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How to Strengthen the Rotator Cuff

Updated on May 20, 2012
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The rotator cuff is a tendon attaching to four muscles connecting the arm to the shoulder blade (scapula) They can be remembered by the acronym S.I.T.S which stands for supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis. As a group, the rotator cuff functions to hold the humerus (upper arm bone) in the glenohumeral or shoulder joint and to rotate it with respect to the scapula.

If you’ve ever had a rotator cuff injury, you’re well aware of how important these muscles are to shoulder strength and arm mobility. Once the area has been injured it takes time and conscious rehabilitative therapy to bring it back to its full function.

Common types of problems with the rotator cuff are frequently associated with overuse injuries due to a repeated movement pattern. Throwing a football or baseball is a good example, but lifting, falls and repetition of unfavorable patterns can cause an injury as well. By performing preventative strengthening and stretching for this muscle group, shoulder strength will increase and the chances of injury are reduced.

Here are three exercises which emphasize the rotation of the humerus (upper arm) and the action of the rotator cuff group. Use light weights to avoid injury when training this small muscle group.


Seated L Fly.
Seated L Fly. | Source

Standing or Seated L Flyes

To perform the L Fly in an upright position, hold a dumbbell while maintaining a 90 degree bend in the elbow. Start with the weight in the top position if seated and lower it until parallel with the floor. Use a slow, controlled motion. If standing, hold the weights at your sides palms down and bend the elbows to ninety degrees. Maintain this position as you rotate the hands toshoulder level, as if you are going to perform a press.


The 'L' fly.
The 'L' fly. | Source
Cuban press.
Cuban press. | Source

L Flyes:

This exercise is done lying on the side (floor or bench is fine.) With your elbow tucked into your side and at a 90 degree angle to the body, hold onto a light dumbbell palm down. Lift the weight until the forearm is parallel to the ground, or just beyond. Stay in your comfort zone and maintain perfect form with the arm pressed into your side throughout the movement.

Cuban Press:

Execute this movement in the same manner as standing L flyes. At the top of the movement, execute a dumbbell press. Lower the weights to the sides, maintaining bent elbows and repeat.

Choose 1 or 2 exercises and perform 2-3 sets of 10, but not to exhaustion. Remember, this is a small but active muscle group.

Are you Injured?

Rotator cuff injuries require specialized therapy and should be examined by a medical professional, but how do you know if you’re injured or simply sore? Here are some common ways a tear or impingement will be debilitative:

-Pain in the shoulder. This may seem obvious, but the pain may only occur when using a certain movement pattern; for example, raising the arm over the head. If it persists for a week or longer, it’s time to have a pro examine it.

-Pain that doesn’t go away; pain with any arm movement. When any arm movement is painful or impossible, this could be a sign of a complete rotator cuff tear.

-General weakness, stiffness, sticking or popping sounds:

A developing injury may not be as abrupt as a complete inability to move the arm. Pay attention if the shoulder only hurts in a specific position, but is constant. Also consider getting an exam if it locks up or makes a popping sound when moved. Weakness in the shoulder may also indicate a problem is developing.

While the exercises listed above (or similar) may be included in a course of rehabilitative therapy, always consult with a professional physical therapist if you experience any of the warning signs of rotator cuff injury. Adjustment of or cessation of undesirable repetitive movement patterns, coupled with consistent inclusion of rotator cuff strengthening exercises, may prevent a major sidelining injury.

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