As I’m sure you know, working out with a shoulder injury can be really discouraging. But, instead of putting a complete stop to your workouts, try these 8 safe exercises for rotator cuff injury.
These exercises will not only help you keep your hard-earned gains, but promote your recovery as well.
I divided them into either shoulder, chest, or back exercises for your convenience. Jump through each section by tapping any of these bullets:
- Shoulder exercises that don’t harm your rotator cuff
- Chest exercises you can do with a rotator cuff injury
- Back exercises to avoid worsening your rotator cuff injury
- Why you should still exercise despite your injury?
Shoulder exercises that won’t harm your rotator cuff
1) Pendulum exercise
Easy yet effective, it’s the only one in this list that targets the flexibility of your joint capsule as a whole. This helps relieve your shoulder pain and improves your mobility.
Here’s how to do it:
- Hold onto a chair or table with your good arm and bend forward using your hips.
- Relax and let your injured arm hang freely.
- Use your lower body to build momentum, shifting forward and back or side to side.
- Let your upper arm bone gently swing with your body.
- Do this for 10 repetitions.
Now, I get this might not seem very challenging (because it’s not). But it’s an exercise that we – physical therapists – use to help relieve shoulder pain. So you might as well do it, too.
2) Crossover arm stretch
Your joint capsule plays a huge role in your injured arm. If you have an inflexible capsule, you’re more likely to have shoulder impingement, for example. (1)
So, if you’re feeling some tightness at the back of your shoulder joint, your joint capsule may be responsible for that. Some stretching in that area will help, here’s how to do it:
- Gently pull your injured arm across your chest as far as you can.
- You should feel a light stretch at the back of your affected arm and shoulder blades.
- Hold this stretch for 30 seconds, rest, and repeat for a total of 3 times.
3) External rotation with resistance band
Strengthening your rotator cuff helps you recover faster. (2)
And a safe way to do this is with resistance band rotations. This is a beginner-friendly exercise that helps target your rotator cuff muscles without the risk of re-injury. (3)
Here’s how to do it:
- Hook a large theraband to something that won’t move.
- Stand in front of it and grab the band with your affected arm.
- Tuck that arm beside your body and bend your elbow to 90 degrees.
- If you’ll work on your right shoulder, turn your entire body clockwise. Turn counter-clockwise if it’s your left.
- Stop turning when your bent elbow forms a 90-degree angle with the resistance band.
- Pull the band away, while keeping your arm tucked beside you and your elbow bent to 90 degrees.
- Once the resistance band is taut, slowly return your arm back to the starting position.
- Repeat for 10 times.
4) Shoulder Taps
Shoulders taps are a great way to add core strengthening to your program. Strong abdominal muscles help aid shoulder stabilization by promoting good posture and balance. (4)
Here’s how to do them:
- Begin in a pushup position with your elbows straight.
- Make sure that your hands are in line with your shoulder and keep your back straight.
- Lift one hand and tap your opposite shoulder.
- Repeat with the other side. Doing both sides count as 1 repetition.
- Repeat 10 times.
Chest exercises that are safe for a rotator cuff injury
Push-ups improve shoulder stability and joint awareness. Both of which you probably lack because of your shoulder issues.
This exercise doesn’t need any equipment and is a very accessible conditioning exercise. To do it:
- Get on all fours with your hands a little wider than your shoulders.
- Keep your head and spine in line, with your elbows straight.
- Lower your whole body until your chest is close to the floor.
- Pause for a few seconds, and push yourself up, back to your initial position.
- Repeat 10 times.
6) Doorway stretch
Rounded shoulders tend to give little room for the rotator cuff to pass through your shoulder blade. (5) So, fixing this posture can help you heal this shoulder injury.
You can do this by stretching your chest muscles with this exercise:
- Line yourself in the middle of a doorway.
- Place your hands at the side of the door, forming the letter T (to stretch the upper part) or letter V (for the middle-lower part)
- In that position, bend your elbows 90 degrees.
- Then, lean forward and push yourself into the door.
- You should be feeling the stretch on your chest and shoulders.
- Hold this for 30 seconds and repeat thrice.
Back exercises to do with a rotator cuff injury
7) Band pull apart
Often neglected, having strong upper back muscles can prevent slouching and shoulder pain. (6) You can easily strengthen these muscles with the help of a resistance band. Here’s how:
- Stand with your head and neck in good alignment.
- Hold a resistance band shoulder-width apart, with your palms facing upward.
- Lift your hands to shoulder height and pull the band apart while squeezing your shoulder blade.
- Return to the initial position and repeat for 10 times.
8) Standing row
Strengthening your shoulder blade muscles is important to improve your neck and shoulder alignment. This will reduce strain on your rotator cuff and other upper body muscles.
This exercise is a safe way to do so, here’s how:
- Start with a cable machine or a long resistance band looped on a stable pole. Set them at chest level.
- Stand in front of it and grab the band with your injured side.
- Take a few steps back to stretch the cable/band.
- Pull the band towards you while squeezing your shoulder blade.
- Once the band is taut, straighten your elbows back to starting position.
- Repeat for 10 times.
Why are exercises important for a rotator cuff injury?
Your rotator cuff pain is probably due to years of overuse, matched with poor shoulder mechanics. That’s why, as tempting as it is, resting your shoulder joint will only bring temporary pain relief.
Rotator cuff exercises can help you counteract this. Preferably through a shoulder conditioning program to fix your movement.
That way, you’ll improve your chances of recovering from your shoulder injury permanently. (7)
What is the rotator cuff?
Your rotator cuff muscles are four muscles in your shoulder region. They assist in moving and stabilizing your upper arm.
What are the risk factors of common rotator cuff injuries?
Being middle-aged, overuse, previous shoulder injury, trauma, cigarette smoking, and your genes. (8)
How to prevent rotator cuff injuries?
Warm-up before any strenuous activity, maintain a good posture, avoid cigarette smoking, and schedule rest between activities.
When should I see my doctor for my rotator cuff injury?
Severe shoulder pain, difficulty sleeping at night due to pain, inability to lift your arm above parallel.
You don’t need to feel pain whenever you want to work out. Or worse, skip the training session altogether. Try any of the strengthening exercises above to help you work your way around your shoulder injury.
Yet, as not all shoulder injuries are the same, stop if you feel pain. Consult your physical therapist or doctor for proper medical help.
- Mihata, Teruhisa et al. “Effect of posterior shoulder tightness on internal impingement in a cadaveric model of throwing.” Knee surgery, sports traumatology, arthroscopy : official journal of the ESSKA vol. 23,2 (2015): 548-54. DOI: 10.1007/s00167-013-2381-7
- Littlewood, Chris et al. “Exercise for rotator cuff tendinopathy: a systematic review.” Physiotherapy vol. 98,2 (2012): 101-9. DOI: 10.1016/j.physio.2011.08.002
- Reinold, Michael M et al. “Electromyographic analysis of the rotator cuff and deltoid musculature during common shoulder external rotation exercises.” The Journal of orthopaedic and sports physical therapy vol. 34,7 (2004): 385-94. DOI: 10.2519/jospt.2004.34.7.385
- Radwan, Ahmed et al. “Is there a relation between shoulder dysfunction and core instability?.” International journal of sports physical therapy vol. 9,1 (2014): 8-13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3924603/
- Yamamoto, Atsushi et al. “The impact of faulty posture on rotator cuff tears with and without symptoms.” Journal of shoulder and elbow surgery vol. 24,3 (2015): 446-52. DOI: 10.1016/j.jse.2014.07.012
- Bayattork, Mohammad et al. “The effectiveness of a comprehensive corrective exercises program and subsequent detraining on alignment, muscle activation, and movement pattern in men with upper crossed syndrome: protocol for a parallel-group randomized controlled trial.” Trials vol. 21,1 255. 12 Mar. 2020, doi: 10.1186/s13063-020-4159-9
- Desmeules, François et al. “Efficacy of exercise therapy in workers with rotator cuff tendinopathy: a systematic review.” Journal of occupational health vol. 58,5 (2016): 389-403. DOI: 10.1539/joh.15-0103-RA
- Yamamoto, Atsushi et al. “Prevalence and risk factors of a rotator cuff tear in the general population.” Journal of shoulder and elbow surgery vol. 19,1 (2010): 116-20. DOI: 10.1016/j.jse.2009.04.006