The shoulder joint boasts impressive mechanics that allow for incredible mobility of your arm, shoulder, upper back, and chest. But there’s a downside to all that freedom: More opportunities for pain and injury. “A ton of people have shoulder pain,” says Dr. Paul LaBounty, a physical therapist and associate professor of exercise and sport science at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. “It’s probably the most problematic joint in the body.”
This is why strengthening your rotator cuff is so important. “The rotator cuff is made up of four muscles, and their primary job is to add stability to your shoulder joint,” LaBounty says. “More specifically, three of those muscles are humeral head depressors.” As he explains, the humeral head is the knobby part of your upper arm bone (your humerus) that sits inside the shoulder joint. The rotator cuff’s humeral head depressors work to pull your humeral head down whenever you reach your arms overhead, preventing the humeral head from rolling upward and banging on the ‘roof’ of your shoulder, known as the acromion process.
If the humeral head depressors aren’t doing their job and the humeral head is constantly infringing on the subacromial space — the gap between the top of your humeral head and the roof of your shoulder — you risk impingement syndrome and inflammation, which can cause serious shoulder pain. “The rotator cuff — specifically, the humeral head depressors — pull the humerus down as you abduct your shoulder, preventing it from hitting the acromion. This protects the shoulder joint, allowing it to perform the way it should perform,” LaBounty says.
In a perfect world, every well-rounded program would include exercises to strengthen the rotator cuff, especially those all-important humeral head depressors. “Shoulder pain is a common issue, and preventative exercises pay off,” LaBounty says. "Ideally, you’d make time for them.” They’re not hard to mix into your routine. Just add a few of the following moves to your upper-body workout to keep those shoulders strong and healthy.