Five Safe Exercises for Your Rotator Cuff

Dec 5, 2023 | Physiotherapy

Shoulder pain, particularly a Rotator Cuff injury, can be very  painful, but with good physiotherapy and gentle exercise, recovery is possible.

When he entered my physio room, I could instantly see something was wrong with his shoulder. He carried his shoulder hunched up, and his elbow was tucked tightly in at his side. He had been repeatedly reaching overhead to trim his hedge two weeks ago and was clearly still in quite a lot of pain. Shoulder pain is a very common reason individuals come for physiotherapy. It could be from an injury or simply a gradual onset. Shoulder pain can have a big impact on day-to-day life. Activities such as reaching up, out, or behind your back, lifting, and even sleeping can become difficult and painful. Maintaining or improving your shoulder health is therefore important and can be as easy as just a few exercises! A good place to start is with the rotator cuff.

Rotator Cuff

The rotator cuff comprises four muscles that arise from the scapula (shoulder blade), and blend into the shoulder joint capsule to form a stable yet mobile joint. This allows you to generate efficient movement of your shoulder/arm. These four muscles are the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis, and teres minor. The tendons of these muscles close to the shoulder joint are where injury to the rotator cuff commonly occurs. The rotator cuff can be injured acutely, or it can happen slowly. Research has shown the rate of tears in the cuff increase markedly as we age, but most rotator cuff injuries can improve without surgery, so here are 5 exercises to help improve/maintain your rotator cuff health. They should be performed within comfort and tolerance.

Rotator Cuff Exercises

1. Standing row

This exercise results in high muscular activity of all 4 muscles of the rotator cuff. You can use a resistance band, cables, or bungee. Or if you are a keen cyclist, this is a good way to recycle your inner tubes (a trick I learnt from my ingenious clients).

  • Loop the resistance band around a stable surface
  • Hold on to each end with your arms out straight.
  • Pull the band back so your elbows bend to 90 degrees
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades back together as you pull.
  • Slowly release back to the start position.

2. Push up Plus

  • Ly on the floor in a plank position
  • With straight arms, drive away from the ground by pushing your rib cage up towards the ceiling, gluing your shoulder blades onto your back–to make this exercise easier, perform the plank on a bench/table or wall, to make it harder, try to hold the push up plus position while you lift one hand away from the floor/surface.
  • Try to maintain your trunk position (don’t lean to one side).
  • Slowly lower your hand back down and repeat with the other hand.

3. Long Lever Pull Down (shoulder extension)

  • Tie a knot or loop in the band and shut it in the top of a door, or tie it to something sturdy overhead.
  • With your back to the door, hold one end of the band overhead.
  • Keep your arm straight and slowly pull down until your arm is straight down at your side.
  • Slowly release back up overhead.

4. External Rotation in Side Lying

  • Lying on your side, hold a small weight (or no weight) in your top hand
  • Bend your elbow to 90 degrees.
  • Keep your elbow in at your side as you rotate your arm up/out, as far as is comfortable.
  • Slowly lower back towards your tummy.

5. Prone Horizontal Extension/Abduction/Flexion (A’s, T’s and Y’s)

  • Ly on your tummy with your hands down by your sides
  • Lift your arms up off the bed/floor
  • Rotate your hands outwards.
  • Hold for 5 seconds
  • Relax back down.
  • Repeat this, but with your arms straight out to the sides, and again with your arms overhead.

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