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5 Shoulder Exercises To Avoid With Rotator Cuff Injury 

    Today, we will look at shoulder exercises to avoid with rotator cuff injury. Your shoulders play a significant role in your day-to-day activities, whether you realize it or not. You use your shoulders frequently, for example, washing your face, carrying groceries, or lifting your children. Having shoulder pain is excruciating, and you must protect your shoulder while it heals. 

    It is possible to exercise while recovering from a rotator cuff injury, but it is best to do with advice from a licensed practitioner. In addition, you should avoid exercises that aggravate your shoulder, which include lateral raises, swimming, and weighted overhead movements. 

    Shoulder Exercises To Avoid With Rotator Cuff Injury 

    As you recover, incorporating exercises into your routine can help you regain strength and heal quicker. Exercising is highly beneficial to your shoulders, as long as you do it correctly. 

    The five shoulder exercises to avoid with rotator cuff injury are:

    • Lateral raises
    • Lap swimming 
    • Overhead movements with weights
    • Upright row
    • Lat pulldowns behind your head

    You should be mindful of how your shoulder feels while exercising and stop if you begin to feel any pain.

    You should expect mild discomfort when exercising but never be in pain. If you do not take care of a rotator cuff injury, it can result in motor function loss and months of rehabilitation. See our post on How to Build Shoulders Without Working Your Traps and The Muscle Groups You Should Pair With Shoulders for more shoulder exercises you can do.


    1. Lateral Raises

    Be careful not to use a weight that is too heavy or the incorrect technique, as this is often an error people make when executing the lateral raise.

    The wrong technique can severely damage your tendons, and it’s essential to understand how to perform a lateral raise. 

    It is best to avoid a lateral raise entirely with an injured rotator cuff. The supraspinatus muscle is activated when you move your arms away from your body in an abduction motion. 

    This muscle is vital as it works to depress and steady the humeral head to prevent your tendons and nerves from rubbing against each other and your bone (impingement).

    The medial deltoid will then take over from the supraspinatus muscle to ensure that your shoulder is stabilized throughout a lateral raise movement. 

    If your rotator cuff is injured, your supraspinatus muscle will not be able to correctly complete this motion, resulting in further injuries and irritation to your rotator cuff. Therefore, your lateral raise should be smooth instead of a staggering movement with an injured rotator cuff. 

    As an alternative, you can incorporate movement below shoulder height, without weights, to improve the strength of your supraspinatus muscle. 

    Learn more in Kettlebell Shoulder Workouts For Strength And Stability.


    2. Lap Swimming

    Lap swimming

    Swimming is a popular exercise because people believe it to be a low-impact workout that will take the stress off your shoulders.

    Unfortunately, this isn’t true, and rotator cuff injuries are among the most common swimming injuries physiotherapists treat. 

    If you have never had formal swimming training, your risk increases as you will further aggravate your rotator cuff injury. Swimming can damage your rotator cuff as it is a repetitive overhead movement. 

    It would be best to avoid movements like freestyle, backstroke, and butterfly while recovering from a rotator cuff injury.

    It may be possible to swim breaststroke as it is less intensive on your shoulders, but it still requires you to reach forward repetitively. 

    In addition, you should be mindful of how much pain you experience if you do want to try to swim breaststroke. 

    Using a kickboard does not alleviate the stress on your shoulders as you aren’t using your shoulders to swim.

    Holding the kickboard in front of you puts additional pressure on your shoulders. 

    Lap swimming is best to be avoided or only done under the guidance of a coach and physiotherapist who can give you swimming movements that are safe to do and protects your rotator cuff and shoulder as a whole. 

    See more in  Effective Stretches and Exercises to Relieve Shoulder Pain and Shoulder Mobility Exercises and Stretches to Unlock Shoulder Flexibility.


    3. Overhead Movements With Weights

    Any overhead movements could aggravate and worsen a rotator cuff injury, even if the movement aims to strengthen different muscle groups, such as the tricep press. 

    When you involve a weight in an overhead movement, you further hurt your rotator cuff and shoulder by adding pressure onto your shoulder tendons. 

    Overhead movements include skull crushes, military press, tricep dips, and lifting any weight over your head.

    It is best to avoid any movement where you raise your arms over your head, as this will aggravate your rotator cuff and prolong your recovery time. 

    As you recover, incorporating overhead movements is excellent for increasing the strength within your shoulder and helping you rebuild your muscle.

    Your technique and how heavy the weight you are using are two essential factors to consider before you begin using heavier weights. 

    You should pause if you feel any pain during the movement and assess whether it is healthy to be doing or aggravating your shoulder. 

    See more in How to Do Front Raises the Right Way (And Common Mistakes).


    4. Upright Row

    Upright Prayer Rows

    The upright row is a popular exercise featured in most online coach programs.

    However, it can cause damage to your shoulder and rotator cuff even if you do not have an injury. You should avoid the upright row entirely as it is an insufficient exercise. 

    When doing an upright row, you put your shoulder into an internal rotation, limiting the space your supraspinatus tendon needs to stabilize your shoulder.

    As a result, you are setting your shoulder up for further injury and problems down the line. 

    When you lift the weights, you will suppress your rotator cuff tendon between the head of the humerus and the acromion of the scapula. 

    The higher you lift your weight, the worse the impact is on your shoulder.

    You can alleviate this stress by lifting lower and using free weights, allowing you to rotator your hands more externally. 

    If you have a rotator cuff injury, you should avoid the upright row altogether.

    It is not a movement you should incorporate into your routine even if you have recovered. The vertical row has been proven to damage your rotator cuff tendon severely over time.

    Watch the video below to learn more about the upright row.



    5. Lat Pulldowns Behind Your Head

    How to Properly Use the Rear Delt Machine

    Another exercise you should avoid, whether your shoulders are healthy or not, is lat pulldowns behind your head.

    This movement increases the chances of developing anterior shoulder instability, which is associated with rotator cuff injuries and multiple other soft tissue injuries. 

    You should expect to see others doing Lat pulldowns behind their head in the gym, despite adequate evidence to maintain that the movement causes severe damage to your shoulder over time. 

    Luckily, you can substitute this movement when your shoulder has recovered with a front pulldown, which activates the same muscles used in lat pulldowns behind your head.

    The front pulldown is a more functional movement that will benefit your everyday life. 

    Using a neutral grip is best when you begin incorporating shoulder exercises into your routine after recovering and slowly rebuilding your strength.

    A pronated grip activates your lateral muscles the most when your palms face away from you. 

    See great exercises in The Perfect Shoulders and Abs Workout for Beginners and The 10 Best Calisthenics Shoulder Workouts.



    Exercises to avoid with rotator cuff injury.

    I hope you now know the shoulder exercises to avoid with rotator cuff injury.

    A rotator cuff injury can limit your exercises and restrict your movement in your everyday life.

    Therefore, you must recover and heal your rotator cuff. You must be aware of which activities to avoid while you exercise. 

    It is still possible to exercise while recovering from a rotator cuff injury, and you should be doing movements that help you rehabilitate and strengthen your shoulder.

    It would be best if you did any exercise routines under a physiotherapist’s guidance. 

    See some more shoulder exercises below before you go.


    James Wright

    James (36) has been working out since he was 15 years old. He has a home gym where he pumps iron, does bodyweight workouts and boxing. He likes sharing his experiences with others who want to build a better physique.

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