Arnold presses? Check. Upright rows? Check. Front and lateral raises? Check.
If you think you’ve marked all the boxes for an effective shoulder-training program, think again. There’s one important box you and just about everybody else in the gym misses: the rotator cuff exercise.
When you’re hitting your shoulders with maximum intensity, your rotator cuffs take a beating. But a lot of people overlook exercises to make their rotator cuffs stronger, either because they think they’re strong enough already or they just don’t know any better.
Rotator cuff exercises don’t burn loads of calories to help you get leaner. And, considering the fact that people use very light weights to do them, they don’t exactly demand respect at the gym.
But don’t confuse lack of respect with lack of usefulness. Developing your rotator cuffs can reduce the risk of shoulder injury, so you can keep building muscle mass.
So, let’s talk a little about what the rotator cuff is, which muscles contribute to it, and what you can do to ensure yours are up to the task at hand.
Overused but Overlooked
The rotator cuff is comprised of a group of tendons and muscles that connect your arm to your shoulder blade. The four small muscles in your rotator cuff include the teres minor, the infraspinatus, the supraspinatus, and the subscapularis.
These muscles help your arm move around in circles, move in closer to the body, and move outward when you lift something up and away from you. They also help you maintain good posture by keeping your shoulder girdle back and in the proper position.
Common Rotator Cuff Injuries
When these rotator cuff muscles are weak, your risk for shoulder-related injuries skyrockets—especially when you lift increasingly heavy loads. Some of the main rotator cuff injuries include:
- Rotator cuff tear: This occurs when age or overuse cause the rotator cuff tendon to weaken and eventually tear.
- Rotator cuff tendonitis: Often triggered by repetitive overhead lifting, this is one of the most common overuse injuries. This tends to be a nagging injury, and complete recovery can be difficult.
- Rotator cuff impingement: This occurs when tendons that connect the rotator cuff muscles are squeezed between two bones.
- Subacromial bursitis: This condition is caused by inflammation of the small sac of fluid (bursa) that helps to cushion the rotator cuff tendons from the bones that surround them.
Best Rotator-Cuff-Building Exercises
The following exercises can lower your risk for these injuries. Make them a part of your shoulder warmup for upper-body workouts, and set aside time each week to do them on their own.
Internal and External Rotations
Do internal and external rotations either lying on your side or standing upright, whichever is most comfortable for you.
To do an external rotation, hold a dumbbell or plate weight in one hand, tuck your elbow directly into the side of your body with your hand straight out in front of you and your forearm parallel to the floor. Keeping your elbow pinned to your side, rotate the weight out away from your body, then back to the starting position for one external rotation rep. Do two sets of 15-20 reps with each arm.
To do an internal rotation, hold the dumbbell the same way, but this time rotate it across the front of your body instead of out away from it. Do two sets of 15-20 reps with each arm.
Scapular Plane Elevation
“Scapular plane” refers to the normal resting position of the shoulder blade (scapula) at 30-45 degrees from your midline.
To perform a scapular plane elevation, hold a light-weight dumbbell in one hand down by your side. Lift that arm upward and outward from your body at 30-45 degrees, along the scapular plane. Lift until your arm is parallel to the floor, keeping your thumb facing up as you raise your arm.
Once your arm is parallel to the floor, pause for a brief second, then lower it back down to your side to complete the rep.
After you’ve developed a good feel for the movement pattern, perform it using both arms at once.
Wall Angel Stretch
In addition to strengthening your rotator cuffs, you also need to stretch your shoulder and back muscles. Without adequate stretching, these muscles can become overly tight and strain your shoulder tendons and ligaments. This, in turn, can cause pain and possibly lead to injury.
One very simple exercise to stretch your shoulder and back muscles is the wall angel.
To do a wall angel, stand with your back against a wall, with your arms down by your sides and touching the wall. Then, just as if you’re making a snow angel, slide your arms up the wall and over your head.
See if you can keep your hands and shoulders in direct contact with the wall during this exercise. If you can’t, that’s a sign you should be spending more time on mobility and stretching work.
Don’t Forget to Warm Up!
In addition to doing these exercises, always take time before you start lifting to warm up your shoulders with plenty of arm circles and cross-body swings. This will help prevent shoulder tightness as you lift heavier weights, reducing the risk of injury.