External rotation is necessary for proper function of the shoulder. We have to externally rotate the shoulder in everyday activities like throwing a ball or lifting something overhead. More importantly, having full and functional external range of motion creates a stable shoulder joint – as we know, stability in the shoulder is required to safely perform most of the upper body movements like push ups, bench and overhead presses.
There are several stretching exercises to increase the range of external rotation. However, improving range of motion is usually not necessary for most people as it is possible to add too much mobility to the shoulder joint (above 90 degrees of rotation). In such case, we would be able to externally rotate the shoulder much further where we do not have any strength and stability, possibly making us weaker and more prone to injury.
It is usually recommended to strengthen (instead of stretch) the external rotators of the shoulder as this will make the shoulder joint more stable and stronger.
There are multiple exercises and different variations that you can try, so we’ll start from the easiest ones.
“No money” exercise
The “no money” shoulder exercise has a funny name that refers to the motion of extending the arms to the sides with elbows kept close to the body.
- To perform the exercise, stand up and tuck your elbows close to the sides of your torso.
- Retract and push down the shoulders to a neutral position.
- Raise your arms parallel to the ground pointing your palms up and start rotating them to the sides whilst keeping the elbows close the body.
- Once you reach 90 degree extension, start moving the arms back until you end up at the starting position.
This version of the exercise does not require any equipment, so you can easily squeeze in a couple of sets even when sitting in the office to work on your posture.
When you’re ready to progress further, there are multiple ways to make the exercise more challenging.
Try performing the same movement with your back up against a wall or lying on the ground:
- Focus on touching the wall/ground with your lower back by keeping the core engaged.
- Tuck your chin (as in the chin tuck exercise)
This will help you maintain a neutral spine and train the proper cues for good posture.
To add resistance to the “no money” drill, use a band. The movement is the same but you hold a band between your arms which makes the exercise more challenging.
Just remember that you can use the resistance band in all the variations described above.
Another way to effectively train the external rotators is to perform the rotation movement with your elbows lifted parallel to the shoulders.
The exercise is commonly performed with a pair of dumbbells (the Cuban press). However, when focusing on mobility it is best to use an exercise stick or a barbell for stronger, more advanced individuals. This way, your forearms will remain fixed in a vertical position making it easier to complete the movement correctly and focus on the rotation itself.
- To perform the cuban rotation, hold an exercise stick in front of your body with a pronated grip.
- Lift your elbows to the sides until they are parallel to the shoulders (90 degrees to the body).
- Retract your shoulders by trying to keep the shoulder blades close together.
- Slowly lift the exercise stick above your head in a circular motion by externally rotating the shoulders.
- Try keeping the elbow/arm position fixed to initiate the movement with your shoulders.
Here’s a good demonstration of the exercise in video:
You can use a barbell or a weighted exercise stick to add resistance to the cuban rotation exercise.