Rotator Cuff Injury From Pushups

Pushups are a great exercise for upper body conditioning. Too many pushups, or pushups done with poor technique, can overstress the shoulder joints. Many structures come together at the shoulder, including the muscles of the rotator cuff, which can be injured by poor pushup positioning. Avoiding rotator cuff pain may be a simple matter of balancing muscle tension at the shoulder and improving your exercise technique.

Pushups in a boot camp class (Image: Mike Powell/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Frequency and Causes

According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, of the 7.5 million patients who saw a health care professional for shoulder pain in 2006, more than half of them had some form of rotator cuff injury. Repetitive motion injuries related to sports that require overhead motion, like swimming, tennis, baseball and weightlifting, are responsible for many of these injuries. Occupational injuries as a result of hanging drapes or wallpaper, wall washing and gardening are also common.


The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that stabilize the shoulder joint and facilitate rotation. Athletes or individuals whose professions strengthen other muscles at the shoulder can develop a muscular imbalance in this area. When auxiliary muscles are stronger than the rotator cuff muscles, they cannot do their job of stabilizing the joint efficiently during movement. Overstressing the rotator cuff can result in tendinitis, an inflammation of the muscle tendons where they attach to the bone. In some cases, muscle tissue is torn. Inflamed tissue often becomes pinched between the humerus and the accromium process of the scapula during overhead motions, causing acute pain.

Pushups and Shoulder Pain

Pushups develop and strengthen the pectoral and deltoid muscles, but you may be paving the way for rotator cuff problems by starting a muscular imbalance. Stretching chest and deltoid muscles after performing pushups will help offset imbalance by keeping those muscles from excessive shortening. Exercising the muscles on the other side of the joint by doing rows, pull-downs and rear delt flies will also promote balance. Flawed exercise technique can also cause injury. When doing pushups, control your movement and do not let gravity take over in the downward phase. Avoid taking the shoulders lower than your elbows.

Strengthening the Rotator Cuff

Exercises to strengthen the rotator cuffs will help protect the shoulder joints from injury. Using a resistance band or cable pulley at waist level, glue your upper arm to your side, elbow at 90 degrees. Against resistance, rotate the arm outward as far as you can without moving your elbow away from your side, then slowly rotate back in. Now adjust your body position to rotate inward against resistance. Repeat 10 to 15 times on each arm, in each direction.

The Road to Recovery

Recovering from a rotator cuff injury can be a long process. A rotator cuff injury is fundamentally a form of tendinitis; abstain from activities that aggravate it is the first step toward recovery. Stretching, ice, massage and anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen or naproxen may help alleviate pain and inflammation and speed recovery. Once pain and inflammation are arrested, exercises that strengthen the rotator cuff should become a regular part of your workout routine.

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