The Intelligent & Relentless Pursuit of Muscle™

Shoulder the Load


Since I’ve started writing for the T-Nation, I’ve gotten 100’s of e-mails asking me varying questions about the rotator cuff and its many somewhat magical qualities. While it may not be as cool as big quads or a great set of guns, a well-developed rotator cuff is sexy in its own, injury-free kind of way.

One of the most frequent questions I get regarding the rotator cuff is what exercises can I use to develop my external rotators? In our ADHD generation, it seems we can never have enough options when it comes to training, so this article is designed to give you just that!

I’m not going to get hard and heavy into the anatomy here, as Eric Cressey did an excellent job in his "Cracking the Rotator Cuff Conundrum" article featured previously. I am, however, going to give you several exercises that you can implement immediately to develop your external rotators and keep you driving those benches up without fear of pain or injury!


Basic Principles

As I stated before, I’m not going to get too in-depth with the functional anatomy of the rotator cuff. Instead, I want to give you a few tips that will make your training more effective.

1. Start off light in the beginning

I’m sure some of you are cringing just reading this, but developing the external rotators does not involve developing your ego as well! While these exercises do a great job of isolating the necessary musculature, the goal is to work the desired muscles and not everything else around them. If you want to use massive weights for your first workout here, you’re barking up the wrong tree!

2. Use slower tempos in the beginning

This goes hand-in-hand with my first point: The goal of these exercises is to develop your external rotators, nothing more, nothing less. If you are simply trying to muscle the weights around, it’s highly likely you are bypassing the very muscles you are supposed to be training! Now I’m not saying to use a 20-20-20 tempo scheme here, but a 3-1-3 tempo works well for those just starting out. Work on feeling these muscles work and controlling the movements from start to finish.

3. After starting off slow and light, periodize your training!

One thing that frustrates me about external rotation training is people who use 2 pounds on these exercises, perform like 100 reps, and use a super slow tempo FOR ALL THEIR TRAINING! I’m not going to say any protocol is inherently good or bad, but there are times when certain applications are better than others.

So after you’ve started off light and gotten these muscles working, train them like anything else! I’m not saying you want to do heavy singles, negatives, or the Weider forced reps principle, but you should still periodize your training like you would any other muscle group. Periods of higher reps are necessary at times, while in others you want to focus purely on getting these muscles strong. It’s nothing fancy, really, just smart planning and application of your training.

4. De-bunk the external rotator myths

I’ve had so many arguments regarding the external rotators, it’s ridiculous. Here are two of the most heinous quotes I’ve heard:

"You shouldn’t EVER do less than 12 reps per set."

"You shouldn’t EVER use more than 5 pounds on these exercises."

First off, 12 reps per set is fine in the beginning as you are focusing on improving motor control, increasing strength in the tendons and ligaments, or simply getting some much-needed blood flow into the area. But what if you’re in a max-strength based mesocycle, moving 400-pound bench presses for heavy doubles, would you still be doing sets of 12 with 3 pounds on your external rotation movements? I hope not.

As well, do you think a 200-pound bench presser and a 500-pound bench presser should be doing the same amount of weight in their external rotation movements? I certainly hope not! I have seen men who can press well over 100 pound dumbbells for reps, but can’t externally rotate more than 2 pounds for a set of 10! If you subscribe to the idea of never using more than 5 pounds for external rotations, you probably also think that squats are bad for your knees or that deadlifts will ruin your back.

I may sound a little callous when it comes to these myths, but it’s really frustrating trying to convince people that the external rotators aren’t much different from every other muscle group in your body. I liken them to the abdominals; everyone has a "theory" as to the best set and rep scheme for the abs. But, it really comes down to knowing what the desired training effects are, and then using the right training regimen at the right time. Proper application here is paramount.


Now that I’ve filled your brain with some basics on training the external rotators, let’s get on to describing the movements!


Shoulder Horn

The shoulder horn is a pretty nifty gadget that most of us would love to have. While it may seem a little pricey at nearly 60 bucks, even the most bull-headed trainee will have a hard time screwing up the movement.

Proper execution is pretty simple: Grab a pair of dumbbells and slide your elbows into the grooves of the horn, and let the arms hang down a little bit below parallel to begin. From the starting position, slowly rotate the dumbbells up to a point perpendicular to the ground, and then lower under control to the starting position and repeat.

Poor Man’s Shoulder Horn (DB external rotation)

Okay, so we all know the shoulder horn is great…but what if you don’t have an extra 60 bucks to shell out? In comes the poor man’s shoulder horn, which costs you zero dollars and is damn-near just as effective!

Set-up is easy; sit down on a bench and put one foot up on the bench in front of you. With a dumbbell in hand, "screw" your elbow into the side of your knee and let your arm hang down. From here, slowly rotate the dumbbell up to a point approximately perpendicular to the ground, and then lower under control to the starting position. One thing you have to watch here is your leg; if your leg is moving in and out throughout the movement, you are probably using too much weight and/or trying to improve your leverage. To fix this, think about pushing your elbow into your knee while simultaneously pushing your knee into your elbow. This will keep everything tight and force your external rotators to do the work.

90 degree external rotation

This simple variation of the external rotation can be done virtually anywhere; just don’t be a geek and take up the reverse hyper to do your external rotations! (It’s not quite as bad as curls in the squat rack, but it’s close.) The version below is pictured with an adjustable bench angled at 90 degrees.

With a dumbbell in hand, rest your elbow on the top of the bench. Try to make sure that your shoulder is abducted to 90 degrees from the body, as well as your upper arm/lower arm at a 90-degree angle as well (hence, the name 90-degree external rotation!) From the starting position, everything else is pretty standard; slowly rotate the dumbbell up to a 90-degree position, and then slowly lower under control to the starting position.

Low cable external rotation

You know those fancy 3-D cable machines you have in your gym? Well here’s a little tip: They DO actually serve a purpose! The low cable external rotation is one exercise that is best performed on a multi-planar cable machine. A machine that locks you into a groove will be somewhat cumbersome and not nearly as effective in this case (you can see this in the pictures below, as I have to contort my body slightly to complete the movement).

To begin, set a single-arm cable attachment to a position at or below navel level. As shown below, the right side is facing the machine, while the left arm is holding the attachment. The elbow is pinned to the side, and the left hand is adjacent to the right hip. (Note: You can also roll-up a small towel and place it in-between the elbow and side to increase the range of motion). From this position and keeping the elbow pinned to the side, rotate the arm laterally towards the left hip. Hold at the end point for a second, and then slowly return to the starting position.

Muscle snatch/Cuban Press

The muscle snatch/Cuban press is a pretty humbling experience. I consider this movement more of a "complex," where several movements are combined to produce one fluid movement. However, as with every complex, there’s got to be a limiting factor, and that factor here is the external rotation part of the movement. Remember, start off light and perform the movement correctly!

With a wide overhand grip, upright row a barbell up to approximately nipple level. From this position, externally rotate the bar to a point just in front of the forehead and the press overhead. You’ll follow the same movement path on the way down. I tell all my clients to focus on making the movement controlled and deliberate, almost robotic, as most have a tendency to load up the weight just because they can upright row and press a lot more than they can externally rotate. Start off slow and use the appropriate musculature; your body will thank you!

Side-Lying External Rotation

This is another one of my favorite external rotation exercises. Since you need a bench to do it, make sure to perform it at approximately 4 PM on Monday when the rest of the gym is trying to get a chest workout in….they’ll love you for it!

Grab a dumbbell and lie on a bench with a small towel rolled up between the side and elbow. Place the elbow on the pad and let the arm with the dumbbell hang down towards the navel. From the hanging position, rotate the dumbbell up to a point where it’s approximately perpendicular to the ground, and then lower under control to the starting position. Make sure to raise and lower under control! This is a tough one, believe me.

Well there ya go; six exercises to help keep your training fresh. Whether your goal is to press more weight, stay injury-free, or just impress your friends with your guru-like knowledge of the rotator cuff, these exercises can help you attain all those goals. Most importantly, don’t forget that chicks really dig a guy with a set of well-developed external rotators. You can thank me later!


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