Mend Physical Therapy Blog and Injury Information

Rotator cuff strengthening for CrossFit athletes

December 16, 2022

The rotator cuff is an essential group of muscles that stabilize the shoulder during overhead movements such as the strict press, jerk, snatch, and handstand push-up. These muscles are commonly injured by CrossFit athletes and weakness of the rotator cuff can lead to multiple shoulder pathologies such as, rotator cuff tendinopathy, impingement (subacromial pain syndrome), biceps tendinopathy, and glenohumeral joint sensitivity. The rotator cuff muscles that we treat most commonly in the physical therapy clinic are the supraspinatus and infraspinatus muscles, followed by the teres minor muscle. Strengthening these muscles can help prevent injury and improve performance with overhead lifts.

One common exercise to strengthen the rotator cuff is to perform shoulder external rotation with a resistance band. You can see this exercise being performed often at the box as part of a shoulder warm-up, but many people use incorrect or sub-optimal form. Performing this exercise with poor form can (at best) limit the benefits of the exercise and (at worst) lead to repetitive stress injuries because of muscle compensation.

The most common mistakes people make with this exercise are:

1.     Not using a towel under your arm: Reinold and colleagues found that using a towel under your arm while performing this exercise improved infrapsinatus muscle activation while decreasing deltoid muscle activation, making the exercise more targeted to the rotator cuff.

2.     Straightening the elbow during the movement: pushing downward with your forearm leads to compensation with the triceps and avoids targeting the rotator cuff near end ranges of shoulder external rotation. Instead, angle your wrist/forearm slightly upward to maintain exactly 90 degrees of bend at your elbow throughout the movement.

3.     Moving your elbow across your body: keeping your elbow in place during this exercise will ensure proper rotator cuff activation and will also challenge the eccentric control of the shoulder external rotator. Focus on keeping the tip of your elbow pivoting around a single point when performing this exercise.

Watch the video below to see how to perform shoulder external rotation strengthening with proper form and how to fix these common mistakes. If you have persistent shoulder pain or rotator cuff weakness, schedule an appointment with the CrossFit specialists at Mend in Boulder and Lafayette, Colorado. Our physical therapy specialists have extensive continuing education in treating shoulder and other orthopedic conditions, especially in CrossFit athletes.