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The right way to train your rotator cuff

The best way to protect your rotator cuff and prevent injury is via combination of strength work that helps improve mobility and stabilize this important system of muscles, says Alex Zimmerman, director of Equinox’s Tier X program. Yes, despite its singular name, the rotator cuff is actually a configuration of four muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis) that connect around the head of the humerus (the upper arm bone) in the shoulder joint. By linking the shoulder blade and the humerus, these muscles support elevation and rotation of your arm.

To protect and strengthen your rotator cuff, Zimmerman recommends performing the following eight moves as a dynamic warm-up two to three times a week. He says, “This routine takes you through the proper progression: increasing range of movement, trunk and shoulder stability, and challenging shoulder stabilization exercises.”

1. Trigger Point Pec Group

Stand facing a wall, then place a lacrosse ball between the wall and your chest and apply pressure. Lift one arm to 45 degrees, then 75 degrees, then 90 degrees to find your trigger points. Use your chest to move the ball over your trigger points for 30 to 45 seconds each. “This addresses the tightness in our pec group, a major contributor to postural imbalances which directly affect your rotator cuff,” says Zimmerman.

2. Roll Lats

Grab a foam roller and lie on your right side. Place roller horizontally under right armpit. Lift right hips and then, starting at your lat, roll down a few inches, then back up. Continue for 30 to 45 seconds. Switch sides and repeat.

3. Reach, Roll, and Lift

Begin in child’s pose. Make a fist with one hand then rest your forehead on it in front of you and reach your other arm out straight out in front of you on the ground. Reach as far as possible, keeping your head and trunk down. Roll your palm to the ceiling and try to lift your arm up off the ground, while keeping the palm up. (Make sure you only lift your arm and not your trunk.) Lower your palm to the ground, then slide your arm back toward your side so your elbow is at 90 degrees. Pause, then repeat, and continue for 30 to 45 seconds. Repeat on the other side for one rep; do two reps. “This activates some of the weaker muscles in the postural system,” says Zimmerman.

4. Plank with Lateral and Anterior Shifts

Raise yourself into a push-up position, with feet together and hands shoulder-width apart. Lower down into a push-up, then return to plank. Keeping elbows locked, shift as far as possible from side to side with arms straight for 10 reps. Then do anterior shifts: moving forward and backward, toes to heels for 10 reps. “The purpose of this move is to challenge the stability of the shoulder joint at varying angles, a key function of the cuff and shoulder,” says Zimmerman.

5. Plank with Lateral Kettlebell Drags

Place a kettlebell on the ground next to you. Raise into a plank position, so the kettlebell is about half an arm’s length to your right side. From the plank, reach your left hand under your body to grab the kettlebell and bring it to the left side. Place it down, then use your right hand to grab the kettlebell and bring it to the right side. Repeat for 30 seconds. Notes Zimmerman, “This will challenge the stability of the trunk and shoulder while integrating some of the weaker muscles in the postural equation.”

6. Half-Kneeling Halos

Kneel with left knee on the floor and right foot on the floor in front of it, knees bent 90 degrees. Hold a kettlebell in both hands in front of chest, palms facing toward you. Keeping elbows bent, move arms in a circular motion, as if drawing a halo around your head with the kettlebell for one rep. Do 10 reps, then switch sides. “This move increases stabilization while simultaneously increasing range of motion around the shoulder,” says Zimmerman.

7. Kettlebell Farmer Carry

Get into a squat position with head and chest up, then lift a heavy kettlebell in each hand (aim for a total weight of 75 percent of your body weight; if you weigh 150 pounds, each kettlebell would be around 25 KG) and walk as far as you can carry the weights. Note the time you were able to walk, then see if you can walk the same distance faster on the second round. Do two rounds total. “These moves are important to increase stabilization around the shoulder joint,” says Zimmerman.

8. Bottoms-up Farmer Carry

Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed slightly out to the sides, with a kettlebell in between your feet. Squat straight down to grab kettlebell in right hand and swing it up so that it balances with the bell upside down in the rack position. Keep your right arm bent so your hand is as close to your shoulder as possible. Next, walk as far as you can; repeat on the other side for one rep. Do two reps. Zimmerman says, “This requires tremendous stability, posture, and reflexive ability to account for high variability of the kettlebell.”