8 Rotator Cuff Tear Exercises To Avoid (And What Movements To Do Instead)

Written by on January 8, 2022 — Medically reviewed by John Doe

Around 36% of weightlifting injuries happen at the shoulders – and a good chunk of these shoulder injuries happen to rotator cuffs. (1) So, to help keep you fit while you’re nursing your injured shoulder, we prepared a list of 8 rotator cuff tear exercises to avoid.

Here’s a summary of the exercises you should skip. Tap on any of them to understand why you should avoid it and what exercise to do instead:

Let’s start with:

8 Torn rotator cuff exercises to avoid

1. Dumbbell lateral raise

Muscle/s it targets: Middle deltoid, Supraspinatus, Trapezius

Why you should avoid it:

A staple for shoulder workouts, dumbbell lateral raises causes excessive wear on your rotator cuff because:

  • Your supraspinatus initiates lateral arm movement up to 15 degrees. (2) With a rotator cuff injury, you will be overworking the already damaged muscle.
  • You’re prone to doing shoulder shrugs. This compensation will cause the underside of your shoulder blade to compress your rotator cuff, causing further damage.

What to do instead: Landmine Lateral Raise

This is a more controlled version since you’re using the barbell’s pivot to move your shoulders. Here’s how:

  • Set- up the barbell with one end on the edge of a wall
  • Stand perpendicular to the other end of the barbell, holding the tip with your hand directly in front of your opposite hip
  • From there, lift the barbell across your body like your unsheathing a sword. Keep your elbows slightly bent.
  • Slowly lower the barbell back to the starting position.

2. Tricep Dips

Muscle/s it targets: Deltoids, triceps, chest

Why you should avoid it:

Here’s another commonly done exercise that hurts your rotator cuff. It’s mostly done on park benches, gym decks, or even the captain’s chair in your gym.

As convenient as it is, it does more harm than good with your rotator cuff because:

  • Your shoulders are not built to receive that much weight in such an awkward position
  • If you go too low, it adds excessive stress that can result in shoulder pain.

What to do instead: Tricep Cable Pushdown

You can use the cable machine at your gym or use resistance bands at home.

  • Grab the bar, rope, or resistance bands with both hands using an overhand grip.
  • Then, tuck your elbows close to your trunk with your elbows bent to 90 degrees and your body leaning slightly forward.
  • Straighten your elbows while pushing against the resistance. Avoid bending your wrist at the end.
  • With your elbows straight, hold that position for about 2 seconds then slowly move back to the starting position.

3. Military Press

Muscle/s it targets: Deltoids, triceps

Why you should avoid it:

The issue with a military press, whether you use a dumbbell or barbell, is your arm position.

See, the socket of your shoulders faces about 30º towards the front of your body. And with most overhead presses, you start and end with your elbows pointing outward.

This position alone puts you at risk of pushing your shoulder joint outside of its socket. That risk goes higher when you’re pushing a heavy object overhead, straining your rotator, and leading to shoulder pain.

 What to do instead: Landmine Press

This will help keep your shoulders stable while also avoiding pressing straight overhead.

  • Start with your feet hip-width apart.
  • With one end of the barbell wedged on the corner of a wall, grab the other end of the barbell with one hand and hold it in front of your shoulder.
  • Alternatively, you can use both hands if the barbell is still too heavy and hold it in front of your chest.
  • Push the weight up until your elbows are straight.
  • Slowly lower back down to the starting position.

4. Single Arm Rows

Muscle/s it targets: Rear Deltoids, rhomboids, middle trapezius

Why you should avoid it:

Most people have poor lifting techniques when it comes to pulling exercise. Here are a few errors that can result to shoulder pain:

  • Using momentum. This can give you a false sense of strength. You are more likely to use a heavier weight, increasing stabilization demand on your shoulder and rotator cuff.
  • Your elbows excessively going behind your body. This will slide the head of your upper arm bone forward in its socket and put too much stress on the front of your shoulders.

What to do instead: Seated cable row

This exercise puts you in a more stable position by sitting down with a cable to steady your shoulders. 

  • Sit on the bench in front of the cable machine. If your gym has a machine specifically for seated cable rows, use that.
  • Grasp the double D bar with both your hands.
  • With your legs slightly bent, pull the bar towards your belly and squeeze your shoulder blades while keeping your arms tucked near your body.
  • You can lean back just a bit to emphasize the pulling and squeezing motion.
  • Slowly return back to the starting position. Here, you can lean forward just a tad to emphasize the contraction of your lats.
  • Remember that only slight adjustments in your trunk and lower back are allowed here. Otherwise, you’re just using momentum which, again, gives you a false sense of strength.

5. Behind the neck lat pulldowns

Muscle/s it targets: Latissimus dorsi, biceps, forearms

Why you should avoid it:

Pulling the bar behind your head poses a health risk for your shoulders and spine.

  • The direction of the bar places your head in a forward alignment, causing muscle strains on your neck.
  • It puts your shoulder in extreme external rotation. It is a vulnerable position for your rotator cuff muscles and it places more stress on your shoulder capsule.

What to do instead: Front lat pulldowns

According to a study about arm positions, front-grip lat pulldowns work just as well as going behind the neck but it’s much safer for your shoulders and neck. (3

  • With your palms facing forward, hold the ends of the bar. The farther your grip, the more you isolate your latissimus dorsi.
  • Pull the bar down to your chest. Don’t lean backward too much, this transfers the focus to your rear delts rather than your lats.
  • Also, avoid pulling the bar down lower than chest level. This rounds your shoulders and hunches your back.
  • Slowly go back to the starting position.

6. Battle Ropes

Muscle/s it targets: Deltoids, core, forearms, back

Why you should avoid it:

Here’s the thing: Explosively moving a heavy rope using large and repetitive arm movements puts you at risk for a rotator cuff injury and shoulder pain.

Maintaining good form while doing battle ropes is hard enough if you have healthy shoulders. More so if you have a rotator cuff injury as your muscles are going to take a beating from keeping your arms stable.

What to do instead: Front plate raise

Holding an object with both hands takes off the pressure to stabilize your shoulders. 

Granted, this exercise will only work as a substitute if your purpose for doing battle ropes was to strengthen your shoulders.

This won’t work well as an alternative for high-intensity cardio.

To do it:

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  • Grab a weighted plate with both of your hands. Make sure it’s not too heavy.
  • Lift it in front of your chest while keeping your elbows straight.
  • Hold it there for a second then slowly lower the plate back to its starting position.

7) Kipping Pull-ups

Muscle/s it targets: Latissimus Dorsi, core, and arms

Why you should avoid it:

Mostly seen in CrossFit gyms, kipping pull-ups is another ballistic shoulder exercise you should avoid. Here are a few reasons:

  • The extremes of motion plus added torque to your shoulders can strain your rotator cuff muscles
  • More of an aerobic exercise instead of a strength workout. If you need to use your body’s momentum instead of muscle power, do a simpler exercise instead.

What to do instead: Inverted rows

It isn’t as hard as a strict pull-up but still targets the same muscle groups. Here’s how:

  • On the squat rack, set a barbell at slightly higher than knee level.
  • Lay on your back with your chest right under the bar.
  • Reach for the bar with both your hands then lift your body off the floor. If your arms are straight and you’re still touching the ground, the bar is set too low. Adjust as necessary.
  • Pull yourself up until your chest is near the bar
  • Slowly lower yourself back to starting position

8) Upright rows

Muscle/s it targets: Deltoids, trapezius

Why you should avoid it:

The higher you pull, the more likely you’re placing your tendons at risk for injury. Here’s why (4):

  • Because of your arm position, your rotator cuff muscles are already getting pinched under your shoulder blades.
  • As you pull the barbell, the added resistance and elevation can add more pressure to these same tendons.

So basically, the heavier the weight you use and the higher you pull, the harder your tendons will get damaged.

What to do instead: Cable Face Pull

You need a cable machine with two small ropes or one long resistance band:

  • Hold the ends of a rope/resistance band with your palms facing the floor
  • Take a few steps back until the cable/band is firm
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades while you pull the rope towards your face
  • Hold for a few seconds and return to starting position

What aggravates a rotator cuff injury?

As a whole, placing your injured rotator cuff in its vulnerable positions will cause its symptoms to flare up. These positions include:

Repetitive overhead motions

As a ball-and-socket joint, pressing weights overhead can be unstable for your shoulders.

Thus, it requires more contraction from your rotator cuff muscles to keep it stable. (5) With repetition, it can lead to microtrauma of your rotator cuff to a shoulder injury.

Exercises that need extreme shoulder rotation

Underneath our shoulder blades is a small gap where the rotator cuff passes through. This is important for two things (6):

  • Internal rotation decreases the size of the gap, compressing a rotator cuff tendon
  • Extreme external rotation needs the tendons to stabilize the upper arm to prevent dislocation

Adding extra weight while doing either of the two will further worsen your shoulder injury.

Using free weights 

Free weights, such as dumbbells, depend on proper form and require more control.

This can be difficult with a rotator cuff tear because your shoulder muscles are already compensating to stabilize your arm at rest and even more so with exercise. (7)

Related: How do you know if you have a rotator cuff injury?

Tips to get your shoulders ready before a workout

Do dynamic stretches

This type of stretching uses movement to improve shoulder flexibility. It helps prime the muscles better than static stretching without affecting strength and performance. (8)

A few examples include:

  • Arm Circles
  • Jumping Jacks
  • Pec Wall Hovers

Practice your form

Using a dowel or a resistance band before your actual workout helps you practice your form and technique. Good form is crucial to target your muscles without compensating or getting hurt.

Do aerobic exercises

This may come as a surprise but a high heart rate during a workout has shown to decrease chances of overuse injury. (9)

This may be because muscles react and contract better when they are warm. One example for your shoulder can be a few minutes of jump ropes.

This will help: 8 safe exercises you can do with a rotator cuff injury


Do shoulder braces help shoulder pain?

Yes. Shoulder braces help improve muscle activity and shoulder blade movement. (10)

Should I take painkillers before a shoulder workout? 

No. Experiencing pain is a signal that your activity is harming your body. Numbing your natural protective mechanism will only lead to more injury.

Supraspinatus tear exercises to avoid?

Avoid rotator cuff exercises that require lifting your arms above parallel. Examples are front and lateral dumbbell raise.

Subscapularis tear exercises to avoid?

Avoid shoulder exercises that need your arm to turn inwards. Examples are lat pulldowns, overhead swim stroke, and chest flys.

Are push-ups a bad exercise for the shoulders?

No, but push-ups require good strength and technique to avoid injury. Try kneeling push-ups first to improve your strength.

Is yoga good for the rotator cuff?

Yes. Yoga poses helps you go through all ranges of shoulder motion. It promotes mobility and joint health.


In my practice as a physical therapist, I know how tough it is to deal with a rotator cuff tear. Instead of pushing past pain, avoid the exercises listed above to keep your shoulder injury from getting worse.


  1. Golshani, Kayvon et al. “Upper extremity weightlifting injuries: Diagnosis and management.” Journal of orthopaedics vol. 15,1 24-27. 7 Nov. 2017, doi:10.1016/j.jor.2017.11.005
  2. Lam JH, Bordoni B. Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Arm Abductor Muscles. [Updated 2021 Aug 11]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537148/
  3. Sperandei, Sandro et al. “Electromyographic analysis of three different types of lat pull-down.” Journal of strength and conditioning research vol. 23,7 (2009): 2033-8. DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b8d30a
  4. Schoenfeld, Brad & Kolber, Morey & Haimes, Jonathan. (2011). The Upright Row: Implications for Preventing Subacromial Impingement. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 33. 25-28. DOI:10.1519/SSC.0b013e31822ec3e3
  5. Weiss, Leigh J et al. “Management of Rotator Cuff Injuries in the Elite Athlete.” Current reviews in musculoskeletal medicine vol. 11,1 (2018): 102-112. doi: 10.1007/s12178-018-9464-5
  6. Garving, Christina et al. “Impingement Syndrome of the Shoulder.” Deutsches Arzteblatt international vol. 114,45 (2017): 765-776. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2017.0765
  7. Calver, Ronelle et al. “Regional activation of supraspinatus and infraspinatus sub-regions during dynamic tasks performed with free weights.” Journal of electromyography and kinesiology : official journal of the International Society of Electrophysiological Kinesiology, 102308. 11 May. 2019, DOI: 10.1016/j.jelekin.2019.05.009
  8. Page, Phil. “Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation.” International journal of sports physical therapy vol. 7,1 (2012): 109-19.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3273886/
  9. Williams, Sean et al. “Heart Rate Variability is a Moderating Factor in the Workload-Injury Relationship of Competitive CrossFit™ Athletes.” Journal of sports science & medicine vol. 16,4 443-449. 1 Dec. 2017 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5721172/
  10. Chiu, Yuan-Chun et al. “The immediate effects of a shoulder brace on muscle activity and scapular kinematics in subjects with shoulder impingement syndrome and rounded shoulder posture: A randomized crossover design.” Gait & posture vol. 79 (2020): 162-169. DOI: 10.1016/j.gaitpost.2020.04.028