Arm Exercises That Will Not Hurt the Rotator Cuff

By Michelle Matte

An injury to the rotator cuff can cause debilitating pain that cramps your style and keeps you from being active. Improving your lifting technique on common exercises can spare your rotator cuff and prevent pain and injury. Performing exercises that strengthen the muscles of the rotator cuff will further reduce your risk of injury.

Rotator Cuff Structure and Function

The rotator cuff is a complex of four muscles that work to stabilize and rotate your shoulder. These muscles also work with your deltoid muscles to abduct your arm, lifting it to the side. Because your shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint, it has the capacity to move in multiple directions. Many shoulder movements involve muscles that are larger and stronger than your rotator cuff muscles, such as your pectorals, deltoids, biceps and rhomboid muscles. If your rotator cuff muscles are weak or out of balance, they can easily be injured during exercise. If the stronger muscles that act at the shoulder are out of balance, they can cause painful pressure on the nerves that affect your rotator cuff.

Causes of Rotator Cuff Injuries

Many factors can contribute to rotator cuff tears and injury. In athletes, ballistic repetitive motion from throwing or striking, overhead motion and contact during sports are common culprits. Swimmers, tennis players, baseball players and powerlifters are at risk, as are football players and other contact-sport athletes. In the gym, damage can result from lifting weights that are too heavy, using poor technique, lifting too fast and lifting without a spotter. Poor flexibility in the muscles and tendons of your shoulder girdle can also be a contributing factor.

Correcting Common Execution Errors

Making minor adjustments in the way you execute common exercises can spare your rotator cuffs and contribute to improved stability in your shoulder joints. During the downward phase of a bench press, do not allow your elbows to drop below your shoulders. Limit your range of motion when doing chest flyes so that your elbows stay in front of your shoulders. When doing an overhead shoulder press, keep your elbows forward of your ears. During lat pulldowns, pull the bar to your chest, not behind your neck. For pull-ups, place your hands in a supinated position, palms facing you. Execute all your movements slowly and maintain control of your weights. Allowing your weights to drop can lead to rotator cuff tears. Always stretch all muscles worked immediately after your exercise session.

Strengthening the Rotator Cuff

Further protect your rotator cuffs by doing exercises to deliberately strengthen them. Do pronated lateral raises. Start by holding a 3-pound dumbbell at your side, palm facing backward. With a straight elbow, lift your arm to the side in a smooth arc to shoulder height, then slowly lower it. Do band lateral rotations. Start by securing a resistance band to a fixed object at waist height. Stand sideways to the fixed point holding the end of the band taut in your outside hand, your elbow at your waist and bent at 90 degrees. Rotate your arm outward as far as you can, keeping your elbow fixed at your side, then slowly return to start. Do traffic cops. Start by holding a 3-pound dumbbell in your hand, bending your elbow to 90 degrees and positioning your upper arm parallel to the floor with your lower arm pointing to the ceiling, palm forward. Maintaining your upper-arm position, rotate your arm downward until your lower arm points to the floor, palm backward. Return to start. Repeat all exercises eight to 12 times. Employ slow, controlled movement.

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