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Shoulder pain? Could it be your rotator cuff?

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

The shoulder, a ball-and-socket joint connecting the higher end of the funny bone (humorous in arm) to the scapula.

Four muscles attach to the shoulder joint bone, called the rotator cuff muscles: supraspinatous, infraspinatous, subscapularis and teres minor!

Keeping these muscles strong and flexible can help prevent injury, especially for active people. The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body. Misuse or overuse of the joint, makes it very easy to injure the rotator cuff and other parts of the shoulder.

The rotator cuff muscles do the following:

  • Keep the humourous arm bone in centre of the shoulder joint, holding it there

  • For arm and shoulder movements requiring power.

Some sports, such as tennis or baseball commonly cause rotator cuff injuries, most are are overuse injuries caused by repetitive overhead motions. Rotator cuff overuse commonly causes to rotator cuff impingement- the pinching of a rotator cuff tendon, or any soft tissue between the humurous or scapula. Swelling in the shoulder joint with this type of injury reduces space between these bones. Impingement can occur when muscle strain and other overuse injuries cause swelling in the shoulder joint, decreasing the space between these bones. Tears of the rotator cuff and tendons can also occur but these are much less common than overuse injuries. Rotator cuff tears can be extremely painful, but usually will heal with rest and strength work. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, "following a conditioning program helps a person return to daily activities in addition to any sports and other recreational activities that they were participating in before the injury".

Most people strengthen larger or more familiar muscles (the lats, rhomboids, biceps & triceps, etc.). It’s important to train these muscles but it’s also important to strengthen to smaller muscles, for example the teres major and teres minor. The teres major runs along the side of your scapula. It’s a synergist(supporting/stabilising muscle) for the latissimus dorsi (a large back muscle). It also internally rotates and adducts (bringing in toward the midline of the body) the arm. The teres minor is below below the infraspinatus (another rotator cuff muscle), underneath the deltoid. This muscle externally rotates the shoulder and helps it to to adduct and extend.

The best Teres Major & Teres Minor Strength Exercises: 1. Resistance Band Horizontal Rotation This exercises is a great strengthener for the rotator cuff. Use it as a warm-up before upper body exercise. Warming up and the teres minor first, you encourages good shoulder health and mechanics for more complicated exercises with weights.

Grab a light resistance band. Loop the band around a sturdy surface, ensuring it’s level with your shoulder, and grabing the other end of the band you can then:

  • Step back a little to create tension on the band

  • Raise your arm- shoulder at 90-degrees with your torso, elbow is also bent at this angle (your palm should be facing down)

  • Keeping your shoulder and elbow joint fixed at 90-degrees, exhale and rotate your upper arm so that your forearm moves down until it’s parallel to the floor

  • Raise your arm and return to normal position on an inhale

2. Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows If you’re interested in doing teres major exercises with dumbbells, the single-arm dumbbell row is an excellent option. Most people think of this exercise as a lat exercise, and it’s true that it does strengthen this muscle. Remember, though, that the teres major supports the lat, so by performing single-arm rows, you’re also, by default, strengthening this smaller synergistic muscle. To do this exercise correctly, start by grabbing a light-moderately heavy dumbbell. Grasp it in one hand with your palm facing inward, then hinge at your hips and bend forward to rest your other hand on a bench or box. From here, do the following:

  • On a exhale, retract the scapula while keeping your arm straight

  • Once the scapula has been retracted, bend your elbow and pull the dumbbell back toward your hip

  • Inhale and return to the starting position, protracting your scapula at the end of the exercise to move your shoulder through a full range of motion

3. Seated Single-Arm Row Another exercise to add to your teres major workout is the seated single-arm row. Because you’re sitting down, you’re able to better isolate the shoulder and upper back during this exercise since you won’t be using your legs or other muscles to help you out as much. When doing this exercise, start by sitting up straight on the bench of the cable machine, grasping the handle of the cable in one hand with your palm facing inward. From here, follow these cues:

  • On an exhale, retract your scapula while keeping your arm straight

  • After retracting the scapula, bend the elbow and pull the handle back toward your hip

  • Inhale and return to the starting position, making sure to protract your scapula at the end of the exercise

4. Dumbbell Rear Delt Fly Dumbbell rear delt flyes are another excellent exercise for the teres minor. They help you practice externally rotating your shoulders and improve your overall shoulder range of motion. When doing this exercise, keep in mind that it’s best to use a light pair of dumbbells. If you use weights that are too heavy, you could end up straining your shoulder joint or relying on other muscles more than the rear delts and teres minor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing inward. Hinge at the hips, hold the weights in front of you with the arms straight, and then follow these cues:

  • Keep the elbows slightly bent and in a locked position

  • On an exhale, straighten your arms and open them up to the sides (similar to when you do a chest fly)

  • Focus on retracting your shoulders and squeezing them together at the top of the exercise

  • Inhale and return to the starting position, protracting your shoulders slightly at the end

5. Face Pulls Face pulls strengthen the shoulders and rhomboids. They’re also great for the teres minor and infraspinatus muscles. To do face pulls correctly, start by hooking a rope attachment to a cable machine and adjusting it to shoulder height. Then, do the following:

  • Grasp one end of the rope attachment in each hand (palms facing down) and step back from the cable machine to create tension

  • On an exhale, bend the elbows and pull the rope back toward your face

  • When the attachment gets close to the face, separate your hands on either side of the face so that you don’t hit yourself in the head

  • Inhale and return to the starting position

6. Dumbbell Cuban Press The Cuban press is another effective option for folks looking for teres exercises that they can do with dumbbells. This exercise targets the teres minor, as well as the trapezius muscles and other muscles of the shoulder girdle. Start with a pair of light-moderately heavy dumbbells. Stand up straight with your feet about shoulder-width apart, a dumbbell in each hand at your sides, and follow these cues:

  • Keep the dumbbell in a horizontal position and pull them up toward your shoulders (let your elbows lead, similar to when you do an upright row) as you exhale

  • When the upper arms are parallel to the floor, hold them in place and rotate the arms to flip the dumbbells so they’re facing up

  • From here, perform a shoulder press and push the weights straight up overhead

  • Pause for a second here, then lower the weights back to the starting position as you inhale

The teres major and teres minor are commonly overlooked muscles that help to support the shoulders and upper back. By strengthening these muscles, you can improve performance, and protect your upper body from injuries.

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