12 Rotator Cuff Exercises and Stretches PTs Want You to Try

Learn how to ease shoulder pain with simple, at-home rotator cuff exercises and stretches from our physical therapists.

Published Date: Jul 17, 2024
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Dealing with rotator cuff pain can feel like carrying an invisible burden that affects every reach, lift, and twist of your arm. This type of discomfort isn't just a nuisance — it can really impact your daily activities and overall quality of life. But there are many ways you can work to control rotator cuff pain. And it starts with movement. “Movement is the best medicine to reduce shoulder pain, strengthen surrounding tissue, and improve function,” says Gina Clark, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health.

In this article, we'll explore 12 rotator cuff exercises and stretches recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists that are specifically designed to alleviate pain, enhance mobility, and strengthen your shoulder. Whether you're recovering from a rotator cuff injury or aiming to prevent future pain flares, these rotator cuff exercises are your first line of defense against many shoulder issues.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Gina Clark, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Gina Clark is a Hinge Health physical therapist and specializes in treating MSK conditions and women's pelvic health.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

Dealing with rotator cuff pain can feel like carrying an invisible burden that affects every reach, lift, and twist of your arm. This type of discomfort isn't just a nuisance — it can really impact your daily activities and overall quality of life. But there are many ways you can work to control rotator cuff pain. And it starts with movement. “Movement is the best medicine to reduce shoulder pain, strengthen surrounding tissue, and improve function,” says Gina Clark, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health.

In this article, we'll explore 12 rotator cuff exercises and stretches recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists that are specifically designed to alleviate pain, enhance mobility, and strengthen your shoulder. Whether you're recovering from a rotator cuff injury or aiming to prevent future pain flares, these rotator cuff exercises are your first line of defense against many shoulder issues.

This exercise can help you perform a lot of overhead movements. “Using the wall helps control muscle tension in your back and shoulders, and lifting your arm straight out in front of you gives some feedback to the surrounding tissue,” explains Dr. Clark.

How to do it: 

  • Stand with your forearms on a wall at shoulder height and your fingers pointing up. 

  • Slide your forearms up toward the ceiling and gently push your forearms into the wall. 

  • Hold at the top, continuing to gently push into the wall, and then return to the starting position. 

For more information on wall slides, see here.

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2. Resisted Shoulder External Rotation

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This is one of the best rotator cuff stretches, says Dr. Clark. It helps to improve shoulder strength and mobility. It specifically strengthens the supraspinatus muscle of your rotator cuff, which helps build shoulder stability and supports activities that involve overhead movements, lifting, and throwing.  

How to do it: 

  • Secure a resistance band by opening a door, wrapping one end of the band around the handle on the other side, then closing the door. Make sure the band does not accidentally pull the door open. 

  • With the door at your side, wrap the other end of the band around your hand that is further from the door. Your elbow should be bent to 90 degrees and your forearm will rest across your belly. 

  • Take a few side steps away from the door so there is some tension in the band, then rotate your hand out to your side. Your elbow should remain bent and at your side.  

  • Focus on squeezing your shoulder muscles, then return to the starting position.

This move strengthens the muscles in your upper back and shoulders, helping to reduce and prevent pain flares. It can be particularly helpful if you do activities that involve a lot of sitting or standing

How to do it: 

  • Stand with your elbows bent to 90 degrees and resting at your sides. 

  • Move your elbows and shoulders back to squeeze your shoulder blades together. 

  • Relax your shoulders to the starting position. 

For more information on scapular squeeze, see here.

This is an extension of the scapular squeeze. The use of the resistance band helps draw your shoulders back and down and strengthens muscles you need for posture and strength at the same time, explains Dr. Clark. 

How to do it: 

  • Secure a resistance band by opening a door, wrapping one end of the band around the handle on the other side, then closing the door. Make sure the band does not accidentally pull the door open. 

  • Take a few steps back from the door with the ends of the band in each hand. Your arms should be straight and raised to about chest height, and the bands should have some tension. 

  • Stretch the band by pulling your hands to the sides of your ribcage while your elbows bend. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you hold. 

  • Relax your arms to the starting position. 

For more information on shoulder rows, see here.

Sitting in the same position for a long time, especially in front of a computer, can cause your chest muscles to tighten up, which can contribute to your shoulders rounding forward,” says Dr. Clark. Although you can’t always control how much you have to sit throughout the day, open book rotations counteract the effects of not being able to move around, and can provide some pain relief.

How to do it: 

  • Lie on your side with your arms straight out and resting on the floor in front of your chest. Your legs should be stacked together with your knees bent up toward your chest. 

  • Reach your top arm up and behind you as you turn toward your opposite side. Keep this arm straight while your legs and other arm remain still. 

  • Return to the starting position.

6. Banded Rotation Pull Aparts

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This exercise has benefits similar to the resisted shoulder external rotation, but it works both sides of your body at the same time. Banded rotation pull aparts also target muscles throughout your entire arm and shoulder, such as your forearms and wrists, making it easier to do things like lift a bag or carry something. 

How to do it: 

  • Start by standing with a resistance band stretching between your hands with your palms facing each other and your wrists straight. Your elbows are at your sides.

  • Move your hands apart from each other to stretch the band, keeping your wrists straight and your elbows at your sides. 

  • Move your hands back together to return to the starting position.

This one may seem like a surprise move, but it helps to balance the front of your body with your back and shoulder girdle. “It’s part of viewing rotator cuff pain in a big-picture context, as opposed to just one group of muscles,” explains Dr. Clark.

How to do it: 

  • Stand in a comfortable position, then nod your head, bringing your chin toward your chest. 

  • Glide or retract your chin back, focusing on relaxing your jaw muscles while you hold this position.

  • Relax and move back to the starting position. 

For more information on chin tucks, see here.

These help with shoulder strength and mobility and can reduce rotator cuff pain during activities that involve reaching overhead, or using your arms to help you stand up from a chair. 

How to do it: 

  • Stand with your hands placed on a wall at about chest height and, keeping your arms straight, move your feet a few steps away from the wall. 

  • Bend through your arms to slowly move your chest toward the wall, stopping when your head and chest get close to the wall. 

  • Push through your hands to straighten your arms and return to the starting position. 

For more information on wall push-ups, see here.

This movement improves chest and shoulder flexibility. It helps reduce tension in muscles that get tense after doing activities like sitting in front of a computer or in the car, or playing certain sports. 

How to do it:

  • Stand in a doorway with your elbows bent at about chest height, and each forearm resting on one side of the doorframe.

  • Step one foot through the doorway and move your hips and chest forward while your forearms stay in place. 

  • Focus on creating length through your chest and arms before moving your hips and chest back to relax out of the stretch. 

This exercise works your shoulders, as well as your core and hip muscles. It specifically targets your shoulder stabilizer muscles and improves shoulder stability, which can help with activities like lifting a box, carrying a laundry basket, or getting up from the floor.  

How to do it: 

  • Get into a comfortable position on your hands and knees with your hands below your shoulders and your knees below your hips. 

  • Raise your knees a few inches off the floor so your weight is evenly distributed between your hands and your feet. 

  • Focus on your breath as you hold this position, then lower your knees back to the floor. 

11. Side Lying Arm Rotation

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This movement helps improve strength in your shoulder and upper back muscles. It can make your shoulder more resilient, so you can do things like put on a jacket, carry a bag of groceries, or lift cookware in the kitchen with greater ease. 

How to do it: 

  • Lie on your side, letting your arm rest against your side with your forearm hanging down against your stomach. 

  • Keeping your elbow at your side, raise your hand away from your stomach, up toward the ceiling, and hold this position. 

  • Lower your hand back down so your forearm rests on your stomach again. 

12. Straight Arm Pulldowns

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This move works your shoulder, back, and core muscles. It strengthens the latissimus dorsi (or “lats”) and other surrounding muscles, which helps offload some of the strain that can be placed on the rotator cuff during activities like heavy lifting. 

How to do it: 

  • Secure a resistance band by opening a door, wrapping one end of the band around the handle on the other side, then closing the door. Make sure the band does not accidentally pull the door open. 

  • Take a few steps back so your arms are straight and raised to about chest height, and the band has some tension. 

  • Stretch the band by moving your hands toward the floor, stopping when you reach the sides of your legs, and hold this position.  

  • Relax your arms up to the starting position. 

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

Benefits of Rotator Cuff Exercises 

If you’re wondering if rotator cuff exercises are worth your time, the answer is absolutely. Incorporating rotator cuff exercises into your routine a few times a week can significantly impact your shoulder health. Here’s how. 

  • Strengthening shoulder muscles. It’s important to keep your shoulder muscles strong, especially if you’ve had rotator cuff pain or injuries in the past. Rotator cuff exercises target the muscles and tendons that make up the rotator cuff, as well as the supporting muscles around the shoulder. Strengthening these muscles helps stabilize the shoulder joint, which can alleviate pain and prevent future injury.

  • Increased flexibility and range of motion. Targeted movements can improve your shoulder flexibility, making it easier to perform daily activities that require lifting, reaching, or pulling. It also helps reduce daily stiffness and discomfort.

  • Reduced risk of injury. Strengthening your shoulder and improving flexibility lowers the risk of shoulder strains or injuries. This is particularly important if you do activities that involve a lot of shoulder movement and lifting.

  • Improved posture. It’s important to know that there’s no such thing as perfect posture. Staying in any position for too long can contribute to aches and pain. But, strengthening the muscles in and around your upper back allows you to change positions more frequently and comfortably, which helps keep shoulder pain away. 

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.  

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References 

  1. Christensen, B. H., Andersen, K. S., Rasmussen, S., Andreasen, E. L., Nielsen, L. M., & Jensen, S. L. (2016). Enhanced function and quality of life following 5 months of exercise therapy for patients with irreparable rotator cuff tears – an intervention study. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 17(1). doi:10.1186/s12891-016-1116-6

  2. Ganderton, C., Kinsella, R., Watson, L., & Pizzari, T. (2019). Getting more from standard rotator cuff strengthening exercises. Shoulder & Elbow, 12(3), 175857321988882. doi:10.1177/1758573219888829

  3. Powell, J. K., Costa, N., Schram, B., Hing, W., & Lewis, J. (2023). “Restoring that Faith in my Shoulder”: A Qualitative Investigation of how and why Exercise Therapy Influenced the Clinical Outcomes of Individuals with Rotator Cuff-Related Shoulder Pain. Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Journal, 103(12). doi:10.1093/ptj/pzad088