it, check out this article on strengthening your serratus anterior because that’s what you need first before getting subscapularis exercises.

Getting in good posture and through the spine and a little bit of posterior tilt of the scapula. Ramp up the activation, keeping the shoulder where it is — slightly back.

If you’re good in this position, try the next one.

Hand on Shoulder Position

In this next position, you want to get the arm on the shoulder, elbow pointing in front of you, and arm parallel to the ground.

Arms up, and all I’m doing is the same thing.

  1. Get into position with your hand on your shoulder
  2. Press down on your shoulder with good alignment with a bit of posterior tilt
  3. Hold for 5 – 10 seconds, breathing naturally
  4. Ramp it down, relax the shoulder, relax the arm

Repeat for 2 – 4 reps with 5 – 10 second holds.

Reset your alignment (posterior tilt of the scapula) with your shoulders pulled back. You can think of sucking the arm into the shoulder joint here a little bit.

When you ramp up the activation, don’t go from 0 to 100 in an instant, just ramp it up gradually to the safest level you can hold it. Hold it there naturally, maintaining your posture and your positioning. Then you ramp it down.

That’s the second position.

Hand Behind Back Position

The third position is the hardest position. It’s with your hand behind your back.

You’ll put your hand and the small of the back (your lumbar spine area.) This is the toughest position because, a lot of times, the shoulder can lack internal rotation, especially on your dominant side.

If you play a sport like tennis or that involves throwing, you can lack internal rotation here. You might not even want to do this. Stick with the other two positions until your range increases.

But if you can do it, the key is you have to have good shoulder positioning and posterior tilt of the scapula. …so that the serratus anterior is activated.

You’ll know if your shoulder blade is just winging off of your rib cage. If there’s a lot of space between your shoulder blade and your rib cage, then this might not be the position for you. But if you can keep that shoulder blade relatively flush with the rib cage, then you can do this. Keep the shoulder back.

If you’re looking like the image below, don’t do it.

scapular winging

If your shoulder position looks like the picture below, go ahead.

good posture

The exercise is lifting the hand off of the low back. I’m just rotating it up so I’ve got some space between my hand and my low back, maintaining that posture, not hiking the shoulder up, keeping the shoulder down in good positioning with that posterior tilt of the scapula.

  1. Stand tall with posterior scapular tilt and the back of your hand on your lower back
  2. Lift your hand away from your back
  3. Hold for 5 – 10 seconds
  4. Ramp it down and relax the arm

Repeat that for 2 – 4 reps.

What you could do is start with just the belly. Do 1 – 2 sessions of that. Then you can add in the shoulder one. Do 2 sessions. Then you could add in the low back, and you could cycle through all three. So in one set, you could do belly 5 – 10 seconds, shoulder 5 – 10 seconds, lower back 5 – 10 seconds, and that’s one cycle.

Instead of doing reps, you’re doing cycles of the three positions. Still do 2 – 4 cycles, that way, you’re going to build your endurance in these different positions. Soon you’ll have a subscap that can work wherever you’re going to put your arm.

Exercise 4: Shoulder Circle w/ 90 Degrees Elbow Flexion

The fourth exercise is one that I’ve come up with to start training the alignment and dynamic stabilization function of the rotator cuff. This is the Shoulder Circle with 90 degrees of Elbow Flexion.

So your elbow is in the 90-degree position.

I like to start this off by laying on the ground because that gives you good feedback on your scapular positioning. You can feel it. You get that posterior tilt. Keep the shoulder down towards the floor so it’s not rounded forward off the floor. Once you feel your shoulder blade in a good position, we do the exercise from here.

shoulder circles exercise

  1. Laying on the ground, bend your elbow at 90°
  2. Starting with your hand over your belly, circle your arm slow in one direction
  3. Do 3 – 5 circles
  4. Switch directions, doing another 3 – 5 circles

Do 2 – 3 sets of 3 – 5 circles per direction.

What you’re going to do is go from that belly position and circle in one direction first, maintaining scapular positioning – that’s the most important point here.

Picture drawing a circle with your elbow. If you’ve got a crayon on your elbow and you’re drawing a big circle going nice and slow and under control, maintaining the positioning of the shoulder joint, that’s the key here.

We’re training that rotator cuff in its most important function, which is dynamic stabilization. You can go in both directions.

Do 3 – 5 circles in one direction and then 3 – 5 circles in the other. You might find one harder than the other, so go nice and slow and work that stabilization function.

The key is understanding where your shoulder is supposed to be and then maintaining that positioning throughout the exercise.

When you’re ready to progress, we can actually add load. The additional resistance will strengthen the muscles through this movement pattern, which is basically taking the shoulder through a pretty wide range of motion.

Add load through a resistance band. Set up the band around two feet above the ground. That will target the subscapularis because we’re resisting external rotation. The internal rotators (the subscap) have to work. We could also use a dumbbell, and that’s going to train us when our shoulder is in external rotation.

We can do both if you want to get really fancy. That way, you’re going to get the subscap working when the arm and the shoulder are in external rotation and internal rotation. That way, you’ll develop strength through the full range.

So that’s the shoulder circle. Progress up from the unloaded to at least one of the loaded variations.

Exercise 5: Push-Up Plus

Finally, a good exercise for integrating the subscap into a compound movement pattern is the push-up plus exercise.

Now the push-up plus is often talked about for serratus anterior, but it’s also good for getting the subscapularis.

There’s just a couple of things first.

The push-up plus is basically a push-up, just at the top, you ensure you get full protraction of the scapula. So you’re pushing yourself away from the floor, and your shoulder blades are moving away from each other at the top.

As you go down, your shoulder blades come closer together. Up, apart. Down, together.

One thing that you can do with this to increase the subscap activation is to focus on the internal rotation of your hands. So if you look down at your hands, they’re going to rotate internally. We’re going to rotate in towards each other. They’re not going to move, but that’s the force, and that’s the activation pattern that you’re using throughout the push-up plus exercise.

pushup plus - subscapularis exercises

  1. Start in the pushup position
  2. Push all the way up and protract the scapula
  3. Lower down, pulling the scapula together
  4. Repeat

So with the push-up plus (whichever variation you use), do 2 – 4 sets of up to 10 reps.

Just go slow and under control. That’s going to help to build strength in the movement pattern that you’re going to use in everyday life and sport.

Next Steps

So those are the five exercises and some variations of exercises that can target your subscapularis, one of those neglected muscles that we need to spend a little more time on to ensure that our body continues to do what we want it to do. To ensure it allows us to play the sports that we want to play and just live life moving freely and without pain.

Hopefully, you enjoyed this article and found it beneficial. Plus, hopefully, you learned something from it.

If you have pain, pinching, or stiffness in your shoulders, you might try the tests from our article Rotator Cuff Injury Tests. Dr. B also has some great advice on fast ways to rehab a strained rotator cuff.

We’ve also got our Shoulder Pain Solution which takes this approach to the next level over multiple phases, 30 – 40+ exercises to ensure your shoulders are strong, tables, and mobile. So check that out if you’ve got any shoulder pain, or click the banner at the bottom of this page to take a shoulder pain assessment test.

See you next time. Keep moving.

I wanted to report to you regarding the Shoulder Pain Solution.

My shoulder pain is no longer an issue. I play pickleball two to three times a week with no problems. I do strengthening and pushups and various exercises from the program.

I am so pleased. I had a 40-year shoulder injury from volleyball and now I can do whatever I want.

Thanks for all that you do.

 – Alissha

This article was reviewed and updated on May 23, 2023 by our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Erin Boynton, MD, FRCS to include new research and information on latest surgical developments. Read more about Dr. B here.

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.