Exercises to Strengthen Your Rotator Cuff Muscles

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The rotator cuff consists of a group of four muscles. They perform several functions, including: helping to lift your arm away from your body, rotating your arm in its socket, and stabilizing your shoulder during overhead motions. Generally, these muscles act as dynamic stabilizers while you are lifting your arms up and away from your body.

This article explains how to do three different exercises to build strength in your rotator cuff muscles.

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Overview

The rotator cuff muscles can be prone to inflammation and tears if you do the same overhead motions too often. An important way to reduce tears or rotator cuff injury is to make sure these muscles are strong enough. The exercises below will show you how to to do just that.

Be sure to check in with your healthcare provider before you start doing these exercises. A visit or two with your local (or online) physical therapist can help you make sure you're doing the exercises properly and they're safe for you.

Exercise One

  • Lie on your stomach on a table or a bed
  • Put one arm out at shoulder level with your elbow bent to 90 degrees and your hand down
  • Keeping your elbow bent, rotate your shoulder so that the back of your hand raises up towards the ceiling
  • Lower the hand slowly
  • Repeat 10 times
  • Perform with opposite arm

Exercise Two

  • Lie on your side on a bed or the floor
  • Place your upper arm at your side with your elbow bent to 90 degrees, and your forearm resting against your chest, palm down
  • Rotate your shoulder out and raise your forearm until it is level with your shoulder
  • Lower the hand slowly
  • Repeat 10 times
  • Perform with opposite arm

Exercise Three

  • Stand with your arms slightly behind you with both thumbs down
  • Raise your arms up, pretending that you are emptying a can with each hand
  • Lower the arms slowly
  • Repeat 10 times
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Intensity

You can make any of these exercises more challenging by holding a small dumbbell. Start light—usually 2 or 3 pounds is enough to create resistance. Another way to add resistance is to perform shoulder exercises with a resistance band.

These rotator cuff exercises can be done two or three times per week or as directed by your physical therapist. Be sure to stop the exercise if pain in your shoulder, shoulder blade, or arm gets worse.

Common Problems

If you have weakness in your rotator cuff muscles, you may have various problems with your shoulders. These may include:

These problems can limit your range of motion and keep your upper body from functioning as it should. Working to keep your rotator cuff muscles strong may help you avoid these problems.

Summary

A Word From Verywell

If you are looking to keep your shoulders strong, consulting with your physical therapist to learn rotator cuff strengthening exercises is a good idea. Your physical therapist can tailor a rotator cuff exercise program just for you to help keep your shoulders strong and mobile.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Harvard Health Publishing. Rotator cuff injury.

  2. Heron SR, Woby SR, Thompson DP. Comparison of three types of exercise in the treatment of rotator cuff tendinopathy/shoulder impingement syndrome: A randomized controlled trial. Physiotherapy. 2017;103(2):167-173. doi:10.1016/j.physio.2016.09.001

By Laura Inverarity, DO
 Laura Inverarity, PT, DO, is a current board-certified anesthesiologist and former physical therapist.