How To Train The Rotator Cuff!


How to train the rotator cuff

The rotator cuff is one of the most important muscles in the upper body. It plays a critical role in stabilizing the shoulder joint and preventing upper body injuries.

A strong rotator cuff will allow you to throw around huge weights in the big, compound upper body exercises such as bench presses, overhead presses, chin ups and rows. On the other hand a weak rotator cuff will give you nothing but shoulder pain and weak upper body lifts. As they say, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

The rotator cuff is a family of 4 different muscles designed to stabilize the shoulder joint during dynamic movements. Any time you perform a compound upper body exercise such as bench presses or pull ups the rotator cuff complex is activated to provide extra stability to the shoulder. 

Here are the specific muscles of the rotator cuff:

  • The supraspinatus
  • The subscapularis
  • The infraspinatus
  • The teres minor

Here is a nice picture so you can visualize these muscles:

As you can see the rotator cuff muscles cover the front, back and top of the scapula. Each of the rotator cuff muscles also has a secondary function besides just stabilizing the shoulder joint. 

  • Supraspinatus = helps to raise your arm to your side
  • Subscapularis = internally rotates the upper arm
  • Infraspinatus = externally rotates the upper arm
  • Teres minor = externally rotates the upper arm

If you want to optimally strengthen the individual rotator cuff muscles then you must select exercises which target these secondary functions. For example if you want to train the infraspinatus or teres minor then you need to perform isolation movements that have you externally rotate the arm against resistance. 

All of these muscles are extremely important for injury prevention and performance optimization. However, for a bodybuilder or a powerlifter the most important rotator cuff muscles are the infraspinatus and the teres minor.

These 2 muscles are responsible for externally rotating the upper arm. There is a constant war going on in your body over internal rotation and external rotation of the upper arm:

  • Internal rotation = lats, chest, subscapularis
  • External rotation = infraspinatus, teres minor

Most trainees are FAR stronger in internal rotation than they are in external rotation. This is understandable as most trainees spend much more time training their chest and lats than they do their external rotators.

Unfortunately this imbalance between your internal rotators and external rotators is a ticking time bomb.

In this comprehensive guide I am going to teach you everything you need to know about building a strong, healthy rotator cuff muscle. You will learn what the rotator cuff is, the anatomy of the rotator cuff, the best and worst rotator cuff exercises and the best loading parameters for training the rotator cuff.

Here is an outline for the rest of this article:

Article Outline

  • Part 1: Why Should I Care About The Rotator Cuff?
  • Part 2: How Strong Should My Rotator Cuff Be?
  • Part 3: The 11 Best Rotator Cuff Exercises
  • Part 4: The Worst Rotator Cuff Exercise
  • Part 5: Optimal Rotator Cuff Loading Parameters
  • Part 6: How To Train For A Stronger Rotator Cuff
  • Part 7: 2 Sample Rotator Cuff Training Programs!

Note: if you have any trouble reading the routines presented here then check out this article on how to read a training program. Now let’s get down to business…

Part 1: Why Should I Care About The Rotator Cuff?

If you are a bodybuilder or powerlifter then you may be asking yourself the following question: “Why should I care about the rotator cuff?”

This is a very important question to ask. After all a bodybuilder is not judged by the size of his rotator cuff muscles and a powerlifter does not perform rotator cuff isolation exercises in competition! So why should you care?

There are two very important reasons why you should start training your rotator cuff:

  1. Injury prevention
  2. Performance optimization

Let’s examine each of these reasons in more depth.

Reason #1: Injury Prevention

If you are trying to build muscle mass or strength then the absolute last thing you want is to suffer an injury in the gym. After all, you can’t train if you are injured! This is especially true when it comes to rotator cuff injuries.

If you manage to tear your rotator cuff then you may be out of the gym for 6 or more months while your shoulder heals. Rotator cuff injuries are surprisingly common.

Over 20% of the general population has experienced a rotator cuff injury without even knowing it (1).

Of course you don’t have to completely tear the muscle to suffer an injury. Many trainees suffer from some sort of shoulder pain while they train. In fact research has shown that over 20% of weight lifters suffer from some sort of shoulder pain (2).

More often than not this shoulder pain is directly related to a weakness in the rotator cuff muscles.

The rotator cuff is responsible for pulling the upper arm down in the shoulder joint, or “depressing” it. This is a good thing because it prevents your upper arm from rubbing against tendons and nerves that are running in that area.

Shoulder impingement often occurs when the rotator cuff is not strong enough to depress the upper arm. The upper arm presses against the tendons and nerves in the area and damages these structures, causing inflammation.

Even if you do not formally tear your rotator cuff this shoulder impingement can cause you enough pain to prevent you from training. This is obviously not something you want if you are trying to get freakishly big or strong.

Even world-class strength coaches such as Christian Thibadeau have made this mistake in their own training: 

Christian neglected to train his rotator cuff for many years and paid the price. He is now able to perform exercises such as the bench press and overhead press without pain.

The key was taking a few weeks / months to focus on rotator cuff isolation exercises.

Reason #2: Performance Optimization

The benefits of training the rotator cuff extend beyond just preventing injuries or eliminating shoulder pain. A strong rotator cuff complex will massively boost your strength in the upper body compound exercises.

As they say, “you can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe.”

Your rotator cuff is responsible for adding stability to the shoulder joint. If your shoulder joint is not stable then how can you expect to put up big weights in the upper body pressing or pulling exercises? That’s like trying to jump while standing in quicksand vs jump while standing on concrete. I know which one I would rather do! 

The powerlifting coach Louie Simmons was famous saying that there is always a weak muscle group limiting your performance on an exercise. It is your job to figure out which muscle group is weak and to attack it relentlessly.

If your rotator cuff is the limiting factor in your upper body strength then you must attack it relentlessly until it is up to par.

Many of my online coaching clients have increased their bench presses by 20-40 pounds in a matter of 2-4 months by focusing on their rotator cuff strength. This is very achievable if you know what you are doing.

Part 3: How Strong Should My Rotator Cuff Be?

Thanks to Charles Poliquin we know exactly how strong your rotator cuff should be. Charles was the greatest strength coach the world had ever seen. He was obsessed with numbers and kept very detailed training logs for all of his athletes.

Over the years he was able to identify optimal strength ratios between different lifts. One of the most important strength ratios was the ratio between the seated dumbbell external rotation and the close grip bench press.

I am sure you are familiar with the close grip bench press. In case you need a refresher here is a training video:

You may not be familiar with the seated dumbbell external rotation.

Here is a perfect demonstration of the exercise: 

This is an isolation exercise designed to target the rotator cuff muscles responsible for externally rotating the upper arm. These muscles are the infraspinatus and the teres minor.

Charles liked to compare his athletes’ 1-rep max in the bench press with their 8-rep max in the seated DB external rotation. He developed the following strength ratio:

  • Close grip bench press: 100% x 1 rep
  • Seated DB external rotation: 9.8% x 8 reps

In other words if an athlete could bench press 300 pounds then they should be able to perform seated DB external rotations with a 30 pound dumbbell for 8 reps.

There is only one problem: most trainees are nowhere close to achieving this strength ratio! In fact the average trainee who can bench press 300 pounds will struggle to use a 5 pound dumbbell for 3 reps on the seated DB external rotation exercise!

This is an absolutely massive strength imbalance.

If you are a serious bodybuilder or powerlifter then you MUST perform this test. If your external rotators are far too weak relative to your bench press then you need to start training them like you mean it!

The other rotator cuff muscles such as the subscapularis and the supraspinatus are also important. However, your first priority is bringing up the strength of your external rotators. This will help you prevent injuries, prevent shoulder pain and jack up your upper body strength on the big compound lifts.

Once your external rotators are strong enough then you can worry about strengthening the other rotator cuff muscles.

Part 4: The 9 Best Rotator Cuff Strengthening Exercises

There are a wide variety of exercises that you can use to strengthen the rotator cuff.

Please note that there is a HUGE difference between using exercises to rehabilitate the rotator cuff following an injury and strengthening the rotator cuff for optimal athletic performance.

Many rotator cuff exercises work great for rehabilitation purposes but do diddly-squat for improving athletic performance. After all, the average Joe just wants his shoulder to feel better. He is not interested in bench pressing 300-600 pounds or pressing the 100-200 pound dumbbells for reps.

If you are serious about building a bigger, stronger upper body then these rotator cuff exercises are for you. I will be covering 4 rotator cuff isolation exercises and 5 compound exercises. You will see your overall upper body strength shoot through the roof if you start incorporating these exercises on a regular basis.

Here is the full list:

  • Exercise #1: seated DB external rotation (elbow on knee)
  • Exercise #2: seated DB external rotations (arm abducted)
  • Exercise #3: cable external rotation (arm adducted)
  • Exercise #4: cable external rotation (arm abducted / supported)
  • Exercise #5: seated cable rope face pulls
  • Exercise #6: subscapularis pull up
  • Exercise #7: overhead presses
  • Exercise #8: the hanging band method
  • Exercise #9: the farmer’s walk

Now let’s take a closer look at each of these exercises.

Rotator Cuff Exercise #1: Seated DB External Rotation (Elbow On Knee)

This is one of THE BEST isolation exercises for the rotator cuff. There are 2 muscles that externally rotate the upper arm: the infraspinatus and the teres minor.

When the elbow is held in close to your body the infraspinatus is more strongly activated. On the other hand when your elbow is pointed out to your side the teres minor is recruited more.

This particular exercise strongly emphasizes the infraspinatus.

It is incredibly important that you use nothing but your external rotators to move the weight. This means you are NOT allowed to use momentum to “hoist” the weight up at any time! 

Here is Nick Mitchell talking about the importance of isolating the external rotators throughout this exercise:

One of the benefits of this exercise is that you get a very pronounced stretch on the external rotators in the bottom position of the exercise. Make sure that you lower the weight as far as you comfortably can before raising it back to the starting position.

Rotator Cuff Exercise #2: Seated DB External Rotations (Arm Abducted)

This is another exercise designed to isolate the external rotators. In this variation your elbow is held out to your side and supported on a bench or some other fixed object.

This variation emphasizes the teres minor somewhat more than the infraspinatus. The rear deltoids also assist with externally rotating the arm when your arm is held out to the side. 

Rotator Cuff Exercise #3: Cable External Rotation (Arm Adducted)

When I say “arm adducted” I simply mean that your elbow is held firmly against your side. Once again performing external rotations in this manner emphasizes the infraspinatus somewhat more than the teres minor.

This is another excellent exercise to strengthen your external rotators.

Many rehabilitation experts recommend that you perform this exercise with resistance bands. This is an excellent choice when rehabilitating a rotator cuff injury such as a tear within the infraspinatus muscle. Unfortunately resistance bands are a poor choice when working with an athletic population.

The cable does a much better job of applying tension throughout the entire range of motion of the lift. The cable also makes it easier to increase the resistance as your strength increases. 

Rotator Cuff Exercise #4: Cable External Rotation (Arm Abducted / Supported)

This is another fantastic variation of the cable external rotation. The big difference here is that your elbow is pointing out towards your side and supported on a bench or some other fixed object. T

his variation is helpful for isolating the teres minor. It also recruits the rear delt as an external rotator. For optimal results I recommend the cable resistance is originating from the floor as demonstrated in the video. 

Rotator Cuff Exercise #5: Seated Cable Rope Face Pulls

The seated cable rope face pull might be the single most important exercise that you can perform for overall shoulder health. Almost everyone performs face pulls in the gym but almost no one performs them correctly!

The key is to fully externally rotate your arms at the end of the movement. That means you rotate your arms so that your hands are directly over your shoulders in the end position.

This exercise is technically a compound exercise rather than an isolation exercise. It works both the external rotators AND the scapular retractors in one single movement.

If your external rotators are uber-weak then you should start with one of the first 4 rotator cuff isolation exercises covered above. Once you gain the ability to activate your external rotators you can progress ot the seated cable rope face pull. 

Rotator Cuff Exercise #6: Subscapularis Pull Up

Most trainees do not need to worry about training their subscapularis. The subscapularis is the rotator cuff muscle responsible for internally rotating the upper arm.

For most trainees the internal rotators such as the pecs, lats and subscapularis tend to be FAR stronger than the external rotators.

If you are one of the rare individuals who has sufficiently strong external rotators then it may be a good idea to directly train the subscapularis. And by far the best exercise for the subscapularis is the subscapularis pull up.

For this exercise you want to use an overhand, wider-than-shoulder-width grip on the pull up bar. The concentric range of the motion is performed as usual. Once you reach the top you begin pushing yourself away from the bar as you lower yourself down.

Once your arms are straight and you are maximally away from the bar you can lower yourself down to the starting position. The act of pushing yourself away from the bar strongly activates the subscapularis muscle.

This exercise can be a great way to further strengthen your subscapularis muscle. In the long run this will give you healthier shoulders and increase your potential for further strength gains on the big compound lifts.

Rotator Cuff Exercise #7: Overhead Presses

All forms of overhead presses are fantastic for strengthening the rotator cuff muscle. Of course I am assuming that you do not have a pre-existing injury that prevents you from safely raising your arm over your head.

As a general rule of thumb most overhead pressing exercises can be divided into two categories:

  • Shoulder flexion exercises
  • Shoulder abduction exercises

Shoulder flexion occurs when you raise your elbow straight out in front of you and then overhead. The barbell military press is a perfect example of this. For example:

On the other hand shoulder abduction occurs when your elbow is raised out to your side and then overhead. Good examples of this include the seated dumbbell overhead press and the behind the neck press. 

Here is an example of the seated DB overhead press:

And here is an example of the seated behind the neck press:

All overhead presses are great for training the rotator cuff muscles in a dynamic movement pattern. The external rotators including the infraspinatus and the teres minor are worked particularly hard during these movements.

As a general rule of thumb the overhead movements emphasizing shoulder abduction such as the DB overhead press and the behind the neck press are slightly better choices for strengthening the rotator cuff.

All other things being equal they will improve your overall shoulder health somewhat faster than shoulder flexion exercises such as the military press.

Rotator Cuff Exercise #8: The Hanging Band Method

OK, I’m cheating a little bit. The hanging band method is a training method rather than a specific exercise. However, it is undoubtedly one of the most effective ways to strengthen the rotator cuff.

The idea is simple: you use resistance bands to hang weights or kettlebells from a barbell. You then perform barbell pressing exercises such as the bench press or the overhead press with the weights bouncing around. For example:

This may seem like a bullshit exercise. I can assure you that it is not! While you press the weights are bouncing around in all different directions.

Your rotator cuff has to work overtime to stabilize your upper arm inside your shoulder joint. When you go back to pressing a regular barbell you will be shocked at how stable you feel while pressing. 

New specialty barbells have even been developed to push this concept to its absolute limit: the bamboo bar and the earthquake bar. These are very light barbells made out of bamboo or other materials that naturally bend and shake while you press. This helps to create an even more chaotic environment when you press.

For example here is the ever-creative John Meadows demonstrating the bamboo bar bench press:

And here is a demonstration of the bamboo bar overhead press:

Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time training with these bars can vouch for how effective they are.

The world’s strongest bench presser Julius Maddox frequently performs bamboo bar overhead presses in his bench press accessory day to build stability in his shoulder joint for his heavier bench press workouts.

Rotator Cuff Exercise #9: The Farmer’s Walk

The farmer’s walk is an exercise that is frequently performed in strongman competitions such as the annual World’s Strongest Man event. It consists of picking up heavy objects in either hand and walking with them.

For example here is Stan Efferding giving a perfect farmer’s walk demonstration:

The farmer’s walk is actually one of the very best exercises you can perform for training all 4 rotator cuff muscles. The supraspinatus is very strongly activated because you have to perform a mini lateral raise while you walk to prevent the implements from hitting your legs.

The supraspinatus is very strongly activated during lateral raise motions, particularly at the start of the movement. Essentially you are performing a very powerful isometric contraction for the supraspinatus throughout the whole movement!

The internal and external rotators of the arm also have to perform a very strong isometric contraction while you are walking. The implements constantly want to point inwards or outwards as you walk and the other three rotator cuff muscles have to contract isometrically to keep the implements pointing forwards.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why strongman competitors are such strong overhead pressers: they tend to have unbelievably strong rotator cuff muscles from all those farmer’s walks!

If you have access to farmer’s walk implements I highly recommend you give them a try. They are not absolutely necessary but they can significantly boost the overall health of your shoulder joint when used regularly. 

Part 5: The Worst Rotator Cuff Exercises

There are no “bad” rotator cuff exercises. However, there are some exercises that place a lot of stress on the rotator cuff complex. You are probably better off avoiding these exercises unless your external rotators such as the infraspinatus and the teres minor are at least reasonably strong.

If you bench press 300 pounds but can only use a 5 pound dumbbell on seated dumbbell external rotations then you should consider holding off on these exercises until your external rotators are stronger.

The Worst Rotator Cuff Exercise #1: The Upright Row

Many fitness experts such as Jeff Cavalier of AthleanX have stated that you are probably better off avoiding the upright row altogether. There is definitely some truth to this statement.

The upright row places the shoulders into extreme end-range internal rotation. This places a lot of stress on the rotator cuff musculature and can lead to “impingement” of your shoulder joint.

If you have extremely strong external rotators and otherwise perfect upper body structural balance then the upright row can be a great exercise to train the delts and the traps. However, if you are like most trainees it is probably best to avoid the upright row altogether.

I rarely prescribe this exercise to my online coaching clients. Most of the time the risk associated with this exercise does not justify the potential reward. There are just too many other exercises that work just as well for me to risk prescribing the upright row.

The Worst Rotator Cuff Exercise #2: The Bench Press

If you have a very strong rotator cuff complex then the bench press is a FANTASTIC exercise that you can and probably should be incorporating into your long-term programming. It is one of the best ways to strengthen the chest, delts and triceps.

However, there is a dark side to the bench press. The bench press is likely responsible for more upper body injuries than every other upper body exercise COMBINED.

One of the challenges with the bench press is that it places the shoulder joint into extreme internal rotation. It also places a lot of stress on the chest tendons and dramatically increases the pressure on the subscapularis muscle.

If you have a healthy shoulder joint including very strong external rotators then you should have no problems at all with the bench press. However, if you need to use the pink dumbbells when you perform external rotation exercises then you are probably better off avoiding this exercise for now.

If this describes you then I recommend you spend 8-12 weeks strengthening your rotator cuff while focusing on various overhead press variations. After an 8-12 weeks your rotator cuff strength should be where it needs to be and you can return to the so-called king of upper body lifts.

Don’t worry, your strength won’t decrease during this time period. You should find that your bench press actually increases after the break from the exercise. Many of my online coaching clients actually see their bench press go up by 20-40 pounds after a 2-4 month break from the bench press.

At the end of this article I cover a sample 12-week training program focused on bringing up the strength of your external rotators and your overhead press. I highly recommend you check it out.

Part 6: Optimal Rotator Cuff Loading Parameters

It is important to use the correct loading parameters when training the rotator cuff. Here are some general guidelines that you may want to follow for the following loading parameters:

  • Range of motion
  • Sets and reps
  • Tempo
  • Training frequency

Check it out:

Loading Parameter #1: Range Of Motion

It is absolutely critical that you use a full range of motion whenever you directly train the rotator cuff with isolation exercises. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against partial range of motion lifts if they are used intelligently.

However, when training the rotator cuff you want to maximally stretch and contract the muscles on every rep. This is particularly true when training the external rotators.

Let’s take another look at the seated dumbbell external rotation:

If you watch closely the athlete is letting the dumbbell lower down towards the ground as far as possible on every rep. He is NOT doing this by moving his entire shoulder forward.

Instead he is just letting his shoulder joint internally rotate until he reaches the end of his range of motion. Then on every rep he raises the weight back up until he reaches his end range of motion.

The seated cable rope face pull is another exercise where many individuals fail to use a full range of motion:

Notice that the female is achieving maximal shoulder extension AND external rotation on every rep! Her hands are literally directly over her shoulders at the end of every rep. This is how the exercise should be performed.

I have seen hundreds, if not thousands of trainees perform the cable rope face pull in various commercial gyms my lifetime. However, as of yet I have never seen a single trainee perform this exercise through a full range of motion.

Don’t let this be you!

Loading Parameter #2: Sets And Reps

Thumb the rotator cuff should be performed for relatively higher repetitions. As a general rule of thumb I recommend you perform 2-4 sets of 5-20 reps for the rotator cuff isolation exercises. It is absolutely critical that you fully isolate the target muscle on these exercises.

If you are performing an exercise for the external rotators then you want these muscles and only these muscles to be performing the work. For most trainees this is very hard to do unless the reps are higher.

A great option is to slowly increase the weight and decrease the repetitions on your rotator cuff exercises over the course of 2-4 months. For example:

  • Month 1: 3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Month 2: 3 sets of 8-12 reps
  • Month 3: 4 sets of 5-8 reps

You don’t need to use any special high-intensity techniques and I generally do not recommend you perform your sets to failure. Fortunately the rotator cuff tends to respond quickly from very basic set and rep schemes.

Loading Parameter #3: Tempo

Slower tempos are very helpful when training the rotator cuff. I recommend that you perform all of your rotator cuff isolation exercises with a 2-5 second eccentric tempo. This means you lower the weight over 2-5 seconds.

These slow eccentric tempos are very helpful for increasing strength and for improving your ability to properly recruit these muscles.

During the concentric range fast or slow tempos can be utilized. Often times slower concentric tempos are helpful for increasing your ability to recruit the correct muscles. It is very easy to let momentum take over the lift if you are not careful.

For example here is how you might periodize your rotator cuff isolation exercise tempos over a 3-month period:

  • Month 1: 2/0/2/0 (2 second lowering phase, 2 second lifting phase)
  • Month 2: 4/0/1/0 (4 second lowering phase, 1 second lifting phase)
  • Month 3: 3/0/X/0 (3 second lowering phase, explosive lifting phase)

Loading Parameter #4: Training Frequency

The rotator cuff does not need an ultra-high training frequency or anything like that. It actually responds well to a relatively “normal” training frequency. Training your external rotators with 1-2 isolation exercises once every 3-5 days is an excellent place to start.

One of the simplest strategies is to simply perform them at the end of your upper body workouts. Once your external rotators are as strong as they should be you can probably maintain them on far less frequency.

Many of my trainees only need to train their rotator cuffs directly once every 1-2 weeks to keep them strong.

Part 7: 2 Sample Rotator Cuff Training Programs!

Now we’re getting to the good stuff: I am going to give you 2 separate 3-month rotator cuff training programs! These programs are specifically designed to increase the strength of your external rotators so that you achieve optimal upper body structural balance.

The key strength ratio is as follows:

  • Close grip bench press: 100% x 1 rep
  • Seated DB external rotation (elbow on knee): 9.8% x 8 reps

In other words if you can close grip bench press 300 pounds for a single then you should be able to perform seated DB external rotations with a 30 pound dumbbell for 8 reps.

If you are nowhere near achieving this strength norm then you are missing out on a lot of upper body strength and size gains. These programs will help you achieve this strength norm as quickly as possible. 

The first program features rotator cuff isolation exercises that you can perform at the end of your regular upper body workouts. You don’t need to make any other changes to your workouts. I recommend you perform these workouts once every 3-7 days. 

Check it out:

Rotator Cuff Program #1: Month 1

  • A1: Seated cable rope face pulls, 3 x 15, 2/0/2/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B1: Cable adducted external rotations, 3 x 15, 2/0/2/0, 60 seconds rest 

Rotator Cuff Program #1: Month 2

  • A1: Standing cable external rotations (arm adducted), 4 x 10, 3/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest

Rotator Cuff Program #1: Month 3

  • A1: Seated DB external rotations (elbow on knee), 4 x 6, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest

The second program is a little different: it is an entire 12-week upper body training program! Every exercise for your upper body is covered.

This program is great for improving not only your rotator cuff strength but also your scapular retractor strength, your overhead pressing strength and your brachialis strength.

These are the muscle groups / lifts that Charles Poliquin found were weak in almost all of his first-time clients. My own experience as a coach has confirmed Charles’ findings.

For this program I recommend you use an upper body / lower body split performed 4 days per week. For example:

  • Monday: Upper Body
  • Wednesday: Lower Body
  • Friday: Upper Body
  • Saturday: Lower Body

Another option would be to perform a 3 days per week upper body / lower body split. It is very important to perform these workouts in the correct order. Each 3-week training block builds on the previous 3-week block so that your strength is peaked at the end of the training cycle.

Check it out:

Rotator Cuff Program #2: Weeks 1-3

  • A1: Standing unilateral DB overhead press (neutral grip), 4 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
  • A2: Wide overhand grip cable pulldowns, 4 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B1: Decline DB triceps extension, 4 x 10-12, 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B2: Seated cable rope face pull, 4 x 10-12, 2/0/2/0, 60 seconds rest
  • C1: Seated zottman curl, 4 x 10-12, 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • C2: Cable adducted external rotations, 4 x 10-12, 2/0/2/0, 60 seconds rest 

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2, exercise C1, exercise C2.

This first 3-week phase is designed to lay the foundation for the rest of the training cycle. On the overhead presses and the lat pulldowns I recommend you perform all of your sets 1-2 reps shy of failure.

For example here is what your sets of seated DB overhead presses might look like:

  • Set #1: 80’s x 10 reps
  • Set #2: 80s x 10 reps
  • Set #3: 80’s x 9 reps
  • Set #4: 80’s x 8 reps

It is extremely important that you use the correct “2/0/2/0” tempo on both the seated face pulls and the cable external rotations. The slower concentric and eccentric tempos will enhance your ability to properly recruit the external rotators.

Rotator Cuff Program #2: Weeks 4-6

  • A1: Seated military press from pins (shoulder-width grip), 6 x 6/4/2**, 4/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • A2: Narrow neutral grip pull ups, 6 x 6/4/2**, 4/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B1: Lying ez-bar extensions (to forehead), 4 x 5-7, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B2: T-bar row, 4 x 7-9, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
  • C1: Seated DB external rotations (arm abducted / supported), 4 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
  • C2: Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / pronated grip), 4 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest

**Performed as a 6/4/2 wave loading scheme. Perform 6 reps on your 1st set, 4 reps on your 2nd set, 2 reps on your 3rd set, 6 reps on your 4th set, 4 reps on your 5th set, and 2 reps on your 6th set.

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2, exercise C1, exercise C2.

For weeks 4-6 you are going to use the 6/4/2 wave loading scheme. For example:

  • Set #1: 6 reps
  • Set #2: 4 reps
  • Set #3: 2 reps
  • Set #4: 6 reps
  • Set #5: 4 reps
  • Set #6: 2 reps

This is a fantastic way to boost your maximal strength. You get to flirt with some relatively lower rep ranges but without burning out your central nervous system. You should already notice a significant increase in your rotator cuff strength compared to your first 1-3 week phase.

Rotator Cuff Program #2: Weeks 7-9

  • A1: Standing behind the neck press (shoulder-width grip), 4 x 5**, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • A2: Medium overhand grip pull ups, 4 x 5**, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B1: Eccentric seated unilateral DB french press**, 4 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B2: Seated cable row (v-handle) 4 x 8-10, 3/0/1/1, 60 seconds rest
  • C1: Unilateral cable external rotation (arm abducted / supported), 4 x 8-10, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • C2: Standing bilateral cable ez-bar curl (wide / pronated grip), 4 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest

**On your 4th and final set perform a “5 to 8” set. Perform 5 reps, rest 15-30 seconds, perform 1 rep with the same load, rest 15-30 seconds, perform 1 rep with the same load, rest 15-30 seconds, perform 1 rep with the same load, done! 

****Lower the weight like normal to isolate your triceps. In the bottom position roll your elbow forward and then perform an overhead press back to the lockout position. This sequence is repeated for the desired number of reps. See the video below for more details.

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2, exercise C1, exercise C2.

This 3-week training block features the behind the neck press. This is an excellent exercise to improve the overall health of your shoulder joint. If for some reason you cannot perform the behind the neck press with a shoulder-width grip then you may want to widen your grip on the bar. 

For this workout you are going to perform a modified version of a rest-pause set on your 4th and final set of 5 reps on the behind the neck press and chin ups. You perform 5 reps like normal. Then you rack the weight, rest 15-30 seconds and perform 1 more single.

This process is repeated until you have performed 8 total reps. These additional singles are fantastic for building strength. They will set you up very nicely for the final 3-week training block:

Rotator Cuff Program #2: Weeks 10-12

  • A1: Standing military press (shoulder-width grip), 9 x 3/2/1**, 5/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Narrow supinated grip chin ups, 9 x 3/2/1**, 5/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Dead stop skull crushers, 3 x 5-7, 2/1/X/0, 75 seconds rest
  • B2: Barbell dead stop row, 3 x 5-7, 2/1/X/0, 75 seconds rest
  • C1: Unilateral preacher zottman curl, 3 x 5-7, 4/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
  • C2: Seated DB external rotation (elbow on knee), 3 x 5-7, 4/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest

Performed as a 3/2/1 wave loading scheme. On your 1st, 4th and 7th sets perform 3 reps. On your 2nd, 5th and 8th sets perform 2 reps. On your 3rd, 6th and 9th sets perform 1 rep.

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2, exercise C1, exercise C2.

A1: Standing military press (shoulder-width grip)

A2: Narrow supinated grip chin ups

B1: Dead stop skull crushers

B2: Barbell dead stop row

C1: Unilateral preacher zottman curl

C2: Seated DB external rotation (elbow on knee)

 

The last 3-week training block features the 3/2/1 wave loading scheme on the 2 main exercises. The 3/2/1 wave loading scheme is one of the best ways to train for strength and to peak your strength on a particular lift.

This training block also features the gold-standard of external rotation exercises: the seated DB external rotation with your elbow on your knee.

By the end of week 12 you should have achieved optimal rotator cuff strength. In other words if you can bench press 300 pounds for a single then you should be able to perform seated DB external rotations with a 30 pound dumbbell for 8 reps. 

Conclusion

How to train the rotator cuff

The rotator cuff is one of the most important muscle groups in the upper body. It plays an absolutely critical role in keeping your shoulder joint healthy and allowing you to lift massive weights in bench presses, overhead presses, pull ups and rows.

The bottom line is you must directly train your rotator cuff if you want to achieve your genetic potential.

You now know the following:

  • The functional anatomy of the rotator cuff
  • The 9 most important rotator cuff exercises for the serious weightlifter
  • The 2 exercises you have to be careful with
  • The best rotator cuff loading parameters
  • How to design a 12-week training program to strengthen your rotator cuff

So what are you waiting for? Get back in the gym and start training your rotator cuff like you mean it! You can thank me later when your training progress shoots through the roof…

“Just like in bodybuilding, failure is also a necessary experience for growth in our own lives, for if we’re never tested to our limits, how will we know how strong we really are? How will we ever grow?”

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your strength training journey!

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC37682428
  2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315822242_Frequency_of_shoulder_pain_among_weight_lifters

Dr. Mike Jansen

I am the creator and owner of Revolutionary Program Design. I help advanced athletes take their training to the next level and achieve results they never imagined possible.

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