Best Exercises for Rotator Cuff

The rotator cuff is a collection of muscles and tendons that keep the bones of your shoulder joint in place. An injury to this group is common, especially in people who work with their arms a lot like painters or construction workers. Usually, a portion of the cuff tears, which causes pain. This can happen at once as the result of a single injury, or the tearing can happen over time with repeated use. More advanced rotator cuff injuries may cause difficulty moving or weakness in the affected arm.

The main treatment for rotator cuff tears are exercises to strengthen the muscles. However, if your injury is severe, in some cases you may also need rotator cuff surgery.

Exercises to Help Rotator Cuff

When you’re recovering from an injury, conditioning is an important part of strengthening your muscles and staying flexible so that you can get back to a healthy lifestyle more quickly. It’s important to take these exercises slow to avoid increased pain, and to work closely with your doctor or physical therapist to be sure you’re following the routine correctly and minimizing the risk of additional strain to your rotator cuff.

Pendulum

This exercise targets a group of muscles around your shoulder and promotes gentle, deliberate movement and strengthening, using only the weight of your arm for resistance.

Step 1: Lean forward and place your left hand on a table or counter for support. 

Step 2: Gently swing your arm back and forth.

Step 3: Then, swing it side to side.

Step 4: Then, rotate it in a circle.

Step 5: Repeat on the other side.

Try for two to five repetitions, five or six days a week.

Cross-Body Stretch

This simple stretch helps with flexibility. You should feel it in the back of your shoulder as a gentle stretching that shouldn't cause any sharp pain.

Step 1: You can start sitting or standing.

Step 2: Lift your injured arm at the elbow with your unaffected arm.

Step 3: Bring that injured arm across your body, stretching the shoulder.

Step 4: Press gently with the holding arm, but take care not to put extra pressure on your elbow.

Continued

Step 5: Hold for about 30 seconds.

Step 6: Repeat on the other side if desired for a full and balanced upper-body stretch.

Try for 4 sets of repetitions on each side.

Overhead Stretch

You can easily practice overhead stretches at home with only equipment you already have around. Bending before reaching above your head slightly changes the angle of the stretch.

Step 1: Stand about an arm's length away from a sturdy object like a chair, counter, table, or doorknob.

Step 2: Bend over with your arms straight. Place your hands on the object for support and to stretch the shoulders.

Step 3: Adjust your body in the stretch. You may want to take a step forward or backward. 

Step 4: Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds.

Step 5: Repeat 2 to 4 times.

Wall Press

Pressing your arm against something sturdy like a wall offers resistance and helps strengthen the muscles around your rotator cuff.

Step 1: Stand next to a door frame or wall with your arm at a 90-degree angle and your palm on the door frame.

Step 2: Fold a towel and place it between the bent arm and your body.

Step 3: Press your palm into the door frame while keeping the towel pressed between your arm and body.

Step 4: Repeat 10 times for five sets.

Step 5: Turn around so your outer arm is against the door frame or wall.

Step 6: Keeping the towel pressed between your arm and body, press your elbow and forearm into the wall. 

Step 7: Repeat 10 times for 5 sets.

Standing Row

Step 1: Make a three-foot-long loop with a resistance band and tie the ends together.

Step 2: Attach the loop to a doorknob.

Step 3: Stand in front of the doorknob with feet hip-width distance.

Step 4: Hold the band with your elbow next to your hip. Your elbow should be bent at 90 degrees.

Step 5: Keeping your arm close to your side, pull your elbow back. 

Step 6: Return to your starting position with control.

Continued

Step 7: Repeat as many times as you can or as directed.

Finger Walk

This exercise is sometimes called “wall climbing to the side,” and it mimics the climbing motion without requiring you to hoist yourself up.

Step 1: Face a wall, standing about 3/4 of an arms-length away.

Step 2: Touch the wall with the fingers of your injured arm.

Step 3: Walk your fingers up the wall, like a spider, to shoulder height.

Step 4: Allow your fingers to do most of the work.

Step 5: Lower your arm slowly back to the starting position.

Step 6: Repeat 2 to 4 times.

Tip: Try to keep from shrugging your shoulder upward while you’re reaching.

Safety Considerations

You should consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program for rotator cuff injury. Before you do these exercises, warm up your muscles with a heating pad or a warm shower.

If you get sore from performing these exercises, use a cold compress or ice to relieve the pain and swelling. However, if you experience a sharp pain stop the exercises and let your doctor know.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 14, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons OrthoInfo: "Rotator Cuff and Shoulder Conditioning Program."

Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School: "What to do about rotator cuff tendinitis."

Kaiser Permanente: "Rotator Cuff: Exercises."

Mayo Clinic: "Rotator cuff injury."

Mayo Clinic: "Rotator cuff exercises."

MyHealth.Alberta: “Rotator Cuff Problems: Care Instructions.”

Yorkville Sports Medicine Center: “TOP ROTATOR CUFF EXERCISES & STRETCHES FOR STRENGTHENING.”

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