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Can Push-Ups Strengthen the Rotator Cuff?

author image Kyle Arsenault
Kyle Arsenault is a performance coach, author and former intern of the renown Cressey Performance. Now working with Momentum PT, he specializes in combining principles of physical therapy with strength and conditioning to enhance overall performance for his competitive athletes as well as his general population athletes.
Can Push-Ups Strengthen the Rotator Cuff?
A proper push-up features a stable trunk. Photo Credit Push-Up

If your goals include getting stronger and staying injury free, the rotator cuff, located at the shoulder is a group of muscles you need to strengthen. It's comprised of the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis and teres minor muscles. The rotator cuff is a muscle group that has become well known for being at risk for injury, and has been linked as the source of pain for two-thirds of shoulder pain issues according to American Family Physician in 2011.

Although it's labeled as a major source of shoulder pain, the rotator cuff is an integral component for health and performance, especially for active individuals and those who rely on their upper extremities to perform high intensity movements.

For these reasons, performing exercises that can help strengthen the rotator cuff, including the push-up, is a must.

Function of the Rotator Cuff

While exercises such as internal and external rotations, band work and reactive stability work are central for rehab and to help us become familiar with how the rotator cuff should perform, they are not the “functional” movements that we will experience in sport and life on a regular basis.

Read More: Physical Therapy Exercises For the Upper Arm

The function of the rotator cuff is not simply rotation of the upper arm bone inside of the shoulder socket, but more importantly it functions to combat the forces of other larger muscles such as the lats, pecs and deltoids to keep the joint in a good position. When the rotator cuff is not working properly, or is not strong enough, the upper arm bone is likely to travel around or pop out of the socket compromising the structures of the joint, which includes the rotator cuff.

With this function in mind, it is obvious that the rotator cuff must be trained in “functional patterns” that require it to stabilize the head of the humerus during more complex movements. The push-up helps you do this.

Progression and Regression

Whether the goal is rehabilitation, injury prevention or to increase your strength and overall fitness, the push-up is an exercise that can easily be manipulated to fit your current situation.

The best way to change the intensity of the push-up is to adjust the position of the hands. To lessen the challenge, simply raise your hands to a box, bench or use a staircase and place your hands on the third or fourth stair to start. As you become stronger, work your hands lower until you eventually are pushing yourself up from level ground.

From there you can increase the challenge of the push-up by removing a point of stability such as a foot, add some resistance such as a band or perform a more dynamic push-up variation such as a spiderman push-up, in which you pull one knee a tricep as you bend the elbows to lower down.

It's All About the Technique

If you don't get the basic form right, it doesn't matter which variation of a push-up you perform. Ensure that you keep certain form considerations in mind so you are performing the push-up to help strengthen the rotator cuff rather than compromise it.

Read More: Proper Push-Up Technique

Arm Position

Keep the position of the arms roughly 45 degrees to the body. If they go higher than than, the space in the shoulder joint is closed down and the rotator cuff is not in an optimal position to perform its job and therefore become stronger.

Also consider the position of the arm at the bottom of the push-up; avoid allowing the elbows to pass too far behind the body as this increases the likeliness of the head of the humerus gliding or “popping” forward in the joint. Try to keep the upper arm in line with the torso at the bottom of the push-up.

Shoulder Blade Position

The shoulder blades want to move as a unit and stay flush to the back. So, as you descend into the push-up, think about tipping the shoulder blades back as you bring them together in a slow and controlled manner.

Don't Let the Shoulder Blades Tip Forward Like This
Don't Let the Shoulder Blades Tip Forward Like This Photo Credit Don't Let this Happen on Push-Up

A cue that has become common in the fitness industry is to “pinch your shoulders together before you descend into the push-up.” While this cue means well, as you don't want your shoulder blades staying to the sides of the back, you also don't want to pinch your shoulder blades together before you achieve the bottom of the push-up. When you do this, you are not allowing your shoulder blade and joint to move appropriately, therefore limiting the function and strengthening of the rotator cuff.

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