Form & Func­tion

Train­ing your ro­ta­tor cuff isn’t just for in­jury pre­ven­tion — it also can give your up­per back def­i­ni­tion and help im­prove press­ing and pulling strength as well as de­cel­er­a­tion ca­pac­ity.

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They may be small but they are im­por­tant. Here are two great moves to strengthen your ro­ta­tor cuffs.


Four lit­tle mus­cles make up the ro­ta­tor cuff that sur­rounds each scapula: the supraspina­tus, in­fraspina­tus and teres mi­nor on the pos­te­rior, and the sub­scapu­laris on the an­te­rior. Though the prime movers for shoul­der ex­ten­sion are ac­tu­ally the teres ma­jor and larger back mus­cles, the in­fraspina­tus and teres mi­nor help keep the head of the humerus in place as you move your arm down past your torso. Straight-arm pull­downs train this ac­tion with­out the as­sis­tance of your bi­ceps and will give you killer def­i­ni­tion on ei­ther side of your racer-back tank.

An­chor a re­sis­tance band at shoul­der height or slightly above, and stand with your feet hip­width apart fac­ing the an­chor. Keep your knees slightly bent and your core en­gaged to avoid tip­ping for­ward or us­ing mo­men­tum.

Hold one han­dle with your palm down and your arm at shoul­der height, then step away from the an­chor. A band pro­vides vari­able re­sis­tance, mean­ing there is less ten­sion at the top than at the end range of mo­tion, so play with your dis­tance from the an­chor to find that sweet spot.

Keep­ing your arm straight, pull it down and back un­til it comes just past your torso but not so far that your shoul­der and scapula tip for­ward, which al­lows in­ter­nal ro­ta­tors like your pecs to as­sist and de­tracts from the work of the ro­ta­tor cuff.

Hold the peak con­trac­tion for one to two sec­onds, then re­lease slowly back to the start and try to es­tab­lish a mind-to-mus­cle link in the area right be­hind your armpit. Use your other hand to lightly tap this area if you’re hav­ing trou­ble find­ing the con­nec­tion.

This move primes your ro­ta­tor cuff for sta­bi­liza­tion, and one to two easy sets can be done be­fore big­ger moves like rows and presses. But if you’re re­ally try­ing to tar­get a weak spot, save your more in­tense sets for the end of your work­out.


The abil­ity to con­trol the ec­cen­tric phase of in­ter­nal ro­ta­tion is a very im­por­tant ro­ta­tor-cuff func­tion. Imag­ine a ten­nis player let­ting her arm whip around as she serves the ball. The ro­ta­tor cuff has to de­cel­er­ate her arm af­ter mak­ing con­tact with the ball, oth­er­wise her shoul­der would fly right out of its socket. Sim­i­larly, ev­ery time you throw a medicine ball, flip a tire or do a push-up, the ro­ta­tor cuff gov­erns all that mo­men­tum and helps main­tain con­trol of your shoul­der. This move is sim­i­lar to a tra­di­tional in­ter­nal/ex­ter­nal ro­ta­tion ex­er­cise, but with the arm ab­ducted to 90 de­grees, it per­forms the ac­tion in a new range, help­ing sta­bi­lize your shoul­der and pre­vent in­jury.

Lie face­down with your belly on a sta­bil­ity ball and your toes po­si­tioned out­side shoul­der width for bal­ance. Brace your core and squeeze your glutes to main­tain con­trol of the ball, which will want to roll around un­der­neath you.

The goal is to teach these tiny ro­ta­tor-cuff mus­cles how to re­sist and con­trol ec­cen­tric forces with­out too much stress, so use a light set of weights. Take an over­hand grasp on the dumb­bells on ei­ther side of the ball with your palms fac­ing rear­ward.

Keep your head neu­tral and your spine aligned as you drive your el­bows to­ward the ceil­ing, squeez­ing your shoul­der blades to­gether and lift­ing un­til your up­per arms are par­al­lel to the floor and make 90-de­gree an­gles at your el­bows. If you feel any pres­sure or pinch­ing in your shoul­ders, lower your el­bows slightly to pre­vent the head of the humerus from crush­ing those in­te­rior mus­cles and ten­dons.

Hold­ing your el­bows in po­si­tion, ro­tate your arms to lift the weights in front of you be­side your ears un­til your fore­arms are par­al­lel to the floor. Avoid flex­ing and/or ex­tend­ing your wrists. Keep them straight and locked, as if de­liv­er­ing a punch, and move only at the shoul­der joint. Pause briefly and then lower slowly back to the wide row po­si­tion, then back to the floor.

The goal here is not to “feel the burn.” Fa­tigue can cause your form to fal­ter and put un­due stress on these small mus­cles, so quit while you still have a cou­ple of reps in the tank, rest and then do an­other set when you’ve re­cov­ered.

You also can per­form this move­ment stand­ing, start­ing with your el­bows lifted and your arms at 90 de­grees. Try hold­ing a re­sis­tance band or cable and use mul­ti­ple an­gles to im­prove strength, en­durance and con­trol in all planes of mo­tion.

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