How to Protect Your Rotator Cuff

If you’re an athlete who uses overhead movements to compete – in volleyball, baseball, tennis or swimming – you’re vulnerable to rotator cuff injury.

What’s a rotator cuff?

The rotator cuff consists of four muscles in the upper back running from our shoulder blade to our shoulder socket:

  • Supraspinatus
  • Infraspinatus
  • Teres minor
  • Subscapularis

The rotator cuff counteracts muscles of the chest to keep the shoulder seated in the shoulder socket, allowing for extreme mobility.

What causes rotator cuff injury?

Troy_GuptillAnterior muscles such as the chest and biceps are trained more frequently than posterior chain musculature like the rotator cuff and rhomboids. This creates a mismatch of force production between chest and rotator cuff, effectively putting large amounts of stress on a small series of muscles.

This force mismatch can cause considerable pain and weakness – and if left untreated can progress to a damaged shoulder.

Overhead athletes (volleyball players, baseball players, tennis players, swimmers) are especially vulnerable because they use their entire body to accelerate a relatively light object, which taxes the rotator cuff to absorb the remainder of the force during deceleration.

How can you prevent rotator cuff injury?

Invest time into back and shoulder strengthening exercises. It would be beneficial to warm up with some rotator cuff activation/strengthening exercises before any upper body exercises are performed, and for every push exercise, there should be a minimum of one pull.

Overhead athletes could look into doing daily shoulder warm-up activities that target the posterior cuff prior to any high velocity hitting or throwing.

If you have shoulder pain or feel any “pinching,” get evaluated by a sports medicine physician or physical therapist to determine if you would benefit from specialized treatment.

By Troy Guptill, CSCS