Top 5 strengthening exercises for rotator cuff tears

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles in the shoulder, attached by vulnerable tendons, they help move and stabilise your arm. The muscles that make up the rotator cuff muscles are the subscapularis, supraspinatus, teres minor and infraspinatus. They all originate from the shoulder blade and attach to the top of the arm bone via tendons. When one or more of these tendons tear, it’s called a rotator cuff tear. Mostly caused by an overuse injury or more commonly linked to degenerative changes as a result of age. However, there are many factors which could lead to a tear in the rotator cuff. Often patients will complain about pain when lying on the affect shoulder, reaching for their bra strap, lifting and lowering the arm, weakness/fatiguing of the arm during daily activities.

Types of tears

The supraspinatus tendon is the most susceptible to tears, but other tendons can be affected.

Some tears may present as fraying, progressing to potential partial or full thickness tears.

Full thickness tears

This is when the tendon comes away from the bone either fully (complete full thickness tear) or when a small part is detached (incomplete full thickness tear).

Partial tears

This tear involves some of the fibers in the tendon being damaged but there is no detachment from the bone. Often the tendon fibers are thinned in relation to a healthy tendon.

Degenerative tear

Mostly seen in patients in their 6th decade in life, these tears often occur in the dominant arm. They are mostly attributed to repetitive motions related to occupation, e.g. painting.

Other factors such as poor blood supply which results in poor healing can accelerate rotator cuff tendon tears


Tears can develop from a traumatic event such as a fall on an outstretched arm, lifting a heavy object, dislocation or fracturing the bones in the upper arm.

Risk factors include

Smoking – smoking can reduce blood supply which can slow healing for injured rotator cuffs.

High cholesterol – deposits of cholesterol in rotator cuff tendon could affect the tendon structure, exposing it to more tears.

Diabetes – this affects the micro nutrients within blood supply causing poor tissue make up resulting in stiffness and weakness of the tendons.

In more severe cases, surgery may be necessary to repair the torn tendon. This is usually only recommended if the tear is large or if other treatments have not been effective. Most surgeries involve arthroscopy or occasionally open surgery to repair the damaged tendon. Recovery from a rotator cuff tear can take many (typically 9-12 months), and involves physiotherapy to restore mobility. Mobility is a big issue both pre-surgery and post-surgery. After surgery the arm will usually be placed in a slight for 4-6 weeks and it can be left very stiff, and can even develop secondary stiffness (frozen shoulder). At Surrey Physio we ensure that you are provided with the best care, offering an in-depth examination, personalised rehab programs to suite your needs and goals. We see people who opt not to have surgery, but we also rehab patients post-surgery. Just bare in mind, it takes time to recover properly.

We have developed five top exercises for strengthening your rotator cuff using our advanced rehab my patient software. Try them gently and see if things improve:

Rotator cuff strengthening at your desk

Resting your elbow on a desk, with your arm bent at 90 degrees, rotate your arm inwards towards the table, while holding a dumbbell. Your elbow stays in contact with the desk the whole time. This is a strengthening exercise for the rotator cuff shoulder muscles.

Try 12 reps 4 sets

Strengthen your Subscapularis

Stand up with your back close to a wall. Place your arm behind your back with your palm flat against the wall. Push backwards against the wall. Hold the contraction, and relax. Repeat as required. This exercise will strengthen your subscapularis muscle.

Hold for 10 s with 10 reps

Reverse pec fly with a band sitting

Place an exercise band around a door frame or secure it to a solid object in front of you. Sit on a chair with good upright posture. Hold both ends of the band with your palms facing towards each other. Open your arms to the side and behind you, to expand your chest. Draw your shoulder blades towards each other. Extend as far as feels comfortable with the band, and then relax, and repeat.

Try 12 reps with 4 sets

Band flexion 45 degrees

Place an exercise band under your foot, and lift the other end upwards. Take your arm out slightly to the side (45 degrees from the front). When you have reached your limit, move your arm back down. This exercise will improve mobility and strength to your shoulder.

Try 12 reps with 4 sets

Mid-trapezius raise with dumbbells

Lying face down on a bench, grasp a dumbbell in each hand, and lift both arms to 90 degrees outwards from your body to shoulder height. Return them to the starting position. This exercise strengthens the trapezius muscle.

Try 12 reps with 4 sets

If you are experiencing shoulder pain or weakness, it is important to see us in clinic. Seeing a Physiotherapist at Surrey Physio is often the quickest way of determining the cause and recommending the most appropriate treatment. Our personlalised approach reduces the risk of further injury and improves your chances of recovery. We care about patients in the communities where we live and work.

(Therapists: if you are reading this page, these videos are provided by Rehab My Patient – the best exercise prescription software for therapists to prescribe exercises Free trial available on their website. Patients: If you are a patient needing advice or a course of treatment, call Surrey Physio to book a telephone/video consultation with one of our expert physios or osteopaths, or book in face-to-face for an appointment. You can call us on 0208 685 6930 or book online by clicking the link at the top of the page).