Rotator Cuff Exercise - Mike Reinold

4 Myths of Rotator Cuff Exercises

Rotator cuff exercises are some of the most commonly performed exercises for both rehabilitation and corrective exercises. Considering the excessive mobility of the shoulder joint and crazy demands we place on the shoulder, it is no wonder that over 20% of the adult population has been shown to have some degree of rotator cuff tears!  Furthermore, as we age and the stresses applied become cumulative, the prevalence of rotator cuff tears increases.  That’s not even to mention all the people that may have shoulder impingement symptoms.

My past article on 3 Myths of Scapular Exercises was so popular, that I thought a similar article on myths of rotator cuff exercises was in order.

Below are some of my favorite myths of rotator cuff exercises, there are probably more than 4, but this is a start!

4 Myths of Rotator Cuff Exercises

Rotator Cuff Exercises Are Not Functional

Rotator Cuff Exercise - Mike Reinold

A very popular trend right now is an emphasis on “functional” training, and rightfully so in my mind. However, I have heard many people imply that performing isolated rotator cuff exercises is not functional, and even worthless! Oh, how I couldn’t disagree more.

I have mentioned this recently in presentations, but our shift to “functional” training may be swaying too far in one direction, which tends to happen in a cyclical fashion. If you’ve been out in the real world for more than a decade, you know what I mean. We appear to be in a very “functional movement” cycle right now.

I think this is awesome. Our professions have made really exciting progress in our understanding of how the human body functions. By understanding and applying concepts of functional movement patterns, we truly can help people move better and perform better.

However, we can’t forget the basics. I often comment on some of the many studies that have been published on ACL rehabilitation that compare a traditional strength program with a program that emphasizes neuromuscular control. These studies always tend to show that BOTH groups do well and improve their functional status. But I always say, why choose one? If both work well in isolation, imagine what a combined approach would yield!

Saying that rotator cuff exercises are worthless is a bold statement. I understand that the cuff’s main role is to stabilize, I have taught this endlessly throughout my career. But, I can’t help but think that a weak muscle can’t stabilize. How are we going to efficiently perform a functional movement pattern if we have underlying weakness and muscle imbalances?

Stick with the rotator cuff exercises when weakness is present. Get strong, then get functional, otherwise you may just be creating disadvantageous compensatory patterns.

You Get Enough Rotator Cuff Work During Other Exercises

While it is certainly true that the rotator cuff fires during all upper body strengthening exercises, how the cuff functions during different activities is important to understand. The cuff is active during activities to maintain stability of the shoulder joint. This does involve activity of the cuff, but not at levels that will produce strength gains.

I have seen very strong and powerful weightlifters and athletes have terribly weak rotator cuffs. It always catches up to them.

If You Use Heavy Weights Your Cuff Shuts Off and Larger Muscles Take Over

Myths of Rotator Cuff ExercisesThis is one of my favorites. You’ve probably heard this one before. The magic number seems to be 5, right? If you lift any weight over 5 pounds, your rotator cuff magically shuts off and your big muscles like your deltoid take over.

Have you ever taken a step back and thought about that?

I think I know where this came from. Imagine you had a pretty weak rotator cuff during an exercises such as side lying external rotation. You can comfortably perform the exercise with 3 pounds. If I were to give you a 15 pound weight, I bet your form would be awful and you would just sling your arm back using your posterior deltoid and trapezius muscles. That is obviously not good, any time you overload a weak muscle you will get compensation. That applies to every muscle in the body.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t slowly work your weight up to over 5 pounds as you get stronger. Why would you stop at 5 pounds? What if that isn’t challenging anymore? What is the point of that? Would you stop loading your squat at a certain weight and just sit there forever?

I routinely get patients into weight over 5 pounds when working the rotator cuff, some even in double digits. If you are compensating and using larger muscle groups, you may just not be strong enough for that weight.

Use the Same Weight During All Rotator Cuff Exercises

This one cracks me up and I am absolutely guilty of this myself! When we give someone a shoulder program to perform, why do we tell them to use the same weight for every exercise? Would you do this anywhere else in your body?  Today we are going to squat, lunge, and deadlift with the same weight… Sounds funny, right?

Challenge each muscle during each exercise. If a weight is too light for one exercise, go up. Don’t get stuck in the habit of using the same weight for every exercise or you will almost certainly not be maximizing your gains for each muscle group. Remember, the goal is to get stronger.

So there are 4 myths of rotator cuff exercises that you should consider.  What do you think about these myths?  Do you think there are more?  Like I said, there are probably more, but these at least came to my mind when I think about rotator cuff exercises.

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27 replies
  1. Michael Curtis
    Michael Curtis says:

    I was a little nervous I was going to be called out on what I’ve been doing wrong, but you reinforced some excellent, simple points that are often made more difficult for no reason. Thanks Mike!

  2. John Raine
    John Raine says:

    Great article and anyone who says the RC exercises are not functional should try hitting a heavy bag. Aside from the hip, the RC is a big part of delivering a powerful hook punch. The RC plays a big part of any punch in terms of that snapping end movement, quick retracting and shock absorption. I started doing RC specific exercises because traditional deltoid movements like the military press were not affecting my RC sufficiently to advance my punching efficacy. I think this has to do with my anatomy and I see this problem in many people (50%+ of the population). Traditional deltoid movements are not hitting the posterior and lateral heads at all. Or, they cause impingement in the RC or other areas (like bent over flyes which are great, but can cause problems in the RC or other areas). I started modifying my workouts to employ RC specific movements and I am getting a strong RC and my side and rear delotids are finally growing in proper proportion! So the RC movements are much better in these kind of cases. Also, When I used to reach around like to tuck my shirt into my pants, I’d feel very minor impingement. It’s like my RC wasn’t warmed up enough or there would be cracking. Not anymore. It’s always minimal now or doesn’t happen at all.

  3. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Is it possible to use 15 and 20 pounds for external rotation and internal rotation exercises if you have built up to this or would that be to much even if you are doing them right and not using other muscles?

      • George Smith
        George Smith says:

        yeah thanks,I do them with good form.I work out and lift heavy weight so I was just wondering with good form if it was ok or too much.
        I have been doing rotator cuff exercises for years and do them three times a week so was just making sure.

    • John Raine
      John Raine says:

      I use 15 pounds to do strict RC exercises and it is taxing – a good workout. It is making my RC even stronger and I have had no ill effects over the past year. I’ve only experienced gains in terms of side and rear delt size and RC strength. i feel less or no pain in anything I do that involves shoulder rotation. But it used to be that before I used RC exercises, I would always feel minor impingement and my range of motion was not limited, but I had to move at the pace of an old man but I am a young man. Read my post. I think this also has a lot to do with anatomy. There are also a large group of people who don’t have this problem and so they don’t see the difference when they do RC exercises so they’re being honest but arent aware of what’s going on with the other large group of people who have this problem. It’s the same reason why some people, pound for pound, can do more on certain exercises like the bench press or squat and it has very little to do with tendon strength, muscle size, gravity and so on. It’s anatomy since they’re better built for certain movements while others are not.

  4. D
    D says:

    Excellent write up Mike. The industry really is heavy on the functional side of things these days. I like what Ian King said about functional training… (paraphrased) it’s a new term being used to describe specificity. Which as you’ve so elegantly laid out well designed strengthening is more functional than “functional” movements done in a compensatory pattern.

    I’m also impressed with your polite demeanor discussing comments that really don’t make any sense (to me) at all. I don’t see how the labrum could hypertrophy at all from strengthening the rotators first of all, and secondly it seems like hypertrophy of the rotator cuff musculature should have no bearing on the space available for the joint itself to move, since the cuff is made up of the tendons of said muscles and the tendons don’t grow much to my knowledge unless there is a tendonopathy or some other pathology, but they don’t thicken like muscles do. Granted I expect a small increase in cross sectional area is likely to account for improved tensile capacity in the tendons at some point. Who knows maybe in some people this would be good for reducing joint laxity :)

  5. rweb82
    rweb82 says:

    The issue with doing rotator cuff exercises with weight in excess of 5lbs is not just that the deltoid gets involved, but that the small muscles (labrum, supraspinatus, rotator cuff) underneath will start to bulk up with heavier weight. The goal for athletes (such as pitchers) is to strengthen those muscles, but not build them up. If those smaller muscles start to get larger, the deltoid will begin pushing them against the bones underneath- resulting in pain. It is for this reason that athletes who throw should keep the weight at or below 5lbs for rotator cuff exercises.

    • mikereinold
      mikereinold says:

      Hmmm, I’m not sure I would agree that the mechanism you describe actually occurs. I don’t know of any biomechanical studies that support this. I do know that throwing makes you weak and the need to get strong probably outweighs the potential issue you describe.

    • Patrik Looft
      Patrik Looft says:

      I really think your comment is ill-informed. First off, the labrum is not a muscle. I don’t think it changes shape unless it is damaged. Secondly, the supraspinatus is part of the rotator cuff. Thirdly, why wouldn’t you be able to build size in the rotator cuff muscles with 5 pounds? If you work with a tiny female athlete, or just do enough sets and reps, 5 pounds could very well result in larger muscles. The same maximum weight can’t be applied to everyone!
      However, larger rotator cuff muscles would not automatically result in external impingement (which I suppose is what you are describing) seeing as only a tendon to one rotator cuff muscle, m. supraspinatus, passes underneath the acromion. And the tendon really can’t be expected to grow very much at all. The rotator cuff can indeed have a role in external impingement, but it is almost the opposite of what you are describing. One of the major causes of secondary external impingement is thought to be having a weak rotator cuff. When this happens the deltoid over powers the rotator cuff muscles which result in superior humeral head translation, impingement, and pain. So, one could probably argue that limiting athletes to training the rotator cuff with ONLY 5 pounds could make them more susceptible to secondary external impingement…

  6. Brad
    Brad says:

    Great post Mike. With regards to heavy weight for supraspinatus specific ex, any concerns for hypertrophy given the small subacromial space that it runs through? In your opinion, should we stick with lower weights/higher reps?

  7. Brian Justin
    Brian Justin says:

    Thanks Mike for your excellent points as per usual! My philosophy is Isolate then integrate then coordinate! . The pendulum in the fitness industry really swings too far in one direction and we forget the other methods that also brought results. As McGill states ” it depends” . Thanks Mike!

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  9. Guillaume
    Guillaume says:

    Do you think an excercise that could work for rehab or that people could start with could be doing the alphabet while the arm is at 90° in front or on the side of you. If you want to add weight you can do it with a basket-ball against the wall? Afterward you can add more weight for progression.

  10. Kieran
    Kieran says:

    It has never made sense to me that there should be an upper weight limit to cuff exercises. But because it’s always so widely preached I’ve never been able to figure out a logical strength progression and have actually just stopped at about 5lbs. Imagining I have a ‘healthy’ cuff that I’m trying to train as prehab, when do I increase weight and how? Even a 1kg increase seems like quite a big jump (or am I letting the preachers whisper scary things in my ear?)

    Would be interested in your opinion on this.

      • Caroline MIddleton
        Caroline MIddleton says:

        Well my lower arm extensors have become very sore and inflamed through work – tennis elbow tenditinitis. After one steroid injection I have now overcome the problem by eccentric loading of lower extensors using progressive weight overload. Until I increased the weight I saw no improvement at all!

  11. Brandon G. MscPT
    Brandon G. MscPT says:

    I come from a personal training and kinesiology background and I’m actually shocked at how often the rotator cuff is ignored in personal training regimes. I completely agree with all 4 myths here and have seen 2 and 3 commonly used by personal trainers.

  12. Stephen Thomas, PhD, ATC
    Stephen Thomas, PhD, ATC says:

    Mike you bring up a good point about the push for everything “functional.” I agree it is great we are progressing in our progression but functional training cant be the end all be all. Here is my take on performing rotator cuff exercises in isolation. With overuse training our group ( has been finding that the supraspinatus tendon begins to express more cartilage like proteins instead of tendon proteins. This is all done in the rat rotator cuff model. We find increased gene expression of col II and SOX 9. I think that during overuse the tendons are experiencing increased shear and compression loads which begin to lead the tissue into a cartilage phenotype. We have also shown that rest ( does recover this by eliminating the shear and compression loads. However, athletes don’t just want to rest so I think by performing isolated rotator cuff exercises we can return the tendon to a tendon phenotype but creating pure tension loads and eliminating the shear and compression. This is one situation that the exercises need to be performed in isolation and not in a functional approach.

      • Kevin R. Gennrich
        Kevin R. Gennrich says:

        Could this be a reason that rotator cuff repairs don’t always take? That the tendon after repair is expressing too much cartilage-like proteins instead of tendinous protein, thereby not allowing it to handle the compressive and shear forces applied to it following surgery? Or would the immobilization period following the repair, the “rest” period allow enough time for the reversal of the protein? Stephen – would you then be looking at following repetitions based for tendon at 100 to 1,000 reps when doing RTC exercises to target the return of tendon phenotype?

        Thanks for your consideration!


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