Can Push-Ups Strengthen the Rotator Cuff?

Push-Up: A Rotator Cuff Exercise
A proper push-up requites a stable core. (Image: 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. The rotator cuff is a group of muscles (the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis and teres minor muscles) that has become well-known for being at risk for injury and has been the cause 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.

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 modified and included in your current fitness routine.

Function of the Rotator Cuff

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

The function of the rotator cuff is not simply rotation of the upper arm, but more importantly, it combats 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.

So 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 modified and included in your current fitness routine.

The best way to change the intensity of the push-up is to adjust the position of your hands. To lessen the challenge, place your hands to a box, bench or stair. 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 or hand, 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 to your triceps as you bend the elbows to lower down.

Shoulder Blades Tipped Forward Incorrectly
Don't Let the Shoulder Blades Tip Forward Like This (Image: Don't Let this Happen on Push-Up)

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.

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