It seems like a good idea to engage in shoulder exercise and do some rotator cuff stretches before a workout or if your shoulder has been giving you some pain. The shoulder can feel stiff, especially after a long day of sitting still at the desk or in the car. Stretching this important muscle group is a good thing, right? The proper exercises can help strengthen your rotator cuff, while the wrong ones can cause you trouble down the road.

The Basic Anatomy Of The Rotator Cuff

The rotator cuff is made up of four muscles: supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis. Together, these four muscles stabilize and hold the shoulder joint in place by forming a cuff around the upper arm bone. Separately, they all play a part in the rotation and range of motion of the shoulder.

The muscles of your rotator cuff are also interconnected within the three bones that make up your shoulder blade. There are small fluid-filled sacs called bursa that act as buffers between the muscles, tendons and bones. They aid in decreasing friction, rubbing and pain among bones, tendons, muscle and skin.

If any of the muscles or the bursa in the shoulder are injured or become inflamed, you may experience pain when performing certain activities, or it may be a constant ache. What are the most common sources of shoulder pain?

lady arm stretching

Common Shoulder Issues

Since your shoulder is made up of so many moving parts, it can be tough to home in on the real cause of your pain. The biggest giveaway is pain in the upper shoulder when reaching up overhead. This pain is most certainly coming from your shoulder and can be an indicator of a few different afflictions.

Impingement or tendinopathy:

When tendons, bursa or ligaments under the acromion (part of the shoulder bone) become compressed or pinched, it leads to direct contact with the bone. It occurs more frequently in people who perform repetitive overhead movements such as swimmers and volleyball players. It can happen due to age as well. Tightness in the joint capsule tissue surrounding the shoulder may also cause impingement.

Rotator cuff tear:

If you wake up feeling pain in the shoulder you've been sleeping on or if you have been experiencing increasing pain when performing regular tasks, especially those that necessitate raised arms, you may be suffering from a rotator cuff tear. A tear in a muscle or tendon, typically the supraspinatus tendon, will cause increasing pain that eventually results in muscle weakness and an inability to perform tasks effectively. The tear causes pain radiating from the front of the shoulder down the arm. A tear can occur due to an injury or repetitive use over time.

Rotator cuff tendinitis:

Tendinitis is the result of damaged or swollen tendons. In the case of shoulder tendinitis, it usually occurs at the top of the shoulder. People over 40 tend to get some form of shoulder tendinitis due to the aging process. Repetitive use over the years, especially for those folks who work in a field with lifting and reaching, accelerates this natural process.

If you suffer from shoulder pain, see a doctor to get a proper diagnosis. Before and after you go, know your limitations and avoid exercises that cause pain and eventual damage. Stop doing things that may cause you to injure or reinjure yourself by placing undue pressure or strain on the rotator cuff.

massaging the shoulder

Exercises To Avoid When Dealing With Shoulder Pain

Certain movements are bad for your shoulder. Some positions place an undue amount of pressure on the muscles of the rotator cuff causing them to stretch and eventually overstretch. You have probably seen people doing these moves, and odds are you've done them yourself.

1. Front Shoulder Stretch

The front shoulder stretch places an enormous amount of pressure and strain on the anterior capsule which causes it to stretch and overstretch.

The maneuver: Standing in front of a bar or doorway, twist to the right extending the right arm out straight behind to grab onto the door or bar. Twist back forward. The stretch can be felt all across the right upper chest and shoulder

The bad: Overstretches the joint capsular muscle.

The alternative: Arm circles. Doing simple arm circles can help strengthen the muscles of the rotator cuff. Raise your arms outstretched and at even height with your shoulders. Circle them 20 times forward and then back. You can do this exercise in three sets at a time.

The good: Strengthening exercise rather than a stretch.

2. Bended Arm Front Pulls

Placing your rotator cuff in an unnatural position is the number-one way to cause it pain or further injury.

The maneuver:  When seated, bend your right elbow and place your right hand behind your back. The posture should resemble putting your hand on your hip. With the left arm, reach around the front and hold the elbow. Start forcing the right elbow to move forward slightly, keeping the right hand firmly planted behind.

The bad:  This movement overstretches the rotator cuff muscle from the back. It recreates poor posture, such as the one people often fall into after sitting for long periods of time. If you've been sitting for seven hours of your day, you've already stretched these muscles.

The alternative:  90-degrees abduction and external rotation. While sitting (or standing), hold the arm straight out from the shoulder. Bend the elbow and hold the hand upright like you're waving Hi to someone. Keeping your shoulder bent, rotate the arm down until the palm is now facing the floor. The arm should still be up and even with the shoulder. Do this in three sets of 15 reps.

The good:  This movement is more natural for the shoulder to perform and it builds strength, especially if you start adding weights in small increments.

lady stretching arm front bend

3. Sleeper Stretch

Stretches like the sleeper stretch mimic the movements used by doctors to diagnose problems with the rotator cuff, using certain actions that will recreate pain to home in on the exact issue.

The maneuver: Lie down on one side with the bottom arm outstretched straight out from the shoulder. Next, bend the elbow keeping the upper arm straight across from the shoulder and dropping the forearm and hand down forming an upside down "U." Grab the "U" wrist with the other hand and gently pull up, raising the forearm only.

The bad: Jams the joint and may cause pain.

The alternative: Lie face down on a table or bed and bend your right arm at the elbow in the waving position. The palm and forearm should be face down on the surface as well, right on the edge. Leaving your elbow on the table, drop your hand down off the table and push down until the palm side is facing behind you. Pull the forearm back up until the palm is facing the floor. Do three sets of 12 reps on each side.

The good: Add weights as you become comfortable with this move to increase strength in the shoulder.

4. Arms Up and Press

The maneuver: Standing in a doorway or below a bar at the gym, extend your arms up straight to brace yourself in the door or grab the bar. Press the upper body forward forcing your shoulders to pull back and support your body weight.

The bad: Having the shoulders behind you in any fashion having to bear a lot of weight is a sure-fire way to cause damage to the muscles over the long run.

The alternative: Plank drag. Get into the plank position and hold it for a few seconds. Lift your right hand and sweep it across the chest and straight out to the right before dropping it back to the ground. Switch arms and repeat. Try and do three sets of 10 reps.

The good: The natural sweeping motion will loosen your rotator cuff muscle while the pressure on the other shoulder is helping to strengthen it.

5. Ballistic Reverse Fly

The maneuver: While standing, raise arms straight out to the sides up to shoulder height. Bend the elbows until you are in the fly position with palms facing forward. Push backward in a reverse fly motion.

The bad: While it may feel good, the motion will cause stretching in the rotator cuff and puts it in an unnatural position.

The alternative: Lawnmower pulls. Bend at the waist with one arm in the motion of pull-starting a lawnmower, and pull back as if you are starting the mower. You should keep your eyes on your hands. The exercise can be done flat on the ground or with the corresponding leg to pulling arm propped up on a chair or bench.

The good: As you do this natural shoulder motion, it works the muscles efficiently to strengthen all four. Eventually, add weights to increase strength.

Final Thoughts

Through all of this, remember to check with your doctor. Occasional shoulder pain is something that will happen as you age; however, constant pain or increasing pain needs to be properly diagnosed. You should stop doing all rotator cuff stretches until a doctor clears you in the event you have been recovering from an injury. Keep in mind that you don't need to necessarily stretch the muscles of the rotator cuff; you need to strengthen them.

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