12 Rotator Cuff Exercises with Bands & Shoulder Pulley
Do these exercises regularly to keep your shoulders healthy and injury free or to recover from existing injuries.
The rotator cuff is actually a group of muscles and tendons which surround the shoulder joint and are responsible for joint motion stability. Rotator cuff injuries are extremely common in active people.
Several years ago I injured my shoulder doing jujitsu. After suffering for a year I eventually had surgery, then waited another year for my shoulder to fully recover. Two years of not being able to do what I love – not something I’d wish on anyone!
Why do rotator cuff exercises?
Luckily, many shoulder injuries are avoidable just by doing some rotator cuff strengthening exercises twice a week.
The easiest way is to do rotator cuff exercises with resistance bands, because they can be used to apply resistance to any movement from any angle.
I recommend using physical therapy bands (pictured) for these exercises. They’re cheap, easy to use and available in several resistance levels.
But for many of the exercises, you can also try:
You can also do rotator cuff pulley exercises using a shoulder pulley.
In this post, I’ve included four pulley exercises, but you can also check out my post on shoulder pulley exercises to find out what else you can do with this tool.
Rotator Cuff Exercises with Bands
You can do these exercises in any order. Try to do at least one set of each exercise. To strengthen your rotator cuff, exercises #1, #2 and #8 are the most effective as they involve rotation of the shoulder joint. But for good shoulder health you should aim to do all of these exercises.
#1 Internal Shoulder Rotation
Secure the band to a fixed object such as a door handle. Hold on to it with some tension in the band. Keep your elbow close to your side (you can put a rolled towel between your body and upper arm to limit arm movement). Rotating your shoulder inwards, stretch the band as far as possible. Make sure you keep your shoulder back and elbow in.
#2 External Shoulder Rotation
Same as above, except this time you are rotating your shoulder outward. Be sure to keep your shoulder back (not hunched forward) and your elbow in to your side. Putting a towel between your body and upper arm may help, but is not essential.
#3 Horizontal Arm Extension
Hold the band horizontally with arms at shoulder level in front of you. Keep your elbows slightly unlocked and your posture upright. Pull the band apart as far as possible and hold briefly, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Don’t let your shoulders hunch up.
#4 Rear Arm Extension
Hold the band behind your back with arms straight (elbows unlocked). Pull the band apart, keeping an upright posture. Hold briefly in final position.
#5 Lat Pulldown
Hold the band over your head at arms length. Keep one arm straight and firmly braced. Pull the band downwards and outwards to head-height using your other arm. Return to start and then switch arms.
#6 Diagonal Shoulder Flexion
Secure the band below waist level and hold onto one end with your arm straight and your hand at the opposite hip. Pull the band upward and away from your body without bending your arm. Keep your posture upright throughout the exercise.
#7 Vertical Arm Extension
Hold the band with straight arms extended in front of you. One arm should be higher than the other. Pull the band apart, moving the arms in a vertical plane. Return and then switch arms.
#8 Outward Shoulder Rotator
Hold the band with your forearms extended in front of you and elbows held in to your sides. Stretch the band apart by rotating your shoulders outward. Keep your forearms horizontal. Your shoulders should stay in a natural position, not hunched up or forward.
Rotator Cuff Exercises with a Shoulder Pulley
The shoulder pulley is used for passive exercise and to stretch/strengthen the rotator cuff. As mentioned, you can read my full shoulder pulley guide here.
#9 Front Stretch
Fix the pulley at the top of the door frame and sit in a chair facing away from the door. Hold the handles with arms straight in front of you. Stretch one arm up as far as you can and then switch arms. Use passive resistance during the movement to exercise your shoulder. Do this as a continuous movement for as long as you feel comfortable.
#10 Side Stretch
Same as above except this time your arms are out to the side.
#11 Backward Stretch
Stand side-on to the door. Using the pulley, lift one arm behind your back, as in the picture. Stretch the shoulder as far as comfortable, and apply a little passive resistance in the movement.
#12 Shoulder Rotation
Standing side-on to the door, pull arm so that it is rotating outwards. Do not let your shoulder hunch up or slump forward. Maintain a natural upright posture, and keep your elbow fixed at your side. Holding a rolled up towel between your elbow and body can help with this. Then switch arms.