How To Reduce Shoulder Pain – 12 Best Rotator Cuff Exercises

Written by Charushila Biswas, MSc (Biotechnology), ISSA Certified Fitness Nutritionist

Rotator cuff exercises help to rehabilitate any shoulder injury. The main symptom of a rotator cuff injury is a constant dull pain in your shoulder. Lifting your arm up or doing daily chores can become extremely painful. Rotator cuff exercises also help in faster recovery from a recent shoulder injury. Strengthening the rotator cuff muscles through physical therapy can help reduce the pain and heal the muscles. You will be able to move your arm freely, lift lightweight objects, and do daily chores with ease. Here are a few rotator cuff exercises you can do. Scroll down!

Note: Take your doctor’s permission before doing these exercises.

In This Post, You Will Know…

What Are The Rotator Cuff Muscles?

What are rotator cuff exercises

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The rotator cuff muscles are a group of four shoulder muscles that help in the movement of your arms and shoulders. Also referred to as SITS, the four muscles of the rotator cuff are:

  • Supraspinatus
  • Infraspinatus
  • Teres Minor
  • Subscapularis

These muscles help stabilize your shoulders when your hands move to do various tasks. Your hand movement can range from abduction to external and internal rotation and repeated pulling (as during playing tennis).

Without enough strength, balance, and stability, it would be impossible to lift your arms and do various movements freely. If you have a shoulder injury, you know that even lifting your hand becomes extremely painful. So, what causes rotator cuff muscle pain? Find out in the next section.

What Causes Injury To The Rotator Cuff Muscles?

Injury and pain to the rotator cuff muscles are caused due to overuse of your hands and shoulders. Poor posture and conditioning and incorrect techniques may also lead to irritation, inflammation, calcification, degenerative thinning, and tendon tear. A rotator cuff muscle injury can also occur due to aging. Here is a list of rotator cuff injuries:

  • Rotator Cuff Tears
  • Rotator Cuff Tendinopathy
  • Rotator Cuff Tendinitis
  • Impingement Syndrome

When any of these four injuries occur, you may experience pain and other symptoms. What are the other symptoms? Scroll down to find out.

Symptoms Of Rotator Cuff Injury

  • Trouble lifting your hands
  • Trouble reaching behind your back
  • Weakness of the shoulders
  • Difficulty sleeping on the side of the affected shoulder
  • Crackling sensation while doing certain movements
  • Increased shoulder pain at night

If you have any of these symptoms, you must check with your doctor immediately. Your doctor will ask about your daily activity routine, medical history, and age, do a physical examination, and may ask you to get an X-ray and/or MRI done.

If a rotator cuff injury is confirmed, you will be on NSAIDs or may require to opt for surgery. Post surgery, the recovery will take place in four different stages:

  • First, immobilize your shoulder for 4-6 weeks.
  • Second, you will do passive movement exercises for 4-6 weeks, where the physical therapist will stabilize your arm at a particular position and gently exercise the rotator cuff muscles without any effort from you. This will help improve the strength, flexibility, and stability of your shoulder joint.
  • Third, you will perform active exercises for 3-6 weeks to further improve range of motion, strength, and flexibility.
  • Fourth, you will perform strength training exercises for 8-12 weeks using resistance bands and light weights.

In this post, I will talk about the exercises recommended in the third and fourth stages of recovery. You will learn about the various active exercises you may perform under the supervision of your physical therapist. Talk to your doctor and therapist before starting these exercises. At any time, if you experience increased pain, stop immediately and seek medical attention.

With these points in mind, let’s see which exercises are best for increasing strength, stability, and range of motion after rotator cuff injury.

12 Best Exercises To Strengthen The Rotator Cuff Muscles After Injury

1. Side-lying External Rotation

Target – External rotators

How To Do

  1. Hold a 1-pound dumbbell with the hand of the affected shoulder. Flex your elbow so that your upper arm is perpendicular to the forearm. Keep your hand pronated. Place a towel below your elbow for support.
  2. Lie down on a mat, support your head on a foam roller or rolled towel. Stretch your other arm out in front of you.
  3. Slightly bend your knees. This is the starting position.
  4. Slowly, pull your hand up, keeping the elbow bent.
  5. Bring it back to the starting position.

Sets And Reps

3 sets of 8 reps in the initial stage. Increase the reps and sets as you progress.

2. High-To-Low Rows

Target – Rhomboids, traps, and lats.

How To Do

  1. Hold the rope attached to the cable stack with both your hands.
  2. Step back and get into a staggered stance. Keep your core tight, and weight on the front foot.
  3. Pull the ropes back with your elbows going down and back. Squeeze your shoulder blades.
  4. Release the hold slowly and extend your arms fully.
  5. Repeat.

Sets And Reps

3 sets of 8 reps

3. Reverse Fly

Target – Posterior deltoids, rhomboids, and traps.

How To Do

  1. Hold a 1-pound dumbbell with the hand of the affected shoulder. Flex your elbow so that your upper arm is perpendicular to the forearm. Keep your hand pronated. Place a towel below your elbow for support.
  2. Lie down on a mat, support your head on a foam roller or rolled towel. Stretch your other arm out in front of you.
  3. Slightly bend your knees. This is the starting position.
  4. Slowly, pull your hand up, keeping the elbow bent.
  5. Bring it back to the starting position.

Sets And Reps

3 sets of 6 reps

4. Lawn Mower Pull

Target – Anterior deltoids, pectorals, lats, biceps, and hamstrings.

How To Do

  1. Hold one edge of a broad resistance band. Secure it by stepping on the other end of the band. Twist the band in your hand for the required amount of resistance.
  2. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, and the free hand placed on your waist. This is your starting position.
  3. Straighten your knees and stand. As you do so, pull the resistance band with your elbow pointing back, and your shoulder blades squeezed.
  4. Drop back to the starting position.

Sets And Reps

3 sets of 8 reps

5. Doorway Stretch

Target – Subscapularis and pectoralis.

How To Do

  1. Stand near a doorway. Keep one foot in front of the other, your arms on the door, your elbows at shoulder level, and your neck in neutral position.
  2. Move forward slowly and feel the stretch in the front of your shoulder.
  3. Hold it for 30 seconds. Release.
  4. Do 2-3 shoulder rolls and repeat.

Sets And Reps

2 sets of 6 reps

6. Pendulum

Target – Shoulder joints

How To Do

  1. Rest your good arm on a table, lean over, keep one foot in front of the other, and the affected hand hanging.
  2. Start swinging your body so that your arm starts to swing as well. Direct the swing to clockwise and anticlockwise directions.

Sets And Reps

5 sets of 10 clockwise and 10 anticlockwise movements.

7. Crossover Arm Stretch-Low Rows

Target – Posterior deltoids, lats, and triceps.

How To Do

  1. Place the hand of the affected arm on the opposite shoulder. You may use your good arm as support to do so.
  2. Grab the elbow of the affected arm with your good arm and raise it to the shoulder level.
  3. Gently and slowly, pull your elbow toward the opposite shoulder. You will feel a stretch along the side and back of your shoulder.
  4. Hold it for 20 seconds and repeat.

Sets And Reps

2 sets of 10 reps

8. Sleeper Stretch

Target – Posterior shoulder

How To Do

  1. Lie down on the affected side. Keep your arm a little extended out so that it is not directly below your shoulder.
  2. Flex your elbow and keep your forearm in an upright position.
  3. Hold the wrist of your affected arm with the other hand.
  4. Gently push your affected arm down and hold for 10 seconds.
  5. Release.

Sets And Reps

3 sets of 5 reps.

9. Shoulder External Rotation

Target – Teres minor, posterior deltoid, and infraspinatus.

How To Do

  1. Stand near a door with the affected arm facing away from it. Secure a resistance band on the handle of the door. Hold the other end of the resistance band with your affected arm.
  2. Flex your elbow so that the forearm is perpendicular to the upper arm. This is the starting position.
  3. Keeping your elbow close to the body, pull the resistance band away from your body.
  4. Get it back to the starting position and repeat.

Sets And Reps

3 sets of 8 reps

10. Shoulder Internal Rotation

Target – Subscapularis, teres major, and lateral deltoids.

How To Do

  1. Stand near a door with the affected arm near it. Secure a resistance band on the handle of the door. Hold the other end of the resistance band with the affected arm.
  2. Flex your elbow such that the forearm is perpendicular to the upper arm. This is the starting position.
  3. Keep your elbow close to the body and pull the resistance band toward your body.
  4. Get it back to the starting position and repeat.

Sets And Reps

3 sets of 8 reps

11. Resisted Shoulder Extension

Target – Teres major, lats, posterior deltoids, and triceps.

How To Do

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Anchor a resistance band in a doorway.
  2. Hold the other end of the band. This is the starting position.
  3. Pull the band and move your elbow back.
  4. Get back to the starting position.

Sets And Reps

3 sets of 8 reps

12. Shoulder Abduction Using A Resistance Band

Target – Deltoid and supraspinatus.

How To Do

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Secure the resistance band under your shoes and hold the other end of the band with the affected hand. This is the starting position.
  2. Raise your arm out to the side in a slow and controlled motion. Stop when you feel pain.
  3. Return to the starting position in a slow and controlled motion.

Sets And Reps

3 sets of 10 reps

Key Takeaways

  • Aging can cause rotator cuff muscle injury. Persistent dull pain in your shoulder means you have a rotator cuff injury.
  • Trouble lifting your hands, weakness of the shoulders, and increased shoulder pain at night are some of the symptoms of rotator cuff injury.
  • Try side-lying external rotation, high-to-low rows, reverse fly, and lawn mower pull exercises to strengthen the rotator cuff.

Rotator cuff exercises help reduce shoulder pain and improve the range of mobility. Poor posture, overuse of hand or shoulder muscles, and incorrect techniques can all lead to rotator cuff injury. Weakness in shoulders, trouble reaching behind your back or sleeping on the affected shoulder side may all hint at a rotator cuff injury or strain. High-to-low rows, reverse flys, cross-over arm stretches along with the other exercises mentioned above can help you recover faster from shoulder pain or injury.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a rotator cuff tear heal on its own?

A rotator cuff tear may not heal on its own without surgery. However, not all rotator cuff injuries need surgery and may heal with exercises and other treatment methods.

What exercises should you avoid with a rotator cuff injury?

Squats with bars, deadlifts, swimming and exercises that put force on the shoulders and have a pulling effect on the arms should be avoided if you have a rotator cuff injury.

Do push ups help rotator cuff?

Deep push-ups should be avoided with a rotator cuff injury. However half push-ups and wall-pushps may help strengthen the rotator cuff when done properly and under supervision.

Is ice or heat better for rotator cuff pain?

Ice is better early on for rotator cuff pain as it may help reduce the inflammation. Heat may be used on injuries that linger beyond 6 weeks and may help loosen up tightened muscles.

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