Rotator cuff exercises

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that attach to the bones of the shoulder joint, allowing the shoulder to move and keeping it stable.

The tendons of the rotator cuff pass underneath a bony area on their way to attaching the top of the arm bone. These tendons join together to form a cuff that surrounds the shoulder joint. This provides the stability of the joint and allows movement of the arm bone on the shoulder bone.

Injury to these tendons may result in:

  • Rotator cuff tendinitis, when irritation and swelling of these tendons is present
  • A rotator cuff tear, when one of the tendons is torn due to overuse or injury.

See also: Rotator cuff problems

These injuries often lead to pain, weakness, and stiffness when you use your shoulder. A key part in your recovery is starting exercises to make the muscles and tendons in your joint stronger and more flexible.

Your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist to treat your rotator cuff. A physical therapist is trained to help improve your ability to do the activities you want.

Muscle Strengthening and Stretching

Many muscles surround your shoulder and lower back. When all of these muscles are working together well, they serve to stabilize your shoulder joint. When your shoulder is stabilized, there is less strain on your shoulder joint and muscles when you are active.

Before treating you, a doctor or therapist will evaluate your body mechanics. The therapist may:

  • Watch how your shoulder moves as you perform activities, including your shoulder joint and your shoulder blade
  • Observe your spine and posture as you stand or sit
  • Check the range of motion of your shoulder joint and spine.
  • Test different muscles for weakness or stiffness
  • Check to see which movements seem to cause or worsen your pain

After testing and examining you, your physical therapist or doctor will know which muscles are too weak or too tight. You will then start a program to stretch out your muscles and make them stronger.

The goal is to teach you proper techniques for using your shoulder with everyday activities, at work, or during sports activities. Exercises can help you heal from an injury and avoid re-injury.

See Rotator cuff - self care to learn how to take care of your shoulder and avoid placing extra stress on it.

If you just had surgery to repair your rotator cuff, see also:

Exercises for Your Shoulder

The goal is for you to function as well as possible with little or no pain. To do this, your physical therapist will treat your shoulder pain, help you strengthen and stretch the muscles around your shoulder, and teach you proper techniques to move your shoulder, for either everyday tasks or sports activities.

Before doing exercises, have your doctor or physical therapist make sure you are doing them properly. If you have pain during or after an exercise, the way you are doing the exercise may need to be changed.

Most exercises for your shoulder work to either strengthen (make stronger) or stretch the muscles and tendons of your shoulder joint.

Exercises to stretch your shoulder include:

  • Stretching the back of your shoulder (posterior stretching)
  • Hand up your back stretch (anterior shoulder stretch)
  • Anterior shoulder stretch - towel
  • Pendulum exercise
  • Wall stretches

Exercises to strengthen your shoulder:

  • Internal rotation exercise - with band
  • External rotation exercise - with band
  • Isometric shoulder exercises
  • Wall push-ups
  • Shoulder blade (scapular) retraction - no tubing
  • Shoulder blade (scapular) retraction - tubing
  • Arm reach

Alternate Names

Shoulder exercises

Update Date: 7/6/2011

Updated by: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.


Notice: The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. Copyright 1997-2012, A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.