ALL EXERCISES for Strengthening the Rotator Cuff

November 11, 2015 by VAHVA Fitness

Training rotator cuff is vital for maintaining good shoulder health, to prevent injuries and to maintain a good structural balance. Strengthening the rotator cuff can produce amazing results in your entire upper body. 


The rotator cuff exercises are categorized in two glenohumeral articulations:

1. Medial rotation (internal rotation)

2. Lateral rotation (external rotation).

It's important to train both of these motions to ensure the structural balance of the shoulders. Benefits of training the rotator cuff include:

  • Bulletproof shoulders that are less prone to injury.
  • Healthy and balanced shoulders which perform better in all exercises. 
  • Training the rotator cuff helps you bust through plateaus. 
  • Maximize your strength and size potential in the entire upper body.
  • Training the internal rotation will improve your muscle ups. 

The external rotation primarily consists of three muscles: teres minor, infraspinatus and posterior deltoid. Muscles worked in the internal rotation are pecs, lateral deltoids, subscapularis and teres major.

If your pulling work is lacking behind your pressing work, it might be a result of weak external rotators. If you have trouble with pressing work like overhead presses, your internal rotators might not be strong enough.

The lack of structural balance works the other way as well. Weak external rotation strength might resist the progress of your bench press! 

When athletes ask the world-renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin on how to improve their bench press performance, Poliquin often asks them to focus on external rotations for a few months.

By strengthening the weak external rotators, athletes can improve their bench press by leaps and bounds without bench pressing.

Likewise, if you have been stuck in a certain weight for a long time with any particular exercise - it can be a result of lack of structural balance. Fixing the structural balance in the shoulders can make a massive difference.

If your body is not structurally balanced and the antagonist muscles aren't equally strong, your body will protect the body from injuries by hindering the progress of the agonist muscles.

Training the rotator cuff with the exercises we have listed in this article will improve the balance of your shoulders and as a result, help you bust through your current plateaus.

Just a few sets of rotator cuff exercises will grant amazing benefits and keep your body away from trouble.

Exercises for External Rotation

Lying External Rotation

lying rotator cuff exercise
lying external rotation

This is the exercise many physiotherapists and personal trainers recommend. However, with this variation the range of motion could be better.

It's also very easy to cheat with other muscles which take away from rotator cuff muscles you actually want to train. It's still a great exercise though. 

Standing External Rotation

standing rotator cuff exercise
standing external rotation

Standing external rotation is one of the best exercises you can do for your external rotators. 

The range of motion is the best you can get and if you manage to keep your elbows in place, all the targeted muscles will get work done very nicely.

Supported External Rotation

bench external rotation
elbow rotator cuff exercises

Supported external rotation is similar to the standing external rotation, except here your elbow is supported with a bench. You can also use your knee or any other surface.

The support makes sure you aren't able to cheat by moving your arms. This is one of the best variations you can do, because the range of motion is great and it's difficult to cheat. 

External Rotation With a Cable

cable external rotation
cable rotator cuff

Cable external rotation is similar to the standing external rotation, but here your rotator cuff muscles are feeling the resistance the entire range of motion of the exercise. 

This is an excellent rotator cuff exercise, except it tends to be too easy to cheat.

Cuban Rotations

cuban rotations
cuban rotations exercise

If I could do just one external rotation exercise, it would be this. With cuban rotations it's easy to keep the arms in the 90 degree angle. You will also train both arms at the same time.

Exercises for Internal Rotation

Lying Internal Rotation

lying internal rotations
lying internal rotation

Lying internal rotation is one of the most common way bodybuilders train their internal rotators. The exercise is fine, but the range of motion is not as good as it could be.

This one is good for people with injured or immobile shoulders, because it doesn't require much shoulder mobility at all. 

Internal Rotation With a Cable

rotator cuff cable exercise
internal rotation with a cable

Cable internal rotations are a great exercise with the maximal range of motion. With this variation, the other muscles like biceps can assist the repetitions too much - depending on your execution of course. 

Like with the cable external rotations, the internal rotation with a cable also works the muscles the entire range of motion of the exercise.

Lying Overhead Internal Rotation

overhead internal rotation
overhead internal rotations

This is my recommended internal rotation exercise. The range of motion is the best you can ask for and it's almost impossible to cheat.

The only downside is that this exercise requires more mobility in the shoulders than the other internal rotation exercises.

How to Train the Rotator Cuff

With any of the rotator cuff exercises above, you should focus on rotating the arm, not just moving the weights. 

You can do rotator cuff exercises in your warm up or in the end of your workout. You can dedicate one workout or one day for mobility work as well.

Pick 1-2 exercise and do these exercises for 3 to 5 sets per each exercise. Take 1-2 minutes of rest between sets. The optimal range for repetitions tends to be between 5 and 15 repetitions. 

You can train rotator cuff a few times per week. Once a week is also ok.

How heavy should you go with rotator cuff exercises?

The goal for serious athletes is to be able to externally rotate 50% of their bodyweight with two arms. This means that if you are using just one arm, then aim for 25%. 

Almost everyone will start with light baby weights though. Start with just 2.5 kg/5 lbs weights and gradually work your way up. Be careful, because doing too much too soon can hurt your rotator cuffs. 

All of these exercises isolate the rotator cuff, but some bigger compound exercises can also train the rotator cuff very effectively. I.e. face pulls whether you use a cable, weights or gymnastic rings will heavily train the external rotation. 

If you don't feel like doing any of these external rotation exercises, face pulls can be a great alternative. Face pulls will also make your upper traps and posterior deltoids grow.

I've primarily focused on structural balance for the past few months and I see great improvements in posture and many exercises that were lacking behind. 

Train hard, stay safe.


samuli jyrkinen

About the author 

Samuli Jyrkinen

Samuli is the ninja behind the scenes (photography, videography, websites, program platforms and more). He has been training religiously for over a decade and has a firm grasp of physical and mental fitness. You will find our story here.

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