Exercises for Rotator Cuff Injury Recovery

Julie Kirk
Rotator Cuff Pain

After an accident or repetitive motion injury to the shoulder, doing the right type of rotator cuff exercise for a full recovery is essential. The shoulder is not only one of the most used joints in the body (second only to the knee) but also most prone to injury and deterioration due to age.

Safe Rotator Cuff Exercises

The following are four exercises that are useful for healing rotator cuff injuries.

Get Doctor Approval First

Of course, any shoulder exercise should only be attempted with the consultation and approval of a licensed orthopedic physician. However, these exercises also work to strengthen and maintain shoulders that are healthy, and adding them to your regular exercise regimen can be very useful as well.

External Rotation - Lying on Side

This exercise will help increase strength and flexibility.

  1. Lie on your side.
  2. Rest the top arm against the side of your body and bend elbow at the 90-degree angle.
  3. Keeping that 90-degree angle and your upper arm against your rib cage, lift/rotate the arm up toward the ceiling. A light handweight can be added as your shoulder strengthens.
  4. Slowly return to starting position.
  5. Do eight external rotations. Then repeat the exercise on the other side.
  6. Do two to three sets.

Internal Rotation - Standing

This exercise will also strengthen and stabilize the rotator cuff.

  1. Stand tall.
  2. Bend one elbow at a 90-degree angle. Your other arm is down at your side.
  3. Your elbow should be against your side and your forearm extended to the front and parallel to the floor.
  4. Slowly rotate your arm inward towards your abdomen. Pause and return to starting position.
  5. A light handweight or cable band (attached securely at elbow level) can be added as your shoulder strength increases.
  6. Do eight internal rotations and repeat on the other side.
  7. Do two to three sets.

Pendulum Circle Exercises

This exercise will help with shoulder movement, strengthening and will reduce stiffness.

  1. Start in a standing position.
  2. Bend forward at a 90-degree angle. Brace your arm on a chair for support.
  3. Allow the other arm to hang comfortably.
  4. Begin to make small circles using the weight of your hanging arm. Keep the movements controlled.
  5. Do 10 circles in one direction and pause. Repeat 10 circles in the opposite direction.
  6. Do five sets of the exercise two to three times a day.

Pendulum exercises can also be performed in a rocking forward/backward motion as well as a side-to-side motion. If all three exercises are performed, different muscles of the rotator cuff are sufficiently exercised.

Wall Push-Ups

This exercise is a scapular exercise that will help improve strength and help stretch muscles.

  1. Stand facing a wall about 18 inches away.
  2. Place your hands on the wall with arms outstretched. Your hands should be at shoulder height.
  3. Slowly bend your elbows in until your face nearly touches the wall.
  4. Keep your back and hips straight.
  5. Slowly push back extending arms to the original position.
  6. Do three sets of 10 wall push ups.

Once you feel stronger, you can attempt push-ups on the steps or the end of couch and gradually work your way down to the floor for traditional push-ups with bent knees or straight legs.

Isometric Exercises

Isometric or static exercises can also help strengthen your rotator cuff after an injury. Again, do these exercises with your physician's approval. These include:

Isometric External Rotation

This exercise will help strengthen the teres minor and infraspinatus muscles of the rotator cuff.

  1. Stand with the side of your body about six inches from a wall.
  2. Bend elbow at a 90-degree angle.
  3. Use a folded towel or pad and place against the wall.
  4. Press back of hand (or you can make a fist) gently but firmly against the wall and hold for five seconds.
  5. Release, pause and repeat 10 times on each side.
  6. Do two to three sets.

Isometric Internal Rotation

This exercise also helps strengthen the muscles of the rotator cuff.

  1. Stand and face the corner of a wall.
  2. Bend elbow at a 90-degree angle.
  3. Use a folded towel or pad and place against the wall.
  4. Press the palm of your hand (or front of your fist) gently but firmly against the wall and hold for five seconds.
  5. Release, pause and repeat 10 times on each side.
  6. Do two to three sets.

Isometric Extension

This exercise will help strengthen the muscles at the back of your shoulder.

  1. Stand with your back against a wall.
  2. Bend elbow at a 90-degree angle.
  3. Use a folded towel or pad between your elbow and the wall.
  4. Gently but firmly press elbow back against the wall.
  5. Hold for about five seconds.
  6. Do two to three sets.

Isometric Flexion

This exercise will help strengthen the muscles at the front of your shoulder.

  1. Stand and face a wall.
  2. Bend elbow at a 90-degree angle and make a fist.
  3. Place a folded towel or pad against the wall.
  4. Press knuckles gently but firmly into the wall keeping your arm stable.
  5. Hold for about five seconds.
  6. Repeat 10 times on each side.
  7. Do two to three sets.

The Healing Process

After doing these shoulder exercises along with the rest of your doctor-approved regimen, icing the shoulder (especially if injured) will help increase healing and decrease chances of further damage. Keep in mind that research online can only provide limited feedback; consulting with a personal trainer, physician, or physical therapist is highly recommended when trying to pick the most effective rotator cuff injury exercises. Some of the best exercise for the rotator cuff is usually some activity, such as tennis, which will simply use the shoulder in natural ways, keeping it limber and strong for years.

Proceed With Caution

When the rotator cuff is injured, one of the biggest challenges to healing is the lack of blood flow to the area combined with the tendency for people to try to do too much too soon. Regular therapeutic massage is one method of improving blood circulation, as is following the R.I.C.E.R. acronym: rest, ice, compression, exercise, and referral. That "E" for exercise is the one that is most dangerous. It's very easy for someone to push themselves too quickly and re-injure the muscles and tendons which hold everything together. Speak with a doctor or other professional in person before attempting any exercises with an injury.

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Exercises for Rotator Cuff Injury Recovery