The rotator cuff is a series of muscles and their associated tendons responsible for providing the shoulder with support and stabilization.

Rotator cuff tears and lesser injuries can be completely debilitating and greatly impact your everyday life. In order to avoid these potential issues, it is a great idea to work out these muscles and strengthen them to lessen the likelihood that they become weakened to the point of tearing.

Before getting into some of the best exercises for your rotator cuff, it is important to learn exactly where the component muscles are located and how they function separately and together to give you range of motion along your shoulder joint.

The Four Muscles of the Rotator Cuff

Rotator cuff muscles

The rotator cuff is a collective term for the muscles responsible for rotation and abduction of the humerus or upper arm bone about the scapula or shoulder blade.

Aside from assisting in these critical movements, the four muscles of the rotator cuff also work to protect the extremely sensitive ball and socket joint.

The following are the four rotator cuff muscles complete with their function and location in terms of the humerus-scapula junction.

Supraspinatus

A very small muscle, the supraspinatus originates at the upper back. It actually connects to the top portion of the shoulder blade on one end and inserts at the top head of the humerus.

Its primary function is to aid in abduction of the arm from the side of the body.

If you were to lift your arms from the sides of your body to form a T-shape, it is this muscle that plays a key role in helping you achieve this movement.

It also works to prevent your humerus head from plunging downward and outside of its housing unit within its normal space in relation to the shoulder blade.

Infraspinatus

This muscle is much thicker than the supraspinatus and is shaped like a triangle.

Aside from aiding in stabilization of the ball and socket joint of the humerus and scapula, the infraspinatus’ main function is to allow external rotation along the said joint.

This triangular muscle almost completely covers the backside of the shoulder blade. It attaches at the broad end of the bone facing the midline of the body and inserts its other end at the head of the humerus closer to the lateral side of the bone.

This muscle allows you to move your arm backwards, letting you scratch your own back. It also works to rotate the upper arm externally or laterally. This allows you to move your arm away from the midline of your body.

Teres Minor

This muscle originates on the opposite lateral side of the shoulder blade away from the midline of your body.

It is a thin and long muscle that travels from the external end of the scapula and inserts at the top of the humerus and also on the backside of the capsule that works to protect the ball and socket joint.

Teres minor’s main job is to assist the deltoid or shoulder muscle in preventing the head of the humerus from sliding upward and beyond the socket of the scapula.

It also assists the infraspinatus in rotating the humerus externally or laterally.

Subscapularis

This muscle location can be deduced by breaking apart the name. Sub means below, and scapularis pertains to the scapula.

This means that the subscapularis originates below the scapula or shoulder blade in terms of its main external aspect that you can feel when asked to touch your shoulder blade.

It is just about identical in shape and size to the infraspinatus that covers the external shoulder blade.

The subscapularis is located in a space between the ribcage and the internal side of the shoulder blade, where it attaches on it originating end. The other end of the muscle inserts at the side of the head of the humerus closer to the midline of your body.

The subscapularis’ main job is to rotate the humerus internally or towards the midline.

Rotator Cuff Exercises

Man and woman exercise

The most common causes of rotator cuff injury stem from overuse. With constant repetitive rotation of the shoulder, these four muscles can become weakened and more prone to injury including stiffness, numbness, or even a tear in extreme cases.

In order to prevent injury and provide long lasting stability about your ball and socket joint, it is very important that you strengthen these muscles to allow them to withstand these daily demands. The following are 4 of the best exercises you can do to strengthen your rotator cuff.

Doorway Assisted Stretch

This exercise is exactly what it sounds like. You will be using an open doorway to both support yourself and give you an outlet for a full and complete stretch.

To begin, grab either side of the frame of the doorway, making sure that your arms are either level with or slightly below shoulder level. With one foot placed slightly behind the other in a staggered position, gradually begin lunging forward.

As your lunge increases, the stench you feel with your rotator cuff will increase as well.

It is extremely important that you take this stretch slowly. Performing it too quickly can result in an over-stretch that can bring with it its own set of potential problems. Avoid this by being mindful of the entire movement and move forward with an incrementally increasing stretch.

To ensure that you are zoning in on the rotator cuff, keep a straight back while lunging forward and concentrate your weight on the balls of your feet and toes.

Dumbbell Assisted External Rotation

Man holding dumbbells

To get started, lie on your side and use the resting arm as a headrest. Find a low-weight dumbbell (5 pounds maximum) and grasp it with the hand of the arm that will be stretched.

Bend your elbow at 90 degrees with your elbow resting on your side, with your forearm laying across your abdomen and your upper arm remaining fixed on the sides of your ribcage.

Once in position, begin to rotate your arm from your abdomen and to the sky, making sure your elbow and upper arm remain fixed in place. Remain in this fully rotated position for a few seconds before returning to the starting position with your arm at a 90-degree bend across your abdomen.

3 complete sets of 10 full rotations will suffice for one session. Performing two more sessions throughout the day is possible without issue as long as you follow the positioning correctly and take it slow.

Reverse Fly

The movement of this exercise will resemble that of a bird flapping its wings in a slow and careful manner. Light weights are recommended to aid in this stretch, which will adequately strengthen your rotator cuff if done correctly.

Feet should be shoulder width apart with slight bend at the knee and a straightened back bent at a decline about the waist of approximately 45 degrees.

Once in proper position, start with your weighted arms together and extend them slowly outward as if you are flapping your wings.

Make sure to leave a slight bend in your elbows to prevent them from locking up. During this movement, you should focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together while making sure that your arms never go past shoulder blade level.

Lawnmower Pulls

This exercise is a ton of fun to perform, but like all of the others, it is still crucial that you maintain proper form in a controlled manner throughout the movement.

To get started, hold both ends of a resistance band with one hand, creating a loop. Take your foot and step on the midpoint of the loop to be used as an anchor.

With your unused arm on your opposite hip, you are now free to begin the motion of pulling the band from the knee area and all the way up to should blade level. This motion should resemble that of the pull requires to start a lawnmower.

Again, focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together and perform the exercise in a controlled manner for 3 sets of 10 repetitions.

Key Takeaways from Rotator Cuff Exercises

Man Kneeling on a yoga mat

The rotator cuff is a set of four muscles responsible for allowing rotation about the humerus and shoulder blade and also plays key roles in providing stability to the ball and socket joint.

Performing stretching exercises can help combat fatigue and issues caused by overuse, by activating these muscles in ways that can strengthen them for the long haul.

 

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