Strength training is not only about squatting or pressing—there’s a lot of foundational work at its core that can help set you up for success. One example of this is a rotator cuff workout, which can help protect your shoulders so you can use those muscles more efficiently and safely.
Many people tend to neglect their rotator cuff, a group of four muscles that come together at the head of your humerus (your upper arm bone) to help you lift and rotate your arm. But focusing on building a strong rotator cuff is important for anyone who strength trains—not just for those who have had a previous rotator cuff injury, such as a torn rotator cuff, Marcia Darbouze, P.T., D.P.T., owner of Just Move Therapy in Florida and cohost of the Disabled Girls Who Lift podcast, tells SELF.
“The rotator cuff muscles are the stabilizers of the shoulder complex, and they create space within the shoulder joint for optimal movement and guide your mechanics,” Darbouze says. “Without a strong set of rotator cuff muscles, the shoulder doesn’t move the way it’s designed to move. That’s why we feel pain and get angry aches.”
Plus, if your rotator cuff muscles are weak, other muscles (like your upper trapezius) will end up taking over for the movement, she says.
Improving your shoulder stability isn’t only about strengthening your rotator cuff muscles, though. In addition to focusing on them and your other shoulder muscles, you should also make sure you’re challenging your lower trapezius muscles (the muscles at the top half of your back) and your serratus anterior (a muscle along your rib cage that helps you position your shoulder blade).
These muscles tend to be weak in many people, which is why exercises like overhead pressing can cause front-of-the-shoulder pain, says ACE-certified personal trainer Sivan Fagan, owner of Strong with Sivan in Baltimore, MD.
A workout that focuses on strengthening these muscles—and improving the external rotation of your shoulders and your thoracic spine mobility—can help you build the strength and range of motion to do pressing-based workouts more safely, she says.
The following rotator cuff workout created by Fagan does just that. You can use this as a warm-up for an upper-body strength training day, or do it as a standalone routine if your shoulders need a little more TLC, Fagan says. (Of course, any time you’re feeling serious shoulder pain, or any kind of weakness or numbness, you should see your doctor or physical therapist.)
Complete 12-15 reps of each exercise. Rest 15-20 seconds between moves. Complete 3 rounds total.
Demoing the moves below are Angie Coleman (GIF 1), a holistic wellness coach in Oakland, CA; Nathalie Huerta (GIF 2), coach at The Queer Gym in Oakland, CA; Erica Gibbons (GIF 3), a California-based personal trainer and graduate student becoming licensed as a marriage and family therapist; and Caitlyn Seitz (GIF 4), a New York-based group fitness instructor and singer/songwriter.