For the average gym goer, workouts tend to be about those muscles that are easily seen in the mirror – chest, quads, biceps.
However, it's those hidden muscles that aren't obvious to the casual lifter's eye that are responsible for holding the whole complex machine all together. Like the rotator cuff.
The rotator cuff is essential to the structural integrity, strength and long-term shape of the shoulder. Yet many people striving for those chiselled boulder shoulders or their next overhead personal best have completely forgotten these even exist.
Touch your shoulder. That round, meaty part that you can feel, that's the medial deltoid – a big beef patty of a muscle. To run with that metaphor, the rotator cuff is the lettuce, tomato, special sauce, onion and even the bread bun it all sits in. That's how important this collection of muscles are.
When you're not giving this bad boy the kind of focused attention it requires, it creates an underlying instability to the shoulder which can manifest in several different ways. From full dislocation during a minor impact or while driving a dumbbell overhead; failure to stabilise the shoulder platform and thereby massively limit the amount of work your shoulder can handle. This directly equals less strength, greater propensity for injury and potentially less muscle growth.
Because of just how important this muscle group is, it requires a smarter method of training.
Training the cuff
First tool you'll need is a kettlebell.
Holding it upside down, push your arm forward away from your chest and bend at the elbow, ensuring your wrist is directly above your elbow.
Test your stability by walking around the room holding the kettlebell like this. When sufficient strength and stability is achieved, you can modify the exercise by holding the upside down kettlebell directly overhead with a straight arm.
Next, grab a light resistance band or cable machine.
While standing with the band or cable handle in one hand, hold your arm at a 90 degree angle to your side and 'wave' your hand backwards, increasing resistance and focussing on stable external rotation in the shoulder. For internal rotation, face the opposite direction and repeat the movement, only this time 'waving' the arm straight down and creating shoulder internal rotation resistance.
The aim is to feel a deep stretch in your shoulder but no pain. Aim for 6 total reps per arm, for three sets.
The third and final exercise to get the cuff working is with a resistance band.
Attach the band to a door frame or tie it to a squat rack and hold the band in one hand, standing about one foot away.
Lock your elbow to your side and rotate your forearm away from you (external rotation). The band resistance should increase. Now swap hands and rotate your arm towards your midline.
Finally, face the opposite direction and repeat on both arms for a total of six reps per movement, three total sets (this can also be completed with a cable machine)
Complete all of these exercises near the beginning of your workout.
Try not to think of the rotator cuff as something that should only be trained when your shoulder aches or post injury. Incorporate shoulder-based rotational and stability exercises into all your upper body workouts and reap the rewards you should have been getting years ago.