Rotator cuff exercises and stretches

Rotator cuff exercises and stretches

Is your rotator cuff causing you shoulder pain? In this guide, we introduce you to five exercises to help you get rid of the pain and keep it from recurring. We also explain the most common causes of rotator cuff pain and how to prevent them.

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Krista Bugden Human Kinetics & Rehab Exercise Expert
Medically reviewed by 

Content:

What type of exercises and stretches help

Strength exercises and stretches

Typical causes of rotator cuff pain and injuries

Preventing Injuries in the Future

What to avoid if you have a rotator cuff injury

When to see a doctor

Get rid of your rotator cuff pain with Injurymap

A rotator cuff injury can put you on the sidelines or prevent you from enjoying your regular activities for weeks or even months. Rotator cuff tears occur in about 22.1% of the general population. The percentage increases as you age, so the older you get, the more likely you are to experience problems with your rotator cuff.

The rotator cuff muscles are a group of muscles at the shoulder joint. They allow you to reach your arm over your head, and they contribute to movements in swimming, baseball, tennis, and more. This group of muscles also ensures your upper arm stays in your shoulder socket, or joint, preventing a shoulder dislocation injury.

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The rotator cuff consists of four muscles, including the supraspinatus, the subscapularis, teres minor, and the infraspinatus.



The supraspinatus muscle stabilizes your upper arm, keeping it in place, and helps you lift your arm overhead.

The subscapularis muscle helps hold your upper arm in place against the shoulder blade. It also contributes to arm rotation and flexion. The teres minor muscle is the smallest rotator cuff muscle, helping to rotate the arm away from the body. Lastly, the infraspinatus muscle helps you extend and rotate your shoulder.

Shoulder anatomy

All in all, you wouldn’t be able to perform many movements with your shoulders without the rotator cuff. So what happens when you experience a rotator cuff injury? What exercises can help you return to health? In this article, we take a closer look at exercises and stretches that can help you recover from your rotator cuff injury. We also go through the common causes, prevention, and when you should see a doctor. Let’s take a closer look!

What Type of Exercises and Stretches Help A Rotator Cuff Injury?

For a rotator cuff injury, it is critical to restore mobility, strength, and flexibility as soon as possible.

If your main remedy for your shoulder injury is rest and limited movement, you risk ending up with a frozen shoulder instead. A frozen shoulder means your shoulder joint becomes frozen in place as scar tissue encapsulates the joint. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t rest your shoulder, but it does mean that you shouldn’t stop moving all together.

Movement when experiencing a rotator cuff injury is key, if you want to avoid the dreaded frozen shoulder. Targeting the muscles of the rotator cuff with strengthening exercises can help you bounce back from injury and prevent injury recurrence.

Strengthening exercises can also contribute to better posture which, again, helps reduce your risk of a recurring shoulder injury. When everything is properly aligned, the body and its systems work as they should, meaning a decreased risk of injury and potentially less pain.

Stretches for the rotator cuff also contribute to improved mobility and flexibility, making your shoulder more resilient. In the following section, we review five exercises that can help with your rotator cuff pain, including shoulder stretching and strengthening movements.

Strength exercises and stretches for rotator Cuff Pain

The following five exercises can help you recover and bounce back after you’ve experienced a rotator cuff injury. If pain increases at any point during the exercise, ease off and go only to the point before pain. Further, ensure you are properly hydrated and warmed up as well before performing any of these exercises.

  1. Standing infraspinatus exercise (medium resistance)
    10 reps x 3 sets

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    The infraspinatus muscle is located on the back of the shoulder. It is the primary muscle involved in shoulder extension and rotation. This specific exercise helps strengthen this muscle, stabilizing and supporting the shoulder joint and allowing these movements to occur with ease.

    • Stand up.
    • Use a mediumresistance exercise band.
    • Keep your arm tight to the body and pull your shoulder slightly back.
    • Bend your elbow 90 degrees, and place the exercise band around your hand and hold it with the other hand.
    • Now turn the arm outwards so that the exercise band is tightened.
    • Perform 3 sets of 8 repetitions with each arm.
  2. Standing shoulder pull II
    10 reps x 3 sets

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    Shoulder rows target the teres minor, as well as other postural muscles in the back. It helps support good posture and maintain proper alignment, reducing your risk of injury and contributing to stabilization of the shoulder. It can further help balance out an exercise program that contains a lot of front shoulder and chest movements.

    • Stand up with your arms on the side of your body.
    • Keep your elbows bent at a 90 degree angle.
    • Attach the exercise band to a wall, door handle or a similar object.
    • Pull your arms backward as if you were gathering your shoulder blades so that the exercise band is tightened.
    • Perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
  3. Shoulder pull
    5 reps

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    You can perform the shoulder blade pinch exercise anywhere and anytime, such as in line at the grocery store or while waiting for your dinner to cook. It doesn’t require equipment and simply involves pinching your shoulder blades down and in. This, again, helps promote proper posture, preventing rotator cuff pain and injury.

    • Relax your shoulders by letting them fall down.
    • Retract your shoulders so that your shoulder blades are brought together.
    • Hold the position for 10 seconds and then return to the starting position.
    • Perform 5 repetitions.
  4. Supraspinatus stretch
    30 sec. x 3 sets

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    The supraspinatus muscle keeps your upper arm in place and is involved in lifting your arm. However, with repetitive use or overuse, this muscle can quickly become irritated, leading to pain and discomfort. By regularly stretching this muscle, you can avoid pain and injury.

    • Stand up with your hands together behind your back.
    • Pull the shoulder blades together, then pull one arm slightly upwards using the other arm until you reach a point where you can feel the stretch.
    • Hold the position for 30 seconds and then switch to the other arm.
    • Perform 3 repetitions on each arm with a small break between each repetition.
  5. Standing shoulder exercise III
    12 reps x 3 sets

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    The standing shoulder straight-arm row also focuses on proper posture. Poor posture or bad form during exercise is a common problem leading to rotator cuff injuries or pain. By supporting good posture, you can significantly reduce your risk of a rotator cuff injury.

    • Take two medium resistance exercise bands.
    • Tie the end of one exercise band to a door handle or a similar object and hold the other exercise band with your hand.
    • Keep your arm outstretched slightly in front of your body.
    • Pull your arm backward to tighten the exercise band.
    • Perform 3 sets of 12 repetitions with each arm.

Typical causes of rotator cuff pain and injuries

Why are you having rotator cuff pain in the first place? What’s going on beneath the surface? There are many common injuries involving the shoulder and the rotator cuff muscles, including the following:

A rotator cuff tear

A rotator cuff tear may happen from repetitive use. For instance, if you work a job, such as a painter, where you repeatedly reach overhead, you are more likely to experience a rotator cuff tear or a rotator cuff strain, where the muscle is stretched past its limits.

Torn rotator cuff

The symptoms of a rotator cuff tear include:

  • Pain in the shoulder when lifting your arm.
  • Pain when lying on your affected side.
  • Weakness when trying to rotate or raise your arm.
  • Crackling sensation in the shoulder during certain movements.

Tendonitis

Tendons attach muscle to bone. Tendonitis is when these tendons become inflamed. This can occur at any of the points where the rotator cuff muscles attach to bone. Tendonitis impacting the rotator cuff muscles is sometimes referred to as swimmer’s shoulder, tennis shoulder, and pitcher’s shoulder. The symptoms of tendonitis in the rotator cuff include:

  • Pain on the outside and front of the shoulder.
  • Pain when lifting or lowering your arm.
  • Stiffness in the shoulder.
  • Clicking sounds when lifting your arm up.
  • Pain when reaching behind you.
  • Weakness in the affected shoulder.
  • Reduced mobility in the affected shoulder.

Bursitis

Bursa of the shoulder

Bursitis happens when the bursa becomes irritated or inflamed. Usually, the bursa, which are small fluid-filled sacs, protect tissues and structures by preventing friction at a joint. Similar to tendonitis, bursitis typically occurs when the shoulder is overused. Symptoms of bursitis near the rotator cuff include:+ Pain when lifting your arm or when reaching.+ Mild pain at rest.+ Pain in the front of the shoulder and side of the arm.

Preventing rotator cuff pain and injuries in the future

Rotator cuff pain and injuries can be acute or chronic conditions. In the case of a chronic rotator cuff injury, the cause is frequently due to degeneration from long-term use. This often happens with tennis players, rowers, and other individuals who frequently use their shoulders. Acute injuries, on other hand, happen due to one particular incident.

Either way, exercise is a great tool for preventing future rotator cuff pain or injuries and managing current rotator cuff pain. When exercising, many individuals often focus on the chest muscles, forgetting about the back. The back muscles, however, are equally as important since they keep the shoulders back and down and maintain proper alignment of the spine. No matter whether your injury is acute or chronic, you want to include back strengthening and rotator cuff strengthening in your program.

In addition to focusing on strengthening your rotator cuff muscles and back muscles, you should also consider the following:

  • Practice good posture throughout your day-to-day, especially if you work at a desk.
  • Avoid laying on your side with your arm outstretched, overhead, and underneath you. This can, over time, lead to rotator cuff problems.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking increases your risk of injury and reduces your ability to heal and recover quickly.
  • Take frequent breaks during sports or activities involving repetitive shoulder movements.
  • If pain happens in the shoulder, immediately rest and ice the area to help with healing and pain, as well as to prevent further injury.

What to avoid if you have a rotator cuff injury

If you have already injured your rotator cuff muscle, there are various activities and movements you should avoid to prevent worsening your condition. For instance, anyone with a shoulder injury should avoid throwing a ball, swimming with overhead movements, lifting weights overhead, or lifting weights involving the rotator cuff.

Most importantly, you shouldn’t perform any movements overhead until your pain has subsided. In the meantime, you can aim to perform the exercises listed above to help you heal and come back stronger than before.

When to see a doctor

If your shoulder pain is accompanied by difficulty breathing or tightness in the chest, seek out immediate medical attention. This could indicate a more serious problem. Further, if your shoulder joint appears deformed, you are unable to use it, you have intense pain, or you have sudden swelling at the joint, seek immediate medical attention.

These symptoms are often a sign of a more serious injury.

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About the author

Krista Bugden has worked as a Rehab Exercise Expert at a physiotherapist clinic in Ottawa, Canada for the past 4 years. She has an Honours Bachelor Degree in Human Kinetics from the University of Ottawa. She uses her extensive knowledge in this area to educate others through well-researched and informative articles. Her passions include helping others and inspiring each person she meets to get the most out of their life.