Keep Your Rotator Cuff Muscles Strong With This Stabilization Circuit

Stability is the key to shoulder health. Perform these exercises to build strength in your rotator cuff muscles.

Whether your goal is to bench three plates per side or flirt with a 90-mph fastball, you need strong and healthy shoulders to keep your rotator cuff muscles in good shape.

The mere of mention of shoulder care to lifters and athletes typically evokes thoughts of performing sleeper stretches on creaky therapy tables and a torrent of tubing exercises done every which way. Yet most shoulder health can be accomplished through proper training and simple drills.

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The shoulder is comprised of four joints—sternoclavicular, scapulothoracic, acromioclavicular and glenohumeral—webbed together by numerous muscles and ligaments that govern movement and stability. The glenohumeral joint is encircled by muscles emanating from the shoulder blades and connecting to the top of the shoulder. This group of muscles is referred to as the rotator cuff because it forms a "cuff" that stabilizes the shoulder within the pear-shaped cavity of the shoulder blade.

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During overhead movements and abduction, rotator cuff muscles supply a compressive force that helps the shoulder stay locked into the shoulder blade cavity. If these compressive forces are insufficient, the deltoids have to work harder, and ligaments must bear the task of stabilizing the shoulder. Over time, the shoulder can become less stable, increasing an athlete's predisposition to injury.

"It is important for any athlete to have proper rotator cuff stabilization," says Dr. Maura Tomassoni, a chiropractic physician in Howell, New Jersey, who treats athletes ranging from CrossFitters to NFL players. "A lack of shoulder stability sets the stage for overuse injuries and causes muscle adhesions and inflammation which weaken the muscles."

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Unfortunately, many programs aimed at preventing shoulder injuries misguidedly include traditional internal and external rotation at the expense of stabilizing the shoulder, which is the whole point. Additionally, many of these exercises are performed with excessive volume and frequency, contributing to instability.

The focus of rotator cuff exercises should be stabilization. Literature has indicated that stabilization exercises are robustly capable of activating the rotator cuff, making them ideal for warm-ups.

Shoulder Stabilization Circuit

Prone Rhythmic Stabilization

  • Assume quadruped position with hands and knees equidistant and and placed at shoulder-width.
  • Position small medicine balls beneath each palm, drive the heels of the palms into the medicine balls and keep your upper back and core tight.
  • Hold position for specified time.
  • Can eventually be progressed to push-up position
  • Sets/Duration: 2-3x15-45 seconds

Two-Way Dumbbell Drops

  • Assume seated, half-kneeling, kneeling or standing position.
  • Grasp lightweight dumbbells (1-5 pounds is a good start and never exceeding 20% of a load you would use for a Dumbbell Lateral Raise) and hold them with your arms extended at your sides.
  • Quickly open your hands and close them again, limiting the descent of the dumbbells.
  • Perform 5 to 8 repetitions.
  • Transition to having your arms at 10 and 2 o'clock (30 degrees of abduction).
  • Perform 5 to 8 repetitions, again quickly opening and closing your hands, limiting the descent of the dumbbells
  • Sets/Repetitions: 2-3x5-8 each position

Prone Torso Supported Incline Raise

  • Straddle an incline bench, establishing contact with your chest, abdomen and hips.
  • Grasp lightweight dumbbells (1-5 pounds) and hold them in front of you with arms extended at 10 and 2 o'clock.
  • Keep your shoulder blades pulled back and down, and your chest out.
  • Perform 10 to 12 repetitions, again quickly opening and closing your hands, limiting the descent of the dumbbells.
  • Sets/Repetitions: 2-3x10-12 each

Loaded Hold

  • Assume seated, half-kneeling, kneeling or standing position.
  • Grasp pair of heavy dumbbells.
  • Keep your spine long, maintain a big chest and pull your shoulders back.
  • Hold position for specified time.
  • Sets/Duration: 2-3x5-10 seconds


Day, A., Taylor, N.F., & Green, R.A. (2012). "The stabilizing role of the rotator cuff at the shoulder responses to external perturbations." Clinical Biomechanics, 27, 551-556.

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