The rotator cuff is a very misunderstood group of muscles. We all know that it’s somewhere in the shoulder and is frequently injured, but it usually gets hazy when trying to create a specific plan to build functional rotator cuff strength. Understanding what the rotator cuff is designed to do can help us design an effective plan for building healthy shoulders.
Why Rotator Cuff Strength is So Important to Athletic Performance
The shoulder is designed to allow plenty of motion, and relies heavily on the surrounding muscles to provide the needed stability. Anytime we move our arm, the four rotator cuff muscles are supposed to work together to keep the humerus properly placed in the shoulder joint.
They are the shoulder’s essential dynamic stabilizers!
When we introduce external load to the joint, the importance of rotator cuff stability drastically increases. As the demand on the shoulder increases, the margin of error decreases. No matter if you are a weekend warrior or high level athlete, rotator cuff strength and stability are key to shoulder longevity.
Start with Rotator Cuff Stabilization
Before we jump into weighted internal and external rotations, it’s important to reinforce solid activation patterns to these muscles. We do this by focusing on building stability first. Again, this is the primary job of these muscles.
I have made two videos showing good ways to build dynamic rotator cuff stability.
The first video can work as a rotator cuff strength test as well as a stabilization exercise. If you have a friend or family member nearby, give this one a try:
This next exercise is an advancement as far as difficulty level, but can even further expose rotator cuff weakness. Watch for significant arm sway, as this can be a sign that you need to use a lighter kettlebell.
Progress to Rotator Cuff Activation
Now that we have laid a strong foundation with shoulder stability, let’s reinforce activation patterns to specific rotator cuff muscles.
The first part of this video shows an exercise that works really well as a warm-up. Keep pressure in the ball, and use small controlled oscillations.
The second exercise demonstrated is a more traditional rotator cuff drill. This side-lying position is very effective at activating the Infraspinatus.
Advanced Rotator Cuff Strengthening Exercises
You may start to notice certain movement patterns are more difficult that others. For most people, external rotation exercises tend to be harder.
This can often be contributed to our propensity to a rounded shoulder posture and an internally rotated arm position. The chronic lengthening of the rotator cuff external rotators can decrease neural drive and make them “weaker”.
To counteract this, most of our strengthening will be external rotation based.
Here are some of my favorite weighted rotator cuff strengthening exercises:
I recommend plugging these into your shoulder warm-up in this order.
Start with stabilization, move to activation, and finally integration.
Let me know how these work out for you!
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