6 Essential Exercises for Rotator Cuff Injuries

November 11, 2016


Health and Recovery


Meghan Gilmour

Thousands of Australian's suffer from rotator cuff injuries each year. Rotator cuff problems are generally caused by repetitive overhead motions, and those 40-70 years of age, athletes (such as tennis players and swimmers), and manual labourers (such as painters, housekeepers, and construction workers) are most susceptible to rotator cuff injuries.

Why you should exercise the rotator cuff

Strengthening the muscles of the rotator cuff, which include the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis (better known as the “SITS” muscles) will help stabilize this area, making it less vulnerable to injury. Additionally, stretching the rotator cuff will help maintain flexibility and range of motion in the shoulder joint, preventing injury and stiffness.

If injury has already occurred, strength and flexibility exercises can help relieve pain and improve the condition of these unique muscles and tendons.

Best exercises to strengthen the rotator cuff

External rotation with elastic tubing

This simple exercise utilizes elastic tubing, also known as a theraband, to provides gentle resistance throughout the entire range of motion. This exercise targets the infraspinatus and teres minor of the rotator cuff.

  • Stand up straight, feet hip-width apart.
  • Place upper arms next to the torso.
  • Grip elastic tubing with both hands (palms upward), lifting the forearms until they’re straight in front of the body, forming two, 90-degree angles between the forearms and upper arms.
  • Externally rotate the forearms. (Reduce range of motion if pinching or discomfort occurs).
  • Bring arms back to the starting position.
  • Perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions.

Side-lying internal rotation with dumbbell

This exercise strengthens the subscapularis and fosters flexibility and range of movement in the rotator cuff.

  • Lie on the side with the knees stacked, cradling the head.
  • Pick up a very light weight (no heavier than 2 kilograms).
  • Place the upper portion of the arm closest to the floor directly in front of the chest, with the forearm bent to create a 90-degree angle, palm facing upwards.
  • Lift forearm towards the chest and lower until the forearm almost touches the floor.
  • Perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions per arm.

Prone horizontal abduction with dumbbell

This movement promotes rotator cuff strength by working the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles. It’s also excellent for encouraging good posture.

  • Life face-down on a firm surface (i.e. a workout bench)
  • Let one arm hang off the bench, holding a light dumbbell (no heavier than 2 kilograms)
  • Keeping a slight bend in the elbow, retract the shoulders and lift the arm directly to the side of the body until almost parallel to the floor.
  • Lower and repeat.
  • Perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions per arm.

Best stretches for the rotator cuff


The pendulum is a simple, relaxing movement that encourages rotational flexibility in the rotator cuff.

  • Lean forward, placing one hand on the thigh for support.
  • Let the other arm hang down, relaxing the shoulder blade.
  • Gently circle the arm in one direction for 10 rotations, then perform 10 rotations in the opposite direction. Perform 3 sets of this stretch on each arm.

Cross-body shoulder stretch

This stretch is an “oldie but a goodie”! It provides a delicious release for the back of the shoulder.

  • Take one arm across the body, placing the hand behind the elbow to hold it in place.
  • Gently apply pressure until a release is felt.
  • Hold for 30 seconds per arm.

Wall stretch

This stretch not only provides a release for the chest muscles, but also targets the subscapularis of the rotator cuff.

  • Place one hand on the wall (about shoulder level)
  • Gently rotate the body until a gentle stretch is felt (stop if pain or a pinching sensation occurs)
  • Hold for stretch for 30 seconds on each arm.

Activities to avoid

When healing from a rotator cuff injury, avoid activities that involve moving heavy weights or lifting overhead (such as a military press). Additionally, any activities that require quick, jarring movements to the shoulder joint be avoided. Most importantly, a medical professional should be consulted to determine the best course of treatment.

Be gentle with your rotator cuff

The rotator cuff is a complex set of small muscles and tendons designed to stabilize and promote rotation of the shoulder joint. Though this area is delicate, injury can be avoided by strength training, stretching, and treating the area with tender love and care.


  1. Pain management health center. WebMD Website. http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/picture-of-the-rotator-cuff. Reviewed March 4, 2016. Accessed June 9, 2016.
  2. Common shoulder injuries. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Website. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00327. Reviewed July 2009. Accessed June 9, 2016.
  3. Shoulder. University of California San Francisco Medical Center Website. https://www.ucsfhealth.org/conditions/rotator-cuff-tear. Accessed June 9, 2016.
  4. Rotator cuff and shoulder conditioning program. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Website. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00663. Reviewed October 2012. Accessed June 9, 2016.
Meghan Gilmour

ACE-certified Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor, Nutrition Coach, Blogger. Qualified with Bachelor of Science in Nutrition Science & Master of Science in Applied Nutrition (Concentration in Fitness and Nutrition).