How to train the rotator cuff after injury

CEU Article Title: Training the rotator cuff client

By Chris Gellert, PT, MMusc & Sportsphysio, MPT, CSCS, AMS

Rotator cuff disorders generally have a multifactorial etiology, including trauma, instability and degenerative changes. Ruptures of the rotator cuff have been estimated to occur in as many as 80% of individuals older than 60 years of age. Among athletes who perform repetitive overhead activities, small tears may appear later in the deterioration process as a result of secondary impingement. This article will review the background on rotator cuff tears, clinical presentation & pathology, the medical and physical therapy treatment approach. In addition, provide the latest evidenced-based research on rotator cuff tears, while providing you the reader, how to train a client with a rotator cuff repair and help them transition from physical therapy back to the gym safely.


The learning objectives of this CEU article are to:

  1. Review the pathology of rotator cuff tear and the common sign and symptoms and medical management.
  2. Be able to understand per the research, the most effective therapeutic interventions to help a rotator cuff client.
  3. Understand and recognize contributing factors or variables that can affect or influence developing a rotator cuff tear.
  4. Be able to design individualized periodized training programs, and understand recommended vs. contraindicated torn rotator cuff exercises that are practical and integrative in nature.


Evidenced based research on rotator cuff repairs

Anatomically, the supraspinatus tendon as seen in figure one is the most commonly injured or torn muscle of the rotator cuff complex. The most common causes are mechanical impingement under the acromion, continuous micro-trauma, and degenerative changes. Because the supraspinatus tendon has a relative poor blood supply, especially at the insertion to the greater tuberosity, this results in poor healing ability (Rogers et al 2012 & Nho et al 2008).

Pathophysiology: Commonly occurs as a result of a trauma, accident or fall. Rotator cuff tears are graded from one to three in severity. They are classified as acute, chronic, degenerative, partial or full-thickness tears.


Partial thickness tears                                                   Full thickness tears

(Size: Small tears (<1 cm) Medium to large tears (2-4 cm) Large to massive (> 5 cm))


Figure 1. Anatomy of the shoulder          



Figure 2. Humerus movement on scapula

Contributing and risk factors: Charles Neer, MD, first proposed that shoulder impingement could be the best known factor for someone to develop a rotator cuff dysfunction. Shoulder impingement is defined as the inability of the humerus to glide within the glenoid cavity. During forward flexion and abduction of the shoulder, biomechanically, the humerus naturally glides down on the glenoid cavity as seen in figure 2.

A client with shoulder impingement, during shoulder flexion or abduction, the humerus will not naturally glide down within the glenoid cavity. Instead, the humerus will migrate up towards the acromioclavicular joint(AC)and back, impinging upon the supraspinatus tendon. Neer felt that repetitive translation of the rotator cuff under the acromion, led to partial tears that in turn led to full-thickness tears (Yadav, H., et al 2009).

Additional factors contributing to rotator cuff tears include, degenerative changes resulting
from age, a persons lifestyle or work, tight posterior capsule which affects of the humerus spin
and rotate during both internal and external rotation of the shoulder (Yamamoto, A., et al., 2010).

In addition repetitive single arm extended movements with or without weight causes micro stress
to the medial deltoid and supraspinatus.

Sign and symptoms: An individual, who suffers a rotator cuff tear, will complain of focal, sharp, throbbing with dull ache localized pain along the medial deltoid.


Figure 3. Rotator cuff tear

Associated symptoms: Dull and deep achy pain that occasionally throbs, and pain with
sleeping on the affected side.

Medical mgmt: In the last decade, developments in imaging, particularly the MRI, have revolutionized diagnosis and management of rotator cuff disease. Indications for surgery include failure to make progress after 4 to 6 months of conservative care, or an acute full-thickness tear in an active individual younger than 50 years of age.

Physical therapy: The goal with physical therapy is again to first restore mobility, by the utilization of passive motion(PROM) by the therapist for six weeks to protect the surgery site. From 8 weeks post-operatively, the focus of therapy is utilizing active assistive range of motion (AAROM), followed with active range of motion. Strengthening the posterior shoulder by targeting the external rotators, and scapular retractors (low trapezius, mid trapezius and rhomboid muscles) promotes stability throughout the shoulder complex. Typically patients will require two to three months of physical therapy to possess functional range of motion, strength and be able to independently perform common daily activities such as reaching, getting dressed, brushing their hair, before being discharged.


Recommendations for training:

Once discharged from physical therapy, transitioning from the physical therapy setting to the gym setting can be simple, however it requires one important element, knowledge. Knowing the anatomy, biomechanics of the shoulder, the type of surgery one underwent and the client’s goals are paramount before exercise prescription can despite all of this critical information, one thing remains certain. Train the client based on science, not on guessing.


Exercise Prescription for the Rotator Cuff Client

The focus on post rehabilitation training is to enhance dynamic control of the scapulothoracic musculature, and strengthening the scapular stabilizers (serratus anterior, rhomboids, low trapezius and external rotators). Core strengthening should progress from static to dynamic exercises (i.e. standing in place trunk rotation with cable to traveling forward lunge with medicine ball trunk rotation).



Figure 4. Low trapezius strengthening                     







Figure 5. Serratus anterior strengthening            


What is scapulohumeral rhythm (SHR)?

Is the coordinated movement of the scapula, which upwardly rotates on the thorax during shoulder front raising (flexion) and side raising (abduction) with roughly a 2:1 ratio.


Figure 6. Normal scapulohumeral rhythm


Figure 7. Abnormal scaphumeral rhythm

Abnormal scapulohumeral rhythm is caused by the following:

  • A rotator cuff tear is present, where the individual does not have the musculotendinous connection and strength to abduct the arm.
  • A person has limited joint mobility (hypo mobility) known as adhesive capsulitis (frozen shoulder).
  • A person has pain and/or muscular weakness preventing the ability to raise the arm to the side.

If a client doesn’t attain this proper SHR, the person will continue to compensate, leading to muscle imbalances, probable trigger points and shoulder dysfunction.


Figure 8. Force couple

A force couple is a pair of muscles that act together. A force couple is another way of referring to muscle synergists or a synergistic action. As you can see in figure 8, a force couple is formed by the low trapezius and serratus anterior causing upward rotation and gliding of the scapula on the thorax. Those individuals with a rotator cuff tear, shoulder impingement, or frozen shoulder, will have what is called an abnormal scapulohumeral rhythm. Which means the scapula does not properly upwardly rotate on the thorax as seen in figure 7.

Upper body rotator cuff exercises that are safe based on biomechanics include:

  • Low trap pull downs with cable standing or tubing, depress and retracts the scapula, taking pressure of the surgical site as well as improves posture and posterior stability.
  • Serratus anterior strengthening: Strengthening both the lower trapezius and serratus anterior creates a force couple. Which means the scapula can upwardly rotate scapula on the thorax (seen in figure 6).
  • Seated mid row, one arm dumbbell row, seated reverse flyes (posterior deltoid) strengthens the weaker phasic muscles of the posterior chain.
  • External rotation with cable/tubing, seated reverse flyes, seated dumbbell side raises (once medically cleared and at least 4 months tissue healing).
  • Triceps press downs and barbell biceps curls.
  • Core strengthening exercises that are safe include but not limited to; standing trunk rotation with cable/tubing, diagonal with cable tandem in place lunge, planks, planks with ball, trunk rotation with forward lunge.


Exercises that are contraindicated include with rationale:

  • Seated dumbbell shoulder press (creates excessive load to the medial deltoid).
  • Lat pull downs behind the head (at end or range places greatest stress on all glenohumeral ligaments as well as on the labrum).
  • Barbell squats (places compressive and loading forces on the surgical graft.
  • Upright row (at end of range-shoulder is maximally internally rotated which places stress on all glenohumeral ligaments, labrum and connective tissue).
  • Supine dumbbell pullovers (places greatest stress on the anterior capsule and joint).

Despite the size of a rotator cuff tear undergoes, continued skilled training can continue to improve the quality of life with thoroughly understanding the surgical procedure, the anatomy, functional anatomy and the biomechanics of the shoulder. This will enable the personal trainer to be able to work with any post surgical client enabling them to help their clients to reach optimal function.

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Chris is the CEO of Pinnacle Training & Consulting Systems(PTCS). A continuing education company, that provides educational material in the forms of home study courses, live seminars, DVDs, webinars, articles and min books teaching in-depth, the foundation science, functional assessments and practical application behind Human Movement, that is evidenced based. Chris is both a dynamic physical therapist with 15 years experience, and a personal trainer with 19 years experience, with advanced training, has created over 10 courses, is an experienced international fitness presenter, writes for various websites and international publications, consults and teaches seminars on human movement. For more information, please visit

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Nho et al., 2008, ‘Rotator cuff degeneration, etiology and pathogenesis,’ American Journal of
Sports Medicine,
vol. 36, number 5, pp. 987-993.

Rogers, B, et al., 2012, ‘The management of rotator cuff tears in the elderly,’ The Journal of Perioperative Practice, vol.12, issue 1, pp. 30-32.

Yadav, H., et al 2009, ‘Rotator cuff tears: pathology and repair,’ Knee Surgery Sports Traumatology Arthroscopy, vol.17, pp.409–421

Yamamoto, A., et al., 2010, ‘Prevalence and risk factors of a rotator cuff tear in the general population,’ Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery, vol.19, issue 1, pp. 116-120.