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Rotator Cuff Rehab/Protection

Updated: Apr 13, 2020

Every single day I walk into the gym and see multiple people doing the same warmup exercise, in an attempt to protect their shoulders (rotator cuff) from the heavy lifting (mostly bench press) they are about to do. This article isn’t intended to influence you to lift any less weight (although that could be helpful to those new to lifting), nor is it a call on proper lifting techniques, but will give you insight on what works and what doesn’t to protect your shoulders.

Why Should I Care?

We are all in the gym for one reason or another. Whether that reason is aesthetics, strength, functionality, health, or any combination of these things, rotator strength is vital. Structural integrity of the joints allows us to lift heavier weights in a safer manner. When training for aesthetics (a better looking body) and/or strength, this ability to lift heavier translates into more growth towards both of these goals. If you are training for health and functionality, rotator strength helps keep shoulder pain away, and makes for ease when lifting heavy or awkward objects in everyday life. Regardless of your goal, building a strong cuff will get you there faster.

Rotator cuff – What is it?

We have 4 main muscles that make up the rotator cuff – Teres Minor, Infraspinatus, Supraspinatus, and Subscapularis. These muscles work together while the arm is moving through planes of motion to ensure the head of the humerus stays in the socket.

So now you can see just how important these 4 muscles are, if one or more is weak, you could be at risk of dislocation, subluxation, or tears. I’m not just talking about in the gym (which happens a lot from poor lifting form), but in every day situations. Tears and dislocations happen from simple slips and falls where you land on your shoulder, elbow, or hand, a tough hit in a sporting event, or in the weaker rotator cuffs, even a crisp high five can send pain shooting through the shoulder.

Do's and Don'ts

Now back to what I see literally ever day in the gym. Guys and girls of all athleticism, shapes, sizes, walk up to the dumbbell rack, grab 5 or 10 pound dumbbells, hold them at 90 degrees to their side, and move their arm in and out (See video Below). So close ... So So close. They have a want or need to keep their shoulders healthy, but just don’t understand how to put the force (dumbbells against gravity) to target the rotator cuff.

Moving the hand from inside the body to outside the body is called external rotation, and mostly involves Teres Minor and Infraspinatus, and this plane of motion is the direct isolation for those muscles. So why isn’t this dumbbell exercise working? The answer is simple, the resistance (in this case a dumbbell/gravity) is not directly fighting the plane of motion. The resistance is actually just going through the bicep, and is not going to drastically impact your rotator strength.

So how can we fix this? What we need to do is create a force that is resisting directly against the plane of motion. We can accomplish this multiple ways using either cables, tension bands, or dumbbells (just done a little differently).

When using a cable machine or resistance bands, set up a height that is close to your hand height when the elbows are at your sides and at 90 degrees. While keeping your elbow tucked at your side, move the hand externally (inside the body to outside) fighting the resistance (see video below). You won’t need much weight for this, and it should be burning (muscle fatigue) by 10 reps.

What about the dumbbell version? Although I don’t personally like this one as much, you may not have a cable machine or resistance bands just lying around, so this exercise is for you. Lay on your side, preferably on a bench, with your elbow tucked on your side at 90 degrees. Holding the dumbbell in your hand, move from inside your body to outside (see video below).

How Many? How Often?

These muscles are small and you don’t need to be going to failure like you do when trying to build strength/and or size like the rest of your body, especially because you need them to still work during the heavy lifts to come.

If you are using this for rotator strength and protection, I recommend 2 sets of 15 reps for each arm, not going to failure, at the start of every workout where the upper body is involved.

If you are currently rehabbing a rotator or shoulder injury, you can do 3 or 4 sets of 15 reps close to or hitting failure, almost every day, as you are not lifting following this exercise.

Final Thoughts

It is important to remember this is just 1 rotator cuff exercise and is only working a single plane of motion. While I believe this plane of motion is the most important, for complete rotator cuff rehab or protection, a wide array must be performed (Article soon to come).

Questions? contact me at

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