Balancing & Stabilizing the Shoulder (Rotator Cuff) Part 1

By Sean Beckford (CSCS, RYT, FST) on October 6, 2022

Hi Friends! 

Earlier this week, I introduced an article on lower back pain in movement, and that is going to be a series of its own which I’ll cover in depth. Today I’m going to talk about another important areas of the body, and have a series on different muscle groups upcoming in the future. Today’s topic however, is the rotator cuff. 

In this article, I’m going to share a few exercises that help address strength deficits that lead to faulty mechanics and instability of the shoulder. Now you don’t need to do all of these in your next training session, pick a few and try them out and notice how you feel afterwards.

It’s important to remember when completing these exercises is that strength isn’t always going to carry over to stability. They are different when it comes to rehabilitation. To improve shoulder stability with today’s exercises you will want to complete them with an isometric portion at the end of the movement. Isometrics improves endurance and joint health. 

On the strength, stability continuum it’s important to keep these things in mind: 

To that end, stability exercises that involve the rotator cuff/corrective exercises generally tend to be higher focused in its rep scheme. This is for two reasons: to build capacity and activate muscle groups. This is critical for the start and end of the training session as fatigue sets in more at the end of the training session, and injury risk becomes higher due to lack of endurance that is trained. Conversely, injury risk is also higher in athletic competition & sport in the second half or later part of games given the higher amount of fatigue leading to unstable muscle groups. This topic I will touch on in later blog posts.

The corrective exercises I’ll cover today involving the rotator cuff are:

  1. Prone Lying External Rotation
  2. Side-Lying External Rotation
  3. Swimmers
  4. Y, T, W, L’s
  5. Standing Banded External Rotation
  6. External Rotation to Press

Important things to keep in mind. I am using minimal equipment and in the case of some the exercises I’m not using any at all. Fitness & rehabilitation should be accessible to anyone, so while I could do these exercises with other implements, I’m choosing a simpler approach so anyone in pain or discomfort has the opportunity to get out of it from the comfort of their home.

Prone Lying External Rotation

You’ll see that I’m using a water bottle. You can fill your water bottle at home with a lot of water, some or none depending on the difficulty you want to have for the exercise. I’m using my box here to complete the exercise, but you can use a bench, couch or bed. If you go with weights you only need 2.5-5 lb maximum, but you likely won’t need it. Lying prone allows for isolation and better motor control in the exercise, which allows you to focus on what should be moving and when. Lying prone also allows for those in excessive anterior pelvic tilt (think pelvis tilting out) to correct the arch and keep a neutral spine.

  1. Keeping the scapula set, pull (abduct) the elbow to a 180 degrees (Straight line) in line with the shoulder. As you move the shoulder into external rotation, think  about the ball of the shoulder to rotating in the socket, without allowing unwarranted movement from the upper trap.
  2. If you are really struggling to get into external rotation, you can place a towel underneath the shoulder for better contraction & stabilization if desired.

Recommended Sets/Reps:6-12 reps – 2-3 sets, especially during warmup sets designed to improve external rotation.

Side-Lying External Rotation

The latest research indicates that the infraspinatus & teres minor are activated most effectively with this exercise. “These two muscles keep the humerus bone packed down and locked in the joint socket during arm movement.” (keeping the golf ball placed on the tee) Again, I’m using the box, but you can simply lie down on the ground. I am also using my water bottle to show a substitute without weight.

  1. Assume a side-lying position with a towel underneath the armpit. The towel will help to place your shoulder in an anchored position. Keep the arm parallel to the floor and have your shoulder blade in retraction (back & down). Keeping the shoulder pinned you will bring your arm up to a 90 degree position/L shape. Hold for 1-3 seconds on each rep before bringing it back down to the starting position. If this movement brings you pain and you’re not able to access the full range of motion, do partial reps until the pain dissipates and you can go further.

Recommended Sets/Reps:12-20 reps – 2-3 sets, especially during warmup sets designed to improve external rotation.


I love swimmers, it feels like I’m doing a butterfly in the pool or in the ocean every time I do these. You can use weights here but the volume and work is plenty enough that you won’t need it, especially if you slow the movement down.

  1. Start by lying on your stomach with your hands positioned by your hips and palms facing down. With your elbows locked in a straight position, pull your hands off the ground as you simultaneously squeeze your shoulder blades together. This motion of shoulder extension is great at activating the rhomboid muscles of your mid back that help control your shoulder blade.
  2. Keeping the shoulder blades pinned back and down, you’re going to rotate the arms upward reaching as far towards you as you can, hold it at the top of shoulder flexion before bringing the hands back behind you at hip/lower back height.

Recommended Sets/Reps: 6-12 reps – 2-3 sets, on days of pull/press work.

Y, T, W, L’s

The YTWL is one of the most underrated upper body exercises in my opinion, given the amount of muscle groups this exercise works and how beneficial it is for posture and upper back health. If have access to an incline bench, or a stability  you can do these in the bent over position (hinge). It’s typically performed for shoulder health, but it’s also a great upper back builder. You don’t need extra load; you can use just bodyweight and get a solid back pump. If you choose to use load it’s up to you, but you don’t need it. The burn is real.

  1.  The Y works the lower traps: Try not to initiate the movement with the upper traps when doing the Y.
  2.  The T works the rear deltoids: Pinch your shoulder blades together.
  3.  The W works the mid back: Think up, back and down while squeezing at the mid back (rhomboids).
  4. The L works the rotator cuff muscles: Think of pulling elbows to ceiling at 180 degrees, before externally rotating.

Recommended Sets/Reps: 8-10 reps in each position- 1-3 sets depending on your workout program.

Standing Banded External Rotation

This exercise is a solid one for getting the lower traps involved in the movement, which translates over to having better posture working at the desk, standing, and walking. More often than not the lower traps are under activated in most individuals and there is a dominance in the upper traps. This leads faulty mechanics in overhead movements, particularly those that move weights with a high degree of speed and force. (Cleans, Clean & Jerk & Snatches)

  1. Grab an theraband keeping both arms at your sides, standing nice and tall.
  2. To do this variation of the external rotation variation properly, mind the positioning of the elbows. As you can see, they are at my sides before I straighten out my arms. This allows for those lower trap muscle fibres (just below my mid back) to pinch together.

Recommended Sets/Reps: 12-20 reps – 1-3 sets 

External Rotation to Press

Most shoulder exercises are overhead, and therefore require a higher amount of stability, increasing injury risk, making the external rotation to press a very important exercise in the toolbox as there’s isometric portions to help your stability throughout the exercise. You will want to tie a resistance band/theraband your bed frame or your staircase at home. For me, I’m using my squat rack.

  1. Looping the band around your palm or wrist, pull the arm so that the elbow is in line with the shoulder and parallel to the ground. You should feel that the shoulder blade is in a locked position where the middle traps are being felt before beginning the next part. Hold for 1-3 seconds.
  2. From there, externally rotate the shoulder backwards so that you have a L position made at 90 degrees. Again, hold this position for 1-3 seconds
  3. Press the arm overhead and hold for 1-3 seconds. This forces the ribcage & serratus anterior muscle to assist in the isometric portion improving your strength and stability overhead. This translates into multiple disciplines, olympic weightlifting, CrossFit.
  4. Reverse the pauses going back down and repeat the steps.

Recommended Sets/Reps: 6-10 reps, 1-3 sets

Takeaway from this article: 

It doesn’t matter if you’re a world-class athlete or you’re someone who is working from the desk or at home. Shoulder pain is shoulder pain, and if you’re not in pain these are great activation exercises for any upper body day that you might have which involves direct shoulder work. It’s always better to get ahead of potential injury rather than dealing with the after effects of an injury.

Until next time!