Login | May 30, 2020

Don’t forget about those rotator cuffs

Pete’s World

Published: April 15, 2019

Think of a shoulder workout and it’s likely you’ll conger up visions of the shoulder press. And that’s understandable, because the shoulder press screams shoulders about as loud as the bench press screams chest. But realize that the shoulder articulation is such a complex joint that it requires more than just that pressing exercise to keep it strong and stable, it also requires some not-so-well-known exercises.

So let’s go beyond the celebrity of the shoulder press and really dig into what it is about the shoulder that dictates the need for these lesser known exercises to help it retain its integrity.

To do this we’ll begin with a look at the shoulder joint itself. The shoulder joint is a ball and socket joint, and more important, it’s the most mobile joint in the human body. Therefore its ROM (range of motion) is amazingly diverse. There’s abduction, adduction, extension, flexion, internal rotation, external rotation, and circumduction. Now I’m not going to define each of these seven movements - you can use the google machine for that. I list them here only to help illustrate the shoulder’s high degree of mobility.

So because of the shoulder’s crazy big range of motion there’s a resultant negative component…less stability. Thus, being a less stable articulation means the shoulder joint is more susceptible to injury than less flexible joints like the knee.

What’s more, even with a super complex support network of tendons, ligaments, and small stabilizing muscles, the shoulder’s still prone to injury.

Most injuries to the shoulder will entail, or at the very least will affect the rotator cuff. Yup, you’ve likely heard of it, but what exactly is it? Well, the rotator cuff is a group of four small, distinct muscles and their connecting tendons that hold the bones of the shoulder joint together. The rotator cuff muscles take part in every type of shoulder movement. And because they’re so often used, they’re more prone to injury.

Which brings me to the crux of this column, an offering of three specialty exercises which should always be on the shoulder exercise menu.

First though, to better understand the importance of these exercises, you should know that the rotator cuff acts isometrically to keep the ball of the upper-arm bone (humerus) in the shoulder socket. That’s a non-stop, never-take-a-break job. The rotator cuff also assists in raising and rotating the arm.

So if you strengthen the rotator cuff you create a big improvement in rotator cuff endurance. Not only that, but strengthening the rotator cuff helps to promote better posture what with the ball seated securely and properly in the socket.

Okay now to the exercises, which you can add quite easily to your typical shoulder warm-up routine. And I’m going to suggest this Youtube video - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkzYvxhgqQQ - in order to illustrate exactly how these three simple exercises should be performed.


Scapular retraction refers to squeezing the shoulder blades together. Since scapular retraction in an essential element of numerous key lifts, this scapular retraction exercise is great for helping to strengthen the middle trapezius, lower trapezius, and rhomboids. These muscles help stabilize the scapula (shoulder blade), thereby providing a stable base for other shoulder muscles - including those small but important rotator cuff muscles.


External rotation is the outward rotation of your arm away from your body, and it’s a motion involved in overhead tasks/lifts and in throwing sports. Strengthen the external rotators will improve shoulder function and stability.

Thus, external rotation exercises are important for keeping the rotator cuff muscles healthy, especially when the shoulder engages in repetitive motion with varying degrees of external load. 


Internal rotation is the inward rotation of your arm towards the midline of the body, and the action of the internal rotators facilitates the posterior rolling of the head of the humerus. Throwing and many swinging motions finish with the shoulder turning inwards. That’s why it’s always smart to make sure those internal rotators are strong and stable.

Pretty simple exercises really. And we’re only talking about adding ten minutes of time to your shoulder workout.

So even if you don’t currently have - or never had - a rotator cuff injury, it’s still vitally important to regularly strengthen this muscle group. Remember: A rotator cuff strain or tear can always be lurking behind that next overhead lift.