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Exercises for Rotator Cuffs

Hadyn Luke posted this on Thursday 28th of March 2013 Hadyn Luke 28/03/2013

Tags: Training methods

Exercises for Rotator Cuffs

Following on from our previous blog about rotator cuff muscles, their purpose and how they function, this blog looks at the exercises that a personal trainer could set to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles.

As previously explained, the four muscles that make up the rotator cuffs are:

  • Supraspinatus
  • Infraspinatus
  • Teres minor
  • Subscapularis

All of these muscles originate from the scapula and insert into the upper humerus. When devising exercises for the rotator cuffs, a personal trainer might look at isolation exercises to strengthen the muscles, but also integrate the muscles into a compound exercise to strengthen other muscles at the same time.

As the rotator cuff muscles are relatively small muscles, it’s better to exercise them with a rubber band or cable machine to avoid putting too much weight through each muscle. The emphasis is on isolating a particular muscle and working it through its full range of movement and activation, rather than lifting a heavy load.

Exercises for the supraspinatus

The supraspinatus is involved in the abduction at the shoulder joint. The muscle can be worked dynamically, for example using a rubber band to pull backwards and forwards.

Another exercise that would help strengthen the supraspinatus would be a lateral raise: lifting the arm away from the mid line of the body up to a 20° angle (after this, the deltoid would take over the movement) and returning it back down again.

Alternatively, a personal trainer might suggest that the client strengthen the muscle through a specific range of motion. This is particularly useful if the client has an injury or weakness in the muscle and is unable to move it through its full range of motion. Here, the client could hold the rubber band in two hands, pull the band apart until there is tension going through the band and hold the position before returning to the starting point.

Exercises for the infraspinatus and the teres minor

The infraspinatus and the teres minor have a reciprocal relationship and move in synergy. They activate the lateral rotation of the humerus, so a suitable exercise would be to hold a rubber band or a cable, start with the elbow bent and the arm held in front of the stomach and rotate the arm outwards, using the infraspinatus and the teres minor to rotate the humerus away from the body.

Again, this exercise is not about lifting a heavy weight but about isolating the shoulder girdle and keeping it in place to make sure that nothing but external rotation occurs from the mid line to the outside of the body. The personal trainer might start the client with a light weight and gradually increase it, or they could work in partial ranges of movement with an isometric hold, building up to working the muscle through its full range of movement.

Exercises for the subscapularis

The subscapularis works in the opposite direction from the infraspinatus and the teres minor. It is therefore used when you bring your arm in from an outside position and causes internal rotation. With the elbow bent and the arm out to one side, the client would hold a cable or rubber band and bring the hand in, until it rests in front of the stomach.

Similar to the previous exercises, the personal trainer could start the client with a partial range of motion and build up to a full range.

Compound exercises for the rotator cuffs

A personal trainer can use these exercises to train all of the rotator cuff muscles individually, in order to activate them before the client carries out a compound exercise such as a bench press. Equally, they could be carried out at the end of a gym session to strengthen the muscles. In both cases, they are helpful for a client who has a weak shoulder joint or has suffered an injury to the area.

As the rotator cuff muscles are fixators, helping to fix the humerus into the shoulder joint, they can be used in a compound lift, such as a bench press or a dumbbell bench press. To develop them even further, the personal trainer might suggest the client carries out a standing chest press using a cable machine. As cables are more unstable than dumbbells, the client would recruit the rotator cuffs even more than in a bench press, as well as strengthening other muscles such as the pecs.

Although the exercise routine could follow the normal progression of endurance to hypertrophy to strength, a fitness instructor would normally keep their clients working at around the 8-12 rep range, as the aim is to exercise the rotator cuffs in a full range of movement in a low intensity rather than put a lot of weight through the muscles.

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