Whether you’re a bodybuilder, powerlifter, or strongman competitor, nothing can derail a lifter’s progress like an injury. However, an injury doesn’t have to be catastrophic to be debilitating. In fact, one of the most common culprits for stalled progress comes from one of the body’s smaller mechanisms: the rotator cuff. Performing regular rotator cuff exercises will keep your shoulders healthy and your performance on track. First, a quick word on diagnosis.
What Does an Injured Rotator Cuff Feel Like?
Generally, rotator cuff exercises help prevent what originally presents as a pinching sensation when pushing weights overhead, or bench pressing, both of which involve a high degree of shoulder rotation. It can feel like a lack of stability, making the lifter hesitant about really unloading a lot of force into a big push.
Pain can also manifest in actions as simple as lateral or front arm raises without weight. The insidious part of a rotator cuff injury, whether it’s a tweak or tear, is that range of motion is usually preserved. The lifter often can push through it and continue to lift, but this just sets the stage for more agitation later.
The point of this article is to get you doing these exercises – even though they aren’t performed at high speeds or with heavy loads – so that you’ll never have to feel what a rotator cuff injury is like. In a 2007 study that appeared in Physical Therapy, authors Dark, Ginn, Halaki found that when subjects were diligent in their rotator cuff exercises, “activity increased in a systematic manner in all muscles capable of producing rotation torque during concentric and eccentric contractions”.
In other words, the rotator cuff movements helped to improve all of the surrounding mechanisms. The more efficiently the rotator cuff can move, the more efficiently the surrounding joints and tissues will move with it. Without further adieu, here are three of the best rotator cuff exercises to help strengthen and preserve this critical structure.
External Arm Rotations
With your elbow pressed against your side and your thumb facing up in a neutral grip, rotate your arm out and away from your body, as if you were opening a door. Because this is a rotator cuff exercise, it is best to load it with resistance if possible. Bands work well, as do dumbbells or plates in the 5-15 pound range.
If for any reason you are unable to perform these standing, you can lie on your side holding a weight and perform the same movement. Do not do these if they hurt, and do not load them so that you are straining. In a 2003 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Doctors Hess and Richardson stated that heavy resistance strengthening exercises for the internal rotator musculature are not warranted during rehabilitation.If you can perform them without pain, do 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps per side.
Internal Arm Rotations
For this rotator cuff exercise, bands work better than dumbbells. Holding your elbow in the same position as the external rotations, you begin with your arm rotated out–as in the finished position of the external rotation–and rotate it back in towards your body, bringing your forearm across your torso. Loop a resistance band around a doorknob or pole or piece of gym equipment and position yourself in such a way that you can perform the exercise easily and without pain, but still feel like you’re having to work a little bit.
Brace one hand on a chair or bench. Anything that will support you and let you lean forward into a position similar to that of a dumbbell row. In the other hand, hold a weight between 5-15 pounds. Let gravity gently take the weighted arm and ease it towards the floor, just barely separating it from the socket. Now, gently let the arm swing in various directions, like the pendulum of a clock. Go slowly, making circles and lines, and try to cover all possible vectors.
In this position, the rotator cuff is activated and the miniscule separation from the shoulder allows the muscles to move freely and glide off of each other. This rotator cuff exercise has a way of lubricating the shoulder capsule and often results in a feeling of “the brakes coming off” when relief finally sets in. Perform the pendulum for five minutes.
If you’re one of the many lifters who gets impatient with anything low intensity, you might be tempted to skip such “boring” exercises. However, nothing is more boring (or frustrating) to a driven lifter than having to sit on the bench and recover from an injury that could have been prevented.
There will always be small tweaks and nagging injuries. It’s the occasional price of getting stronger and performing at an elite level. But you can always improve your odds by performing these three simple exercises, 2-3 times per week. There’s no excuse not to.