Your rotator cuff is made up of multiple muscles and tendons. These attach the bones of your shoulder and form a protective shield. They help power and stabilize your arm and shoulder movements. It is common to overuse your rotator cuff. When this happens, you can have tendinitis or a tear in one or more of the tendons or muscles. This can cause pain, stiffness, weakness, and further damage.
Rotator cuff exercises are important to prevent and treat injuries. They help strengthen your muscles and improve flexibility. Follow the recommended movements below.
Path to improved health
Before you begin, you should assess your current range of motion. This will help to keep track of your progress. A doctor or physical trainer can assist you with this.
You should warm up your arms and shoulders first. This can consist of basic stretches:
- Stretch 1: Cross your right arm straight across your chest to the left. Grip your upper right arm with your left hand. Hold for 30 seconds and then switch sides.
- Stretch 2: Lift your right arm up overhead then bend it behind your neck. Grip your right elbow with your left hand and gently pull your elbow back so that your hand can get closer to the base of your neck. Hold for 30 seconds and switch sides.
- Stretch 3: Stand with your feet slightly apart for the pendulum stretch. Bend forward at the waist and let your arms hang straight down. Keep your arm and shoulder muscles relaxed and move your chest back and forth slowly to allow your arms to swing slowly back and forth. Do this for about 30 seconds.
- Stretch 4: Start in a standing position with your feet slightly apart. Place the end of a rolled-up towel in your right hand. Lift your right arm overhead and cross it behind your back. With your left arm, reach around behind your back and underneath to grab the bottom of the towel. Hold for 30 seconds and switch sides. Repeat 3 times. Over time, try to decrease the amount of space between your hands on the towel. Eventually, you may be able to remove the towel and hold onto your hands. The closer together your hands are, the better your shoulder flexibility.
- Stretch 5: Stand with your right side against a wall. Lift your right arm along the wall behind you to 90°. Turn your palm inward and hold for 30 seconds. Turn your palm outward and hold for 30 seconds. Switch sides.
Then, you can move on to the strengthening exercises:
- Exercise 1: Lie on your right side on a table or bed. Your right arm should be extended overhead with your head resting on your arm. Place a rolled-up towel under your right armpit. Lift your left arm to shoulder height with your elbow bent 90°. Your left forearm should be forward with your palm facing down. Keep your left elbow in place and raise your left forearm. (Your arm motion should be going up.) Hold for 2 to 3 seconds and return to your starting position. Repeat and switch sides.
- Exercise 2: Lie on your right side on a table or bed. Your right arm should be extended overhead with your head resting on your arm. Place a rolled-up towel under your right armpit. With your left arm at your side, bend your elbow 90°. Your left forearm should be forward with your palm facing down. Keep your left elbow touching your side and raise your left forearm until it’s level with your shoulder. (Your arm motion should be going out, away from your body.) Hold for 2 to 3 seconds and return to your starting position. Repeat and switch sides.
- Exercise 3: Lie on your right side on a table or bed. Your right arm should be extended overhead with your head resting on your arm. Place a rolled-up towel under your right armpit. With your left arm at your side, bend your elbow 90°. Your left forearm should be forward with your palm facing down. Keep your left shoulder in place and raise your left arm in line with your shoulder, about 45°. Your elbow should still be bent. Hold for 2 to 3 seconds and return to your starting position. Repeat and switch sides.
Things to consider
Having good shoulder posture can help prevent shoulder pain. Many people with shoulder pain often lift or hunch their shoulder forward. Work on improving your posture if you find yourself slumping or hunching. Throughout the day, focus on bringing your shoulder or shoulder blade down and holding there.
Another exercise is to stand against the wall with the back of your head, shoulders, legs, and heels touching the wall. Notice if your painful shoulder blade doesn’t touch the wall completely. Keep trying that position throughout the day.
There are other options for the strengthening exercises. You can do them standing up. You can use hand weights or a resistance band to make the stretches more difficult. For each exercise, you should do 20 to 30 reps, 3 to 5 times a week.
Keep your range of motion small at the beginning and increase it over time. If you choose to use weights, start small and increase a little each week. Perform the exercises slowly. Jerky movements can cause pain or damage. Be careful if you have an injury or have had surgery on your rotator cuff.
You should be able to feel the stretches and exercises. However, they should not be painful. If you feel any pain, stop and talk to your doctor or physical therapist. You can ice your shoulder for up to 20 minutes. It’s best to use a plastic bag filled with ice cubes instead of a gel pack.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What should I do if the exercises cause pain?
- How long do I need to do these exercises?
- Are there any other exercises I should do?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.