How to Strengthen Rotator Cuff Muscles

In my last post, I covered how your rotator cuff muscles function. In this post, I am going to discuss exercises and simple rules to strengthen rotator cuff muscles.

So, how can we strengthen our rotator cuff muscles and what are the best rotator cuff exercises? 

When it comes to training stabilizers like the rotator cuff there are a few things to keep in mind. Since stabilizers are responsible for joint tracking 24/7, they have low power, but good endurance. This means that the reps can be relatively high, but the load needs to be light.

It’s also important to note that stabilizers fire best when the joint is in good alignment, so you need to be precise in your set-up. Once you begin to move, you want to make sure that you can maintain good form.

Breaking form is a sign that the rotator cuff muscles have fatigued and the bigger muscles are kicking in to keep you going. If you reach this point, it’s time to stop. The goal is to create a new, better movement pattern, not reinforce the old, less functional one.

Shoulders a super complicated and we’re all going to have shoulders that settle with different deviations from “ideal” alignment. However, here are a few basic set-up cues that work for most people to find a good shoulder position.

1) First, slightly upwardly rotate the shoulder blade.

Since we seldom bring our arms overhead, most of us have shoulders that sit in a slightly depress and downwardly rotated state. If you want more info about this and how it might cause neck pain, you can check out this post.

To adjust for this, you want to gently upwardly rotate your shoulder to a more neutral position. For many of us this is tricky, so if you have a hard time maintaining this position, you can put a rolled up towel in your armpit.

If you aren’t sure of what upward rotation looks like, here’s a video.

2) Without changing the position of your shoulder blade, gently draw your upper arm bone up and back into its socket.

It’s important to realize that this is a movement of the upper arm bone and not the shoulder blade. Many of think we’re think we’re rotating our arm bone up and back, but our brain has lost the ability to isolate this motion, so instead we pull the shoulder blade back and down into its original depressed state. I have more info on why that happens in this post about why your lats make poor stabilizers.

You’ll know you’re in the right neighborhood if your collarbones look open, your arm bone is dropped back and your shoulder blade is relatively flat along your rib wall.

Here’s a video of that too.  

It may take some practice to get this right (and if you’re thoroughly confused, I’d suggest you get a private with someone who can teach it to you), but be patient. It does come!

3) Once you’ve found your set up, try turning the upper arm bone in and out without changing the position of your shoulder blade.

*Note the set-up will remain the same, regardless of if you are standing, sitting or side lying.

If you feel a gentle activation deep in the shoulder socket or on the backside of the shoulder, you know you’ve hit it right. If you feel work in the front of your shoulder, your bicep or your neck, then it means you’ve let your shoulder roll in and/or down. To troubleshoot this, reset your position or decrease your resistance.

Once you have a handle on this, you can start to apply it to bigger, more traditional weight exercises. You might find this awareness allows you to lift heavy weights with less shoulder and neck strain!

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