Musculation: why is the rotator cuff so fragile?

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The shoulders are both fragile and complex joints. Located at the level of the shoulder, the rotator cuff illustrates this perfectly. To preserve theshoulder joint and remain in good health for a long time, this set of muscles must be strengthened on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the rotator cuff is too often neglected by weight trainers. In this article, discover how to take care of it to avoid injuries.

What is the rotator cuff?

Anatomy of the rotator cuff

The rotator cuff is a part of the shoulder composed of 4 muscles :

  • the infraspinatus muscle (or infraspinous)
  • the supraspinatus muscle (or supraspinatus)
  • the subscapular (or subscapularis)
  • the small round muscle

These different muscles start from the scapula and end on the humerus.

The anatomy of the shoulders seen on a skeleton.
The rotator cuff is a set of 4 muscles that form part of the shoulder joint.

Among these 4 muscles of the shoulder, only one is visible from the outside: the infraspinatus. The 3 others are deep muscles which have no impact on the aesthetics of your physique. In fact, they are hidden under the deltoid muscle.

But that's no reason to neglect them. On the contrary!

What is its role?

You may not be aware of it, but we use our shoulders in most of our daily activities.

Whether it's putting on a shirt, doing the housework or washing your hair, they are extremely busy.

This is even more evident in the sportsmen. The practice of a physical activity such as weight training, basketball, handball, tennis, rugby, or any other sport that requires lifting the arms, mechanically involves the mobility of the shoulder.

The role of the rotator cuff is to stabilize the joint of the shoulder, in order to avoid injuries. It is thanks to these tendons that you can move your arms in all directions without suffering from shoulder pain.

More specifically, the infraspinous and the small round are external rotators. They promote outward arm movements. Conversely, the subscapularis muscle allows internal rotation. The supraspinatus muscle is involved in the movements ofarm abduction (when the arms move away from the body).

Now that you know what the rotator cuff is used for, you can certainly understand its importance for the practice of bodybuilding. This set of muscles is involved in most of the exercises of your training program. But it is unfortunately a fragile part of the body that needs to be taken care of.

Fragile tendons

The shoulder injuries are very common among athletes. There are several reasons for this.

Due to its extreme mobility, this joint is naturally subject to dysfunction.

As we have seen, sports that involve repeated arm movements can cause trauma.

But this is also the case for certain jobs (painters, assembly line workers, construction workers, etc.), whose repetitive movements tend to damage the tendons.

This phenomenon increases with age. The more time passes, the more the rotator cuff observes a loss of strength and elasticity. The pain of the rotator cuff is then more frequent and more intense.

The tendinopathy of the rotator cuff and the tear are the 2 most common injuries.

Rotator cuff tendonitis occurs when the tendons undergo a inflammation. It can be extremely painful and truly disabling on a daily basis, preventing you from doing your favorite things.

Even more seriously, the cuff injuries can be the result of a poorly treated tendonitis. It can be a partial tear or a complete rupture.

This injury can also be related to trauma. A bad fall during a basketball game, too much contact during a rugby match or a car accident can, for example, be the cause of such an injury.

The symptoms ofa rotator cuff tear are severe pain in the shoulder (to the touch and during movement) and a feeling of weakness.

In any case, consult a health professional. He or she will most likely recommend that you have a MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to ensure the diagnosis and decide on the next steps.

How to treat the rotator cuff? 

To treat shoulder tendonitis, you will need to be patient and observe the following rest for several weeks. The goal is simply to calm the inflammation.

After consulting a doctor, you may be able to take anti-inflammatory drugs.

Sessions with a physiotherapist are also recommended to accelerate healing.

A man performs a rehabilitation exercise at a physical therapist after a rotator cuff injury.
Whether it's tendonitis or a tear, physical therapy can help you heal a rotator cuff injury.

In some cases, if the pain persists, a hospitalization with a surgical operation may be necessary.

In the event of a rupture, rotator cuff surgery is often necessary. After the shoulder surgery, you will follow a protocol of rehabilitation with a physiotherapist to strengthen and soften your muscles.

How to take care of it to prevent injuries?

Very often, a painful shoulder is a sign of a weak rotator cuff. This is true for athletes as well as for sedentary people.

A man in a tank top performs a shoulder exercise at the gym.
To progress in bodybuilding without injury, it is essential to work on your rotator cuff.

Before trying to lift heavy loads at the gym, it is therefore essential to do a strengthening of the rotator cuff.

To prevent pain, several exercises can be performed. To learn more, discover the shoulder program.

The cover of the bodybuilding program designed by sports coach Julien Quaglierini to get huge shoulders in 12 weeks.

It is equally important that you warm up before your weight training. Performed with low coststhese exercises can be integrated into your warm-up. It is not necessary to use heavy weights to work on your rotator cuff.

Given their crucial role, these exercises aim to develop the infraspinatus muscle and the small round muscle in priority. The supraspinatus muscle must also be used for the stabilization of the shoulder.

On the other hand, the subscapularis should not be strengthened, because it favors the forward tilt of the shoulders.

Exercise 1: Bungee work

For this first exercise of the rotator cuff, the small round and infraspinatus muscles are used.

You will simply need to bring a elastic band of low to medium resistance. Hold one end of the rubber band in each of your hands. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart in front of you.

A woman performs a rotator cuff strengthening exercise with an elastic band.
Working with a fitness band is ideal for strengthening the rotator cuff.

Keeping your elbows at your side, the exercise consists of spreading your hands to the sides, holding the position for a few seconds and then returning to the starting position while controlling the movement.

This movement therefore alternates between a concentric phase and an eccentric phase.

Perform 3 sets of 10-15 reps, ideally 2-3 times per week.

Exercise 2: Internal and external rotations

This exercise focuses solely on the eccentric contraction. It helps to strengthen the muscles whose role is to ensure the external rotation of the shoulder, namely the infraspinatus and the small round.

To perform it, attach a resistance band to a doorknob or window handle (or any other object that is strong enough not to give way during the exercise). You can also use a pulley at the weight room.

If you don't have a way to hang the elastic, hold it with your unused hand.

Stand in profile to the door. Grasp the rubber band with :

  • the hand closest to the door to work the internal rotation (closing),
  • the hand furthest from the door to work the external rotation (opening).

The exercise involves bending your elbow 90 degrees and then pulling the resistance band in the opposite direction from the door. Imagine that you are trying to stretch the rubber band. Depending on the strength of the material and your physical level, you can move closer to the door to facilitate the movement, or further away.

Be sure to perform the 2 rotations with each arm. As for the previous exercise, 3 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions will allow you to strengthen your rotator cuff.

Exercise 3: The L-Fly with dumbbell

Still to strengthen the external rotators (infraspinatus and small round), the L-Fly is practiced with a dumbbell.

On a weight bench or on the floor, lie on your side. Your legs are on top of each other. Grab a dumbbell with your highest arm. Keep that arm at your side with your elbow bent at 90 degrees.

With an external rotation movement, your objective is to raise the dumbbell as high as possible, before returning to the initial position.

Repeat this movement 10 to 15 times for 3 sets.

Exercise 4: Lateral Lifts

The movement of thelateral elevation is ideal to work the supraspinatus muscle, as it participates in the abduction movement. This exercise does not allow to isolate directly this deep muscle, but simply to solicit it among other muscles of the shoulder.

Lateral raises can be done with dumbbells or with a rubber band. Again, the goal is not to work with the heaviest possible loads, but rather to focus on the quality of the movement.

Exercise 5: shoulder stretches

In addition to strengthening your rotator cuff muscles, it is equally important to stretch your shoulders to keep them healthy. As well as strengthening exercises, joint mobility exercises should be done several times a week to prevent injuries.

For the first exercise, simply reach one arm in front of you over your opposite shoulder. With the other arm, press your elbow and push it slightly towards you.

A man in a tank top performs a shoulder stretching exercise at the water's edge.
Stretching exercises are essential to prevent shoulder injuries.

The second exercise is designed to stretch the middle bundle. Reach behind your back and grasp your wrist with your other hand. Pull your arm slightly downward to feel a shoulder stretching.

For the third and final exercise, you will need a fitness band. Grab one end in each of your hands and stretch the band up behind your head. Hold the position to feel your shoulders stretch and relax. You can also use a door frame to do this stretch.

Conclusion

Now you know why you need to take care of your rotator cuff. Your shoulders are fragile jointsThe risk of injury is high among athletes. By simply incorporating some strengthening and stretching exercises into your training program, you will greatly limit the risk of tendonitis or tears. Also remember to warm up before each workout.

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