The Rotator Cuff. There is a high level of fear and anxiety surrounding this injury. If you know someone who has had their cuff surgically repaired, you know it is something you do not want to go through. The recovery from the procedure is long, arduous, and painful. Additionally, the shoulder where the procedure took place is never able to achieve 100% of what it was capable of beforehand.

Hence, rotator cuff problems are the shoulder injury no one wants. However, we have some good news: Rotator cuff pain can be prevented! Similar to car maintenance or keeping an emergency fund, the best way to avoid this injury is to be proactive. 

Preventing an injury like this involves building strength – specifically shoulder strength. Overall strength (overhead pressing, bench pressing, strict pull-up strength, and rows) is a great starting point. These strength exercises are what most people focus on when at the gym. However, smaller muscles, such as the rotator cuff and its supporting muscles, are often neglected. These muscles play a crucial role in preventing this very common form of shoulder pain. 

Here are five of our favorite strengthening exercises to help you prevent rotator cuff problems.

Prone Swimmers

Targets: Periscapular muscles

This exercise targets the periscapular muscles. These muscles go from the spine to the shoulder blade and help support the rotator cuff. When these muscles are weak, the rotator cuff does not have a stable base to work from. Trying to get a muscle to function while utilizing an unstable base is similar to trying to perform a long jump from a squishy surface. It does not work well! 

Facepull

Targets: Rotator Cuff

Remembering how to do this exercise is fairly simple – pull the handle toward your face then rotate your arm. We like this exercise better than rotating your hand away from your body at your side because shoulder injuries are more likely to occur with your arm overhead. If you only strengthen the rotator cuff at your side, it will not be as strong in those overhead positions.

Push Up Plus

Targets: Serratus Anterior

Also known as a scap push-up, the push up plus is a great way to strengthen the serratus anterior. The serratus anterior is a muscle that supports the shoulder. It connects the shoulder blade to the rib cage and provides a stable base for the rotator cuff to function from. The stronger your serratus anterior, the better your shoulder will function.

Prone Y

Targets: Lower Trapezius + Rotator Cuff

The prone Y was included because this exercise specifically targets the lower trapezius. The lower trapezius is almost always underdeveloped, even in fairly athletic individuals. This muscle is incredibly important. When the lower trapezius is weak, the upper trapezius must work harder. The upper trapezius is the area between your ear and shoulder where most people get muscle “knots.” These knots are often a sign that your lower trapezius is not as strong as it should be.

Bottoms Up Kettlebell Carry

Targets: Rotator Cuff

This exercise is quite a challenge for both grip strength and shoulder strength. Grip strength, though it may seem counterintuitive, correlates with rotator cuff strength. The cuff is activated (and strengthened) when you are strengthening your grip. For a double whammy, we perform this exercise in an overhead position to target both at the same time.

Who is this for?

These exercises are for everyone. It does not matter if you are a plumber, work at a desk, regularly go to the gym, are a weekend warrior, CrossFit 7 days a week (if you CrossFit 7 days a week, we need to have a discussion on training volume), or are a stay-at-home mom. You will still benefit from keeping your shoulders healthy, as it will help you stave off rotator cuff problems.

If you’re interested in more shoulder strengthening or mobility exercises, check out our Instagram highlights “Shoulders.”

lady deadlifting without back injury
dad after rotator cuff rehab