How to Keep Your Shoulders Healthy, Part 3: Rotator Cuff Strength

Keep your shoulder healthy this season with three exercises to improve rotator cuff strength.

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In Parts 1 and 2 of our series on How to Keep Your Shoulders Healthy, we discussed the importance of improving mid-back (thoracic spine) mobility and developing scapular stability. In this final installment, we discuss how to strengthen the muscles of the rotator cuff to prevent shoulder injuries—a serious concern for athletes in overhead sports such as tennis, softball, volleyball and baseball.

As previously discussed, the shoulder is a highly complex joint, consisting of three bones linked by a number of muscles and a web of ligaments attached to four interdependent joints. One joint in particular, the acromioclavicular joint—referred to as the rotator cuff—is commonly afflicted by injury. The rotator cuff is encircled by four muscles:

  • Supraspinatus — abducts and compresses the shoulder
  • Infraspinatus — laterally rotates the shoulder
  • Teres Minor — laterally rotates the shoulder
  • Subscapularis — adducts and medially rotates the shoulder

Rotator Cuff Muscles

Collectively, the muscles of the rotator cuff provide dynamic stability for the shoulder, locking the head of the humerus into the cavity of the shoulder blade.

Rotator cuff injuries are particularly common among throwing athletes and recreational weightlifters, due to overuse or lack of strength. If a rotator cuff muscle is enflamed or injured, it is at risk for impingement and potential tearing. Also, an injury alters the natural function of the shoulder, which can have other damaging effects to the joint.

To prevent rotator cuff injuries, you must regularly perform exercises that directly engage these muscles. It's important to keep them strong to maintain shoulder stability and avoid time on the disabled list.

Rhythmic Stabilization Drill

  • Assume push-up position with hands on med balls positioned shoulder-width apart
  • Press hands against med balls, keeping upper back and core tight
  • Hold position for specified time

Sets/Duration: 2-3×15-45 seconds

Side-Lying External Rotation

  • Lie on side on training table, bench or floor with foam roller under head and rolled towel between top elbow and body
  • Grasp lightweight dumbbell with top hand and bend elbow at 90-degree angle; dumbbell should be directly in front
  • Rotate shoulder to slowly raise dumbbell to ceiling; keep elbow pinned against towel
  • Slowly lower dumbbell to start position
  • Repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 2×10-15 each side

Constant-Tension Scapular Raise

  • Assume athletic position, standing on resistance band
  • With arms at sides, tightly grasp resistance band just beneath handles
  • Pinch shoulder blades together and pull resistance band up until hands are at shoulder level and slightly-wider-than-shoulder width
  • Slowly lower hands to start position
  • Repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 2×8-10


Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS, is the head strength and conditioning coach at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, Pa. He has authored numerous articles on a wide variety of topics, including injury prevention, nutrition and improving athletic performance.

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