The Rotator Cuff: What it is and How to Respect it
Your joints aren’t just where bones meet. Joints are protected and made useful by muscles that move those bones and contribute in holding them together. The greater range of motion a joint has, the more it relies on muscle and the more susceptible it is to injury.
If you think that your shoulder is just where your arm goes into your body, you’re not respecting your rotator cuff. That can lead to overuse injuries that can put you out of the game for a while.
Here we’ll talk about the muscles and bones that make up the rotator cuff and how you can build and tone these muscles while avoiding injury and overuse.
What is the Rotator Cuff?
The shoulder consists of three bones, the humerus, the scapula, and the clavicle. The humerus is the upper arm bone and the top of it is incompletely surrounded by the scapula, or “shoulder blade” and the clavicle or “collar bone.”
The muscles that move the upper arm when you throw a ball, do jumping jacks, etc. don’t just move the upper arm, they help to hold the bones in place. The major muscles involved in this include the Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Teres Minor, and Subscapularis. Those aren’t names of major muscles so you might not have heard of them – unless you read our article on back muscles.
These muscles and bones together make up the Rotator Cuff.
Rotator Cuff Injuries
The rotator cuff muscles are relatively small and all very internal. This means that they are not as susceptible to the stress tears that can happen in larger muscles. That doesn’t mean that they cannot be injured.
What Causes Rotator Cuff Injuries?
The rotator cuff is particularly susceptible to overuse injuries. Rather than coming from lifting too much, stretching too far, etc., overuse injuries are caused by relatively low-intensity actions that are repeated over and over again.
Common examples throwing baseballs and footballs. However, any time that you are doing repeated motion with your upper arms, particularly above your head, you’re susceptible to rotator cuff overuse injuries.
What Happens if You Injure Your Rotator Cuff?
In addition to pain and discomfort, these injuries can make it harder to use your arm in the future.
Further, if you don’t use your rotator cuff muscles enough after your injury and during your recovery, you can get a permanent mobility problem commonly referred to as “frozen shoulder.”
If you think that you might have a rotator cuff injury, talk to your trainer or healthcare provider. They can help you to determine how serious the injury is and what to do about it to minimize your downtime and maximize your range of motion after recovery.
Preventing Rotator Cuff Injuries
So, other than never moving again, what can you do to guard against these injuries?
Don’t Push Yourself too Hard
One way to prevent overuse injuries is to prevent overuse. That means limiting sessions of activity that use your arm and shoulder muscles heavily, taking breaks in between those sessions, and taking rest days when you don’t perform those activities at all.
Listen to Your Body
Even if you limit lengths of sessions and take rest days, you can still hurt your rotator cuff muscles through pulling or straining a muscle through overexertion.
If you feel a pain – that’s a sharp, very localized pain that comes on suddenly – stop what you’re doing for a while, RICE the area, and monitor it.
If the pain goes away after a couple of hours or less, you’re in the clear. If the pain gets worse, starts bruising, or lingers for more than a couple of days, see your trainer or primary care provider.
It may seem odd that working out can both cause and prevent rotator cuff injuries – but it’s true.
Overuse can cause these injuries but that’s less common if the joint is regularly used and the muscles are kept strong and tone.
Best Workouts for Preventing Rotator Cuff Injuries
So, what are the best exercises for preventing these injuries – without causing them?
It’s pretty hard to target the small, internal muscles that make up the meat of the rotator cuff. However, a number of bigger and more dynamic muscles that surround the rotator cuff are much easier to work out.
These include the bicep,tricep (Cecil, p. 92), pecks, delts, trap (Warner, p. 114), and lats (Cecil, p. 149). Basically, any time that you’re moving the upper arms with reference to the body, you’re working this set of muscles. However, a couple of exercises are of particular use.
If you’ve been working out for very long, you know that there are countless exercises and exercise variations that target these muscles. So, we’ve picked some of our favorites. For the most part, that means exercises that you can do without machines and when possible without weights.
Protecting your rotator cuff is about muscle development but it’s also about flexibility. So, any exercises that builds flexibility is going to help you protect yourself.
That means yoga, stretching, all of those activities that body builders are all-too-likely to overlook.
Row and Modifications
Rowing is a great upper-body exercise that can help to build a lot of those muscles that surround the shoulder. The only problem is that you need a rowing machine or a boat. The good news is that there are some great rowing modifications that work most of the same muscles, target some new ones, and use free weights rather than gym machines. These are the bent over row (Warner, p 70), and the upright row (Warner p. 101).
One simple exercise that you may not have heard of is the shrug (Warner p. 109). Simply put, you hold a weight in each hand with your arms at your sides and bring your shoulders towards your ears. It’s a simple exercises but it targets the shoulders like nothing else can.
Pushup and their modifications as well as Benchpresses (Warner p. 52) – because those workouts are more-or-less the same, are also great workouts for the chest and upper arms – some of those big muscles around the shoulders.
Benchdips (Warner p. 40) are like upside down push ups. The exercise involves setting on the floor with your feet in front of you and your hands on an elevated surface behind you. You then raise yourself up and lower yourself down as a complete rep. It’s a great but underestimated exercise that targets the triceps.
Shoulder Presses are another great exercise to work the shoulders, of course. Pullups are also a valuable tool for the upper arms and upper body (Warner p. 64). Lat Pulldowns – upside down pull ups, can work the upper arms, upper body, but also the – lats, that great broad muscle across the lower and middle back that inserts on the humerus.
Treasure Your Rotator Cuff
Your rotator cuff doesn’t get as much love as it should. The muscles that make it up are small, obscure, and hard to see. But, if you don’t love it, you could lose it. So, be sure to use the exercises and advice in this article to keep your shoulders working like they should.
Cecil, Craig. “Supermen: Building Maximum Muscle for a Lifetime.” Cecil Craig. 2011.
Warner, Joe. “7 Rules of Building Muscle.” Dennis Publishing. 2011.