Rotator Cuff Strengthening: The Wrong Solution To The Wrong Question

Looking for rotator cuff strengthening exercises is the wrong solution to the wrong question, for two primary reasons:

  1. The rotator cuff group of muscles are stabilising muscles.As stabilisers, their role is exactly that: to stabilise the shoulder. As the prime movers move the shoulder, the rotator cuff stabilise the movement.Therefore, their role is about endurance and stabilisation, not strength
  2. Isolating individual muscles in this way completely overlooks the way your body works and, specifically, the way your shoulder works.

Your body functions as a unit, so singling out the tiny rotator cuff group and giving them a strengthening program completely overlooks the reason why they feel like they need strengthening.

If you have shoulder pain, and I’m sure you do as you probably wouldn’t be looking for rotator cuff strengthening exercises if you didn’t, then you need to correct the position of your shoulder, rather than strengthening those poor little rotator cuff guys.

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Rotator Cuff Strengthening Doesn't Work

This is where so many treatment modalities such as physiotherapy are going wrong and why they fail to deliver results far too often.

A client goes to his local physiotherapist with shoulder pain and the physio does a few tests for range of motion and movement ability of the arm and shoulder, and then dishes out some rotator cuff strengthening exercises as the treatment plan, usually with rubber bands.

And the client still has the same pain more than six months later.

Why? Because when the physio was doing all the tests for range of motion and movement ability, she failed to take into account two very important factors:

  1. The position of the shoulder
  2. The function of the shoulder relative to the position of all the other joints and the client’s overall structure

Rotator Cuff Strengthening Doesn’t Take Into Account The Position of Your Shoulder

As with any area of the body, and the entire body as a whole, there should be balance.

And when there is no longer balance, something else has to pay the price. With your shoulders, it’s usually the rotator cuff group.

Take a look at your shoulders now and notice how they’re rounding forward. In fact, get someone to take a set of photos of you – the front, the back and both sides – and notice the position of your shoulder blades (your scapulae).

And while you’re there, check out the position of your hips and pelvis relative to your shoulders and relative to your knees and ankles. You see, if you really want to resolve your rotator cuff and shoulder issues, you’ll need to resolve the problem in your hips too.

Now, I don’t expect you to notice everything because like anything else in life, a good posture assessment is a skill that takes thousands of hours and hundreds of clients to practice and become proficient at.

But you will notice the gross deviations and you will notice how the ‘problem’ shoulder just doesn’t look right. You’ll see how it is more out of position than the other shoulder and then you can start to ask better questions with regard to rotator cuff strengthening.

In fact, let’s get off the whole rotator cuff strengthening freight train right now and get on to the ‘position of my shoulder’ express.

Test To See If You Need Rotator Cuff Strengthening

Grab something moderately heavy, such as bag of rice or sugar or something as equally unhealthy and hold it in the upturned palm of your hand.

Now extend your arm straight out in front of you, keeping it straight, with your hand at shoulder height.

Now stay there as long as you can (but don’t go hurting yourself; this is just to give you a kinesthetic understanding of your rotator cuff issue. It’s not to give you another problem on top of that one).

Notice how it becomes harder and harder to stay there in that position. If you didn’t know any better, you could be forgiven for thinking that the muscles you feel fatiguing need to be strengthened.

Maybe they do, maybe they don’t.

More to the point, though, is the fact that you’ve put your arm and shoulder into an awkward position and asked it to bear weight against gravity.

And gravity will always win that battle.

This, in essence, is what’s going on with your shoulder and why you’re looking for rotator cuff strengthening when you should in fact be looking for shoulder repositioning.

Remember, it’s the quality of the questions that you ask that will lead you to higher quality answers. So instead of asking ‘what are good rotator cuff strengthening exercises’, start asking ‘what does my body need in order to get my shoulders back into a more functional position?’

Because when your shoulders get to that functional position, your rotator cuff take care of themselves.

Exercises For Shoulder Pain

Okay, so you now hopefully realise (or are beginning to, at least) that it’s the position of your shoulder that’s making it feel as if your rotator cuff need strengthening.

And you’re also beginning to realise that the position of your shoulders are also related to the position of your hips and pelvis.

So let’s put it to the test. These Egoscue exercises for shoulder pain aren’t actually exercises for shoulder pain at all, but are instead exercises to improve the function of your entire structure and to improve communication between your upper and lower body.

So go ahead and do those exercise and notice what feels different afterwards. You might not completely eliminate your shoulder pain (okay, you probably won’t completely eliminate it), but you should feel the difference.

Matt