Rotator cuff training is boring. It’s like the broccoli of lifting weights; you know you should eat some, but you’d rather just skip to dessert (which in this case is probably Biceps Curls).
Lame as it may seem, rotator cuff training is a necessary evil if you want to lift heavy weights, play an overhead sport (baseball, softball, volleyball, etc.), or simply live a pain-free day-to-day life while keeping your shoulders healthy and happy. Unfortunately, even for the people who do some sort of rotator cuff training, it’s almost always botched in one form or another. If your cranky shoulders just won’t seem to go away, odds are you’re committing one of these errors.
With that in mind, let’s outline six mistakes to avoid if you want strong rotator cuff muscles that stand up to the wear and tear of lifting, throwing and whatever else your shoulders need to endure.
What is Your Rotator Cuff?
Before we can effectively strengthen the rotator cuff, it’s helpful to know exactly what it is and what is does. Your rotator cuff is a series of four muscles that surround the shoulder joint and work together to both move and stabilize the shoulder.
Photo via All-Care Physical Therapy Center
The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint, with the humerus (your upper arm bone) being the “ball” and the glenoid fossa the “socket.” The rotator cuff works to keep the ball safely in the socket whenever the shoulder moves. If the cuff isn’t strong enough, or if you lift or throw with poor technique, the ball may glide out of the socket, which could lead to injury.
While the cuff muscles are responsible for several different movements of the shoulder, the three main ones we want to train when we work out are:
- External Rotation (like rotating back to throw a baseball)
- Horizontal Abduction (raising the arm out to the side in a “T” motion)
- Dynamic Stabilization (keeping the “ball” in the “socket” while holding weights overhead or in front of the body)
If you cover those bases (and of course lift and throw with proper technique), you’ll give yourself the best chance of having healthy shoulders for the long run.
Mistake 1: Going Too Heavy
The rotator cuff muscles are relatively small compared to the bigger muscles of the upper body. The pectorals (chest), lats (upper back) and deltoids (shoulders) are much larger by comparison and can handle heavy weights. The cuff simply isn’t designed to toss around 45-pound biscuits, so if you’re trying to go heavy on your cuff-centric exercises, you’re doomed from the start.
For external rotation exercises, start as light as possible. If you’re using free weights, this is the time to use those cute little pink dumbbells you’ve been avoiding. If that’s too embarrassing, use a 2.5-pound plate at most. The Side-Lying External Rotation is a great example of a movement where a little weight goes a long way.
Mistake 2: Letting Bigger Muscles Take Over
As mentioned in the previous point, the cuff is surrounded by bigger, stronger muscles. It’s easy for those muscles to take over during rotator cuff exercises. The result? A weak rotator cuff that would rather take the day off than do its job.
To prevent these bigger muscles from taking over, you must perform your cuff exercises with:
- Proper positioning: Make sure the shoulder is lined up with the elbow. The shoulder, elbow and forearm should make an “L”. The shoulder blade should be gently (but not excessively) pulled toward the middle of your back.
- Use light weight: See the previous point. If you go too heavy, other muscles will jump in to help lift the weight.
- Control the tempo: Remember, the cuff muscles are small and aren’t meant for power. Go slowly both on the way up and on the way down during each rep.
Mistake 3: Going to Failure
It might be fun to squat until your legs shake or bench press until you can’t lift your arms, but your rotator cuff doesn’t enjoy the same kind of beatdown. Because the cuff muscles are postural (i.e., they’re meant for holding a static position rather than creating lots of movement), it’s better to train them with moderate intensity rather than all-out fatigue.
The cuff responds well to sets of 8-15 reps, typical of a hypertrophy (muscle building) or endurance approach. Make sure you use a weight that lets you use perfect technique and leaves 2-3 reps “in the tank” so if you had to keep going, you could.
And remember, your rotator cuff is still working hard during other movements. The cuff works overtime to keep the ball in the socket during heavy Bench Presses, Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups, and when throwing a baseball or softball. Chances are by the time you get around to actually training your cuff directly, it’s already tired, so don’t go to all-out failure on your cuff exercises.
Mistake 4: Not Using a Full ROM
Many people cut the range of motion (ROM) on their cuff exercises short for one of two reasons: Either the weight is too heavy, or their shoulder mobility is lacking. Besides missing out on strength and hypertrophy gains, cutting your ROM often means you’re not training your cuff in the positions where you’re most likely to get injured, such as:
- The “layback” position when throwing a baseball (shown below)
- The bottom of a Bench Press, Push-Up or Dip
- The top of a Pull-Up or Overhead Press
If your cuff exercises aren’t getting you into similar positions and ROMs, you’re missing the entire point of cuff training—to build robust shoulders that can handle these extreme positions.
So if you’re sacrificing ROM for weight, smarten up and go lighter. If you simply can’t get the ROM you need, use exercises like the Prone Shoulder External Rotation End Range Liftoff to gradually improve your ROM.
Mistake 5: Only Using One Position
Similar to the previous point, if you’re only using one position to train your cuff, you’re missing out on different levels of muscle activation and positions specific to other exercises and sporting movements. For well-rounded shoulder strength, hit the cuff from the following angles:
- External rotation at 30 degrees of abduction (such as the Side-Lying External Rotation shown above)
- External rotation at 90 degrees of abduction (best performed with a band or cable machine, as shown in the first video below)
- Horizontal abduction in a bent-over or face-down position (often called Reverse Flyes, as shown in the second video below)
You can split up these positions over the course of the week, or perform one set of each per upper-body workout.
Mistake 6: Ignoring Dynamic Stability
External rotations are by far the most popular category of cuff exercises, and reasonably so. But remember, the No. 1 job of your rotator cuff is to keep the ball in the socket, regardless of what position you’re in. That said, your cuff needs to be ready to “fire” at any given movement, especially if an external object (like a baseball or a barbell) threatens to tug the ball out of the socket.
That’s where dynamic stability exercises come in handy. These movements challenge the cuff’s ability to maintain a static position, such as…
Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Carries
Yoga Push-Up w/ Hand Switch
Front Plank Arm March
The bottom line on dynamic stability: Carry something overhead or in front of you, and walk or crawl on your hands with good shoulder positioning.
A little bit goes a long way when it comes to rotator cuff training. Perform 3-4 sets of 3-4 of the exercises outlined in this article twice a week (preferably during upper-body workouts) with pristine technique and you’ll give yourself the best chance of maintaining healthy shoulders.
Photo Credit: Getty Images, DJileDesign/iStock