4 Exercises for Rotator Cuff Strength


Last week we discussed shoulder impingement, now called Subacromial Pain Syndrome, and how the key to treating this condition lies with strengthening the rotator cuff muscles and the muscles that control the shoulder blade. This week, we will go over the rotator cuff anatomy, and provide you with 4 of our go-to exercises for strengthening the rotator cuff!


The rotator cuff consists of 4 small muscles; the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. All of these muscles originate on the shoulder blade (scapula) and insert onto the upper end of the humerus. When these muscles act in isolation the suparspinatus abducts the shoulder (raises the arm out to the side), the infraspinatus and teres minor externally rotate the shoulder (rotate the hand away from the body), and the subscapularis interally rotates the shoulder (rotates the hand towards the body). The below images show the rotator cuff musculature, and demonstrate these movements.

Now that we have discussed the anatomy and action of the rotator cuff muscules, it’s time to go over some exercises to strengthen this area and start getting you pain free!


The sidelying external rotation exercise is a great drill for the external rotators, which often require some isolated strength and endurance training. To properly perform this exercise, lie on one side with the other upper arm resting against your ribs and your hand on your stomach. Without rotating your body or lifting your upper arm off of your ribs, rotate your hand up towards the ceiling, until your hand is in line with, or just above the shoulder. Once you reach this height, lower your hand slowly back to your stomach. The pictures below demonstrate the proper starting and ending positions. Start with a weight that you can tolerate for 3 sets of 10-12 reps.


The bottoms up kettlebell screwdriver is a slightly more advanced drill than the sidelying external rotation, and targets all 4 rotator cuff muscles. Holding the kettlebell in the bottoms up position increases the stability demands of the exercise, and the slow rotations of the screwdriver motion challenge shoulder control. To perform this exercise start by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. With a bottoms up grip, press a light to moderate weight kettlebell up towards the ceiling. In this position, slowly rotate your whole arm clockwise and counter-clockwise as far as is comfortable. The pictures below demonstrate proper performance of this exercise. We recommend performing 3-4 sets of 6-8 rotations in each direction.


The no money drill with a band is another great way to improve the strength and endurance of the external rotators, however, this exercise also improves the strength of your rhomboids and mid traps (scapular muscles). To perform this exercise, keep your arms locked in by your ribs and grab a band with your palms facing up. Without losing contact between your arms and ribs, rotate your hands away from each other, and then slowly return to the starting position. Perform 3-4 sets of 12-15 reps


One of our favorite rotator cuff exercises is the farmer’s carry. This exercise works the whole rotator cuff musculature in two different ways. The weight in your hand provides a traction force that pulls the arm down in the shoulder joint, and the rotator cuff muscles have to work hard to oppose this force. Also, as you walk, you have to use those cuff muscles to prevent unwanted forward/backward and side-to-side movement of your arms. The below pictures demonstrate proper farmer’s carry technique. Perform 2-3 sets of 50-100 ft carries to begin with.

There are many other exercises that you can use to build shoulder and rotator cuff strength, but these 4 are great drills to begin with!

If you are currently experiencing shoulder pain, call one of our offices or email ryan.vannieuwenhuyze@usphclinic.com to find out if/how Physical Therapy can help you fix your pain and get you back to doing the activities you love!

Waterford office: 860-444-8713

Mystic office: 860-536-1699

Niantic office: 860-691-8960