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.
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Internal and External Rotation
Two of the most common rotator cuff exercises that help strengthen the all-important humeral head depressors are internal and external rotations using a resistance band or cable machine.
"There are three muscles that externally rotate you, and six that internally rotate you," LaBounty says. "The external rotators often aren’t targeted enough, so external rotation is particularly important when strengthening the rotator cuff."
- Hold a band in your right hand, with your right side facing the attachment point of the band.
- Bend your right elbow to 90 degrees, keeping your upper arm close to your side.
- Rotate your shoulder inward, drawing your right hand in toward your torso.
- Keep your core tight to avoid twisting your torso to the left as you rotate your shoulder.
- Perform two sets of 10 to 15 reps per side.
- Hold a band in your right hand, with your left side facing the attachment point of the band.
- Bend your right elbow to 90 degrees and keep your upper arm close to your side.
- Rotate your shoulder externally, drawing your right hand outward, away from your body.
- Keep your core tight to avoid twisting your torso to the right as you externally rotate.
- Perform two sets of 10 to 12 reps per side.
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Push-Ups With a Plus
The serratus anterior and traps aren’t part of your rotator cuff, but LaBounty points out that people with rotator cuff and shoulder problems often have weaknesses in these areas. By training these muscles, you develop control over the movement of your scapulae, preventing overcompensation of the supraspinatus (one of the rotator cuff muscles) and the deltoid when lifting your arms overhead.
Engage the serratus anterior with a push-up with a plus:
- Start in the push-up position with your hands under your shoulders and your body forming a straight line from heels to head.
- Keeping your arms straight, lower your chest between your shoulders, pinching your shoulder blades together.
- Press through your palms and lift your chest, widening your shoulders to create space between your scapulae and spine, pressing yourself past the high push-up position.
- Perform two to three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions.