Top 6 Shoulder Exercises for External Rotation

Introduction

Training shoulder exercises, specifically external rotation, helps:

  • Keep your shoulders healthy
  • Improve your posture
  • Strengthen your infraspinatus muscle
  • Improve overhead lifting and reaching overhead

In a study on overhead athletes, it was shown that strengthening the external shoulder rotator muscles, including  the infraspinatus muscle, improves performance and helps to prevent injury. Increasing the strength and capacity of your infraspinatus can help to keep your shoulders healthy and pain free when lifting overhead.

Want better shoulder mobility? Download Day 1 of our Shoulder Mobility Program for free:

Anatomy of Infraspinatus

infraspinatus muscle anatomy

The infraspinatus attaches to:

  • Your shoulder blade below the spine of the scapula
  • Your arm bone (humerus)

The name ‘infraspinatus’ comes from ‘infra’ (below), ‘spin’ (spine of scapula), and ‘atus’ (which is used to form a noun out of the descriptors).

In addition to creating external rotation of the shoulder joint, the infraspinatus also helps to guide the motion of the humerus on the shoulder blade when lifting overhead.

This is important to prevent excessive compression of the tendons in the shoulder.

Choosing the Shoulder Exercises

Whenever you're doing shoulder exercises, there should be no pain or pinching.

In this article are 6 great exercises to strengthen shoulder external rotation and the infraspinatus.

If you choose to do any, only do pain free exercises.

Performing these exercises can typically be done with 3-5 sets of 10-15 reps 2x/week.

These exercises and more detailed programming are included in our Shoulder Strength Program.

With that said, here are the top 6 shoulder exercises to strengthen your infraspinatus, build capacity, and improve external rotation.

Exercise 1 - Sidelying External Rotation

shoulder exercises sidelying 1

Starting Position

Equipment needed for this exercise:

  • 1 small dumbbell or
  • 1 small weight plate

How to set up:

  • Lay on your side
  • Support your head with your hand
  • Slightly bend your hips and knees
  • Grab the dumbbell in your hand
  • Place your elbow on your side, around  the crease of your hips, with your hand and the weight touching your stomach
shoulder exercises sidelying 2

Finishing Position

How to perform this shoulder exercise:

  1. Slowly lift the weight up
  2. Stop before your forearm is perpendicular to the floor
  3. Slowly lower to the starting position

Tips:

  • Keep your elbow bent at 90 degrees the entire time
  • You should only be rotating at your shoulder joint
  • You can place a towel under your elbow if you’d like (which decreases deltoid activity)

Exercise 2 - Seated External Rotation

shoulder exercises seated 1

Starting Position

Equipment needed for this exercise:

  • 1 small dumbbell or
  • 1 small weight plate

How to set up:

  • Get into a seated position as shown
  • Place your elbow on the inside of your bent knee
  • Grab the dumbbell in your hand and get into the starting position
shoulder exercises seated 2

Finishing Position

How to perform the exercise:

  1. Slowly lift the weight up
  2. Stop before your forearm is perpendicular to the floor
  3. Slowly lower to the starting position

Tips:

  • Keep your elbow bent at 90 degrees the entire time
  • You should only be rotating at your shoulder joint

Exercise 3 - Shoulder External Rotation Isometric

This shoulder exercise is an isometric (a static hold). We recommend performing it in three different positions.

The variations shown are put in order of increasing difficulty.

We use these three different exercises in the three phases of our Shoulder Strength program, with each being used for 4 weeks before progressing. 

Variation 1 - Iso at 0 degrees

Equipment needed: Mini-band

How to perform this variation:

  1. Place a mini band around your wrists
  2. With your elbows at your side, push your wrists outward into the band until your forearms are parallel
  3. Hold this position for the duration of the exercise

Recommended hold time: 30 seconds

Variation 2 - Iso at 45 degrees

How to perform this variation:

  1. Place a mini band around your wrists
  2. Lift your elbows until your arms are halfway to parallel
  3. Push your wrists outward into the band until your forearms are parallel
  4. Hold this position for the duration of the exercise

Recommended hold time: 30 seconds

Variation 3 - Iso at 90 degrees

How to perform this variation:

  1. Place a mini band around your wrists
  2. Raise your elbows until your triceps are parallel to the floor
  3. Push your wrists outward into the band until your forearms are parallel
  4. Hold this position for the duration of the exercise

Recommended hold time: 30 seconds

Want better shoulder mobility? Download Day 1 of our Shoulder Mobility Program for free:

Exercise 4 - Standing Banded Row

The standing banded row provides a unique training stimulus when performed as shown in the video.

In this shoulder exercise you are training:

  • Shoulder stability
  • External rotation
  • Scapular retraction
  • Shoulder extension
shoulder exercises standing 1

Starting Position

Equipment needed:

  • Jump stretch band
  • A solid object to wrap it around

How to set up:

  • Wrap the band around a pole
  • Place the band at chest height
  • Grab the band underhand, a little bit narrower than shoulder width
  • Step backward with your arms straight until the band has a little bit of tension in it
  • Get into an athletic stance
shoulder exercises standing 2

Finishing Position

How to perform the exercise:

  1. Pull the band a little bit apart and toward your belly button
  2. Hold for ½ second
  3. Slowly return to the starting position

Tips:

  • Let your shoulder blades move freely
  • Keep your head and neck neutral
  • Focus on using your upper back and not creating tension in your neck
  • The exercise is mainly a pulling motion, not a rotation motion of the shoulders

Exercise 5 - Seated Cuban Rotation

The seated cuban rotation trains:

  • Shoulder external rotation with shoulders in a pressing position
  • Control of internal rotation
  • Stability of your scapulae while your shoulder joint moves
shoulder exercises seated 3

Starting Position

Equipment needed:

  • 2 small dumbbells or plates
  • Box or bench to sit on

How to set up:

  • Begin sitting on a box with your back straight
  • Grab one small dumbbell in each hand
  • With your hands pointed toward the ceiling, elevate your arms until your triceps are parallel to the ground
  • Point your elbows outward as shown in the photo
shoulder exercises seated

Finishing Position

How to perform the exercise:

  1. Slowly lower the dumbbells from the starting to finishing position
  2. Pause for a fraction of a second
  3. Slowly return to the starting position

Tips:

  • If there is pain in your shoulder, try to find a pain free position by:
    • Lowering your shoulders slightly (changing shoulder flexion)
    • Changing where your elbows are pointing (changing shoulder abduction)
  • Keep your head and neck relaxed
  • Try not to move your shoulder blades; all motion should be at the shoulder joint
  • Keep your elbows bent at 90 degrees the entire time

Exercise 6 - Standing Cuban Rotation

The standing cuban rotation is the most advanced exercise on this list.

It trains the following in a stand position:

  • Shoulder external rotation with shoulders in a pressing position
  • Control of internal rotation
  • Stability of your scapulae while your shoulder joint moves

It translates well to the rotation required in cycling:

  • Cleans
  • Snatches
shoulder exercises standing 3

Starting Position

Equipment needed:

  • 2 small dumbbells or weight plates

How to set up:

  • Begin in a standing position with eyes forward
  • Grab one small dumbbell in each hand
  • With your hands pointed toward the ceiling, elevate your arms until your triceps are parallel to the ground
  • Point your elbows outward as shown in the photo
shoulder exercises standing 4

Finishing Position

How to perform the exercise:

  1. Slowly lower the dumbbells from the starting to finishing position
  2. Pause for a fraction of a second
  3. Slowly return to the starting position

Tips:

  • If there is pain in your shoulder, try to find a pain free position by:
    • Lowering your shoulders slightly (changing shoulder flexion)
    • Changing where your elbows are pointing (changing shoulder abduction)
  • Keep your head and neck relaxed
  • Try not to move your shoulder blades; all motion should be at the shoulder joint
  • Keep your elbows bent at 90 degrees the entire time

What’s Next

Need more help with your shoulders or more shoulder exercises?

Our Shoulder Strength and Performance program is a complete 12-week training program to strengthen your shoulders with many exercises like these, programmed 3 days per week to show you exactly which exercises to do, how to correctly perform them, how many reps, and how frequently.

We also have a free shoulder course covering the basics of shoulder health and maintenance.

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