What are the best kinds of strength training routines for people with rotator cuff pain?

You have more options that you believe.

There are many weightlifting moves that you can do despite having a problem with your rotator cuff.

Your strength training options are not as limited as you think.

I’m a former certified personal trainer who has had rotator cuff problems in the past.

These tendon problems come in varying degrees, sometimes requiring surgery.

But for rotator cuff issues that don’t require surgery, but rather, patience and the right exercises, you can still do plenty of strength training.

Shutterstock/Alila Medical Media

Best Strength Training Exercises for a Tricky Rotator Cuff

Rowing motions tend to least aggravate a bad RC tendon.

This is why a person with a painful rotator cuff — upon bench pressing, doing pushups or shoulder presses — will still be able to knock off heavy seated rows, at least if the grip isn’t wide, as well as more-narrow-grip chin-ups and even possibly pull-ups. A wide grip, however, will likely cause problems.

Bent-over dumbbell rows are a good strength training exercise that tends to spare pain in a troublesome rotator cuff. Just keep the arm close to your side; do not flare it out.

Bent-over barbell rows with a supinated (palms facing outward) grip are sometimes another nice strength training exercise for people with rotator cuff pain. Face the palms inward, however, and you may feel pain.

The “corner” or prone row is also a good exercise for those whose rotator cuff area pipes up during pressing movements. Note: A wide grip is not recommended. Use a narrow grip.


Another good strength training routine that’s very friendly to the rotator cuff is shoulder shrugs: dumbbells, plates, Smith machine, tension bands.

Other strength training moves that someone with rotator cuff pain can do:

1) Narrow grip lat pull-downs; avoid a wide grip.

A supinated grip works best, followed by a neutral grip (choose the appropriate handles).

2) Any kind of biceps curling motion may be friendly towards a finicky rotator cuff.

Shuttersock/Nicholas Piccillo

Other kinds of shoulder injuries, however, can become aggravated with biceps curls. So proceed with heightened awareness.

When my RC problem was flared up, I could still do heavy dumbbell curls.

3) Some triceps routines may be compatible with rotator cuff issues.

But stay away from dips! Triceps push-downs with the rope may be your best bet, compared to other isolating-triceps strength routines.

Need I say that the worst strength training routines for painful rotator cuffs involve chest pressing motions, shoulder pressing motions.

And perhaps the worst offenders: behind-neck military press, upright row and dumbbell lateral lift. These are nasty for strained RC tendons.

Interestingly, lateral lifts, when done with super light weight and straight arms, can actually help restore the rotator cuff.

So can chest pressing motions with dumbbells – very light dumbbells, that is.

Lorra Garrick is a former personal trainer certified through the American Council on Exercise. At Bally Total Fitness she trained women and men of all ages for fat loss, muscle building, fitness and improved health. 



Top image: Shutterstock/Andrey_Popov