Strengthening the Rotator Cuff

With all the shoulder-intensive movements we do at the gym (pull ups, push ups, bench press, push press, etc), we’re bound to experience some fatigue and shoulder issues. As long as we listen to our body and regularly strengthen our shoulders through accessory and prehab/rehab work, we can easily avoid injury.

Let’s start with the rotator cuff. What exactly is that? The rotator cuff is comprised of four muscles: Infraspinatus, Supraspinatus, Subscapularis, Teres minor. All of these muscles give stability to the shoulder and each has a specific, unique attachment to the upper humerus, or arm. Each muscle works in conjunction with the others to provide the harmony of motion essential for maintaining the muscular stability of the shoulders and preventing injuries such as rotator cuff tendonitis, labrum tears, and rotator cuff tears.

rotator cuff muscles injury

Here’s a picture of the shoulder joint with all the muscles removed, showing just the connective tissue, bursa, and ligaments.

Here’s a close up of the ligaments.

And here’s the labrum highlighted in green.

So what’s the point of all this? To show you that there is a bunch of tiny stuff involved with holding your shoulder together! Remember, the rotator cuff isn’t some intangible concept, it’s muscle! And every muscle can be made stronger! The best way we can strengthen the rotator cuff is with external and internal rotation exercises.

Strengthening the Rotator Cuff
Here are some exercises recommended by a physician that will assist you in strengthening your rotator cuff and potentially preventing injury.

Internal and External Rotation Dumbbell Curls.
Abduction Shoulder Dumbbell curls.
Forward Flexion Shoulder Raises/Forward Raises.
Pendulum Exercises: Circle & Reverse Circles.
Pendulum Exercises: Crosses.

It’s recommended to do three sets of each exercise for ten to fifteen repetitions, three times a week, with VERY light weight. You can use a 2.5# plate, a 5# plate, a tiny dumbbell, or one of the skinny mobility bands. The goal of these preventive shoulder exercises is to assist you in avoiding shoulder injuries and to elevate the level of your athletic performance and safety prowess. So remember to go at your own pace, so that all exercises can be executed with quality form. This is essential to the health of your shoulder.

Injuries to the Rotator Cuff
Rotator cuff injuries can affect individuals across a multitude of lifestyles and fitness levels. We’re all susceptible if we don’t prepare our bodies! These injuries can be devastating to a person’s well being and athletic performance, and can even make general day-to-day activities quite difficult. These injuries can be caused by over-exercising, lack of exercise, improper form, heavy and improperly controlled weights, or random accidents inside and outside the gym.

The biggest avoidable problem is the kipping pull up. At CrossFit South, we are adamant about being able to perform a strict pull up before the kipping pull up. Please follow the progressions! Always learn the strict movement before the kipping, even though strict movements are usually much harder to achieve. Kipping is using your lower body to assist in an upper body movement. Strict pull ups: upper body (arms and back). Kipping pull ups: using your hips to generate upward momentum. Strict pull ups use large muscles such as the latissimus dorsi, serratus anterior, lower trapezius, and also the smaller muscle groups – teres major, supraspinatus, teres minor, infraspinatus, levator scapula, and subscapularis – that protect your shoulder girdle from the intense movement of the kip.

The push press can be seen as a kipping movement. We dip and drive with our legs (lower body) to help move more weight quicker from shoulder to overhead (upper body). But you know what you learned before a push press? A strict press. If someone comes into the gym and can’t do a strict press, do you think they should pass over that and learn the push press first? Hell no!

Why are strict pull ups important? Being able to do them ensures that your shoulders have the strength base necessary to support kipping pull ups. Since there is no momentum involved with a strict pull up, you are relying on your shoulder muscles to move the load versus the momentum you create by kipping. Working towards your first kipping pull up without a strength base can do some serious damage if you aren’t at your strongest. Nobody wants a torn rotator cuff, labrum, biceps, slap tear, or shoulder dislocation because they cut corners to kip. Remember all those tiny muscles we talked about above? Those little things are essential to keeping the shoulder supported and mobile. If they aren’t properly strengthened, and cannot handle your bodyweight through a strict pull up, then they definitely aren’t strong enough to control your bodyweight PLUS all the downward momentum PLUS all the forward momentum created during a kip! Where’s all that momentum going to go? The ligaments, the connective tissue, and ultimately the labrum. One rep might not hurt you. Ten reps might not hurt you. But eventually somethings going to give. As we fatigue in the pull up, the rotator cuff loses the ability to stabilize the joint. And when we fatigue our shoulder position starts to get worse until we default into some pretty poor positions.

Now, kipping is not bad. But you have to listen to your body. If you can’t do a strict pull up, don’t do a kipping pull up. If you’re fatigued in a long ass work out, and can normally do 20 strict pull ups, but you’re struggling to bust out just a single kipping pull up, stop! Injuries are never worth it.

How can I get better at pull ups?
Do more of them! Ask a coach for help going through the progressions. Scapular pull ups, ring rows, negatives, isometric holds, and many more. In the meantime, you can check out some drills and skill work here, here, here, here, and here.