My Rotator Cuff Tear Exercises & Workouts

I’ve been holding off posting an update on my torn rotator cuff (specifically the supraspinatus) as I went for an MRI and Arthrogram (MRA) 3 weeks ago and was hoping to post the result up. The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK may offer free quality care, but it’s certainly not fast! 3 weeks on and I’ve not even got the appointment through to see the Consultant for the results. 🙁

Whenever I tell people I’ve torn my rotator cuff, the first question is invariably: “What is the rotator cuff?” The rotator cuff is 4 small muscles / tendons, which form a sleeve around the shoulder joint, comprises the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis. A picture speaks a thousand words:

Where is the rotator cuff

Whilst I wait on the NHS however, things are improving. After I stopped sulking, started going back down the gym again and doing some focused rotator cuff exercises, my shoulder has ironically improved quite a bit. So I thought I’d post up what I’ve been doing in terms of exercises and workouts.

In terms of workouts, there are 5 CrossFit style WODs (Workouts Of the Day) that I’ve devised for which, I let pain be my guide. Basically I spent several hours down the gym and tried every exercise I could think of to see what hurt. When I had the list of shoulder painless exercises, I mixed them up and put them together. As I come up with more, I’ll post them up here too. If not otherwise stated, all workouts are timed and done as fast as safely possible.

Torn Rotator Cuff Warm Up

Glute Ham Device (GHD) Back Extension3 rounds of:

  • 200m Run
  • 10 Kettle Bell Swings (Russian style / head height only) increasing in weight through 16kg, 20kg and 24kg
  • 10 GHD (Glute Ham Device) situps
  • 10 Back Extensions (also on the Glute Ham Device)

Torn Rotator Cuff Workout 1

Lance Armstrong doing a head height Russian KettleBell Swing21-15-9 of:

  • Box Jumps
  • Sit Ups
  • Kettle Bell Swings (Russian style / head height only)

The Russian style kettle bell swing (thanks Lance!) puts hardly any load on the shoulders, as all the momentum is generated from the hips, the straight arms just guide the weight up and don’t pull it.  The American over head kettlebell swing is fine, but it’s a different swing with different goals (like the dead hang pullup vs the kipping pullup) and loads the shoulder to the point of pain with a rotator cuff tear.

If you’re not familiar with the terminology, 21-15-9 means do 3 rounds going through each exercise in turn.  In the first round do 21 of each exercise, in the second round to 15 of each exercise and in the last round just do 9 of each, so written out long hand, it looks like this:

  • 21 Box Jumps
  • 21 Sit Ups
  • 21 Kettle Bell Swings
  • 15 Box Jumps
  • 15 Sit Ups
  • 15 Kettle Bell Swings
  • 9 Box Jumps
  • 9 Sit Ups
  • 9 Kettle Bell Swings

In terms of box jump height and kettle bell weight, as with all CrossFit style workouts (and particularly if you’re rehabilitating an injury) they should be scaled to your capabilities.  For me I did 24″ box jumps, and started at 16kg kettle bell swings, but worked up to 24kg.

Torn Rotator Cuff Workout 2

5 rounds of:

  • 200m Run
  • 15 Kettle Bell Swings (Russian style / head height only)
  • 15 sit ups

Torn Rotator Cuff Workout 3

Dumb Bell Dead Lift AnimationAMRAP (As Many Rounds As Possible) in 10 minutes of:

  • 5 Dumb Bell Deadlifts
  • 5 Dumb Bell Hang Squat Cleans
  • 5 Front Squats

You could change the time here to whatever suits you best, from 5 – 20 minutes would be good.  For me, I wanted to make sure I was always able to control the dumb bells so they didn’t crash onto my shoulder during the cleans, so I went with a pair of 10kg dumbbells.  The AMRAP nature of this workout doesn’t mean that going light is any easier, it just means you do more rounds.

Those used to CrossFit will probably recognise that this is a modified Dumb Bell Bear complex, but without the Push Presses.

Torn Rotator Cuff Workout 4

21-15-9 of:

  • Kettle Bell Swings (Russian style / head height only)
  • Sit Ups
  • Lunge Walk (1 rep is one single lunge

Torn Rotator Cuff Workout 5

CrossFit Air Squat3 x Tabata of:

  • Squats
  • Sit ups
  • Kettle Bell Swings

“Tabata” means that for 20 seconds do as many reps of the assigned exercise as you can, then rest for 10 seconds. Repeat this 7 more times for a total of 8 intervals, 4 minutes total exercise (including the last 10 seconds of rest). I like to score this as a total of all the reps achieved in all 8 rounds, but officially you’re meant to score only your worst round.  For example, if you did:

  • 13 squats (in 20 seconds) then rested 10 seconds then:
  • 12 squats
  • 11 squats
  • 10 squats
  • 10 squats
  • 9 squats
  • 8 squats
  • 7 squats

Your official tabata score would be 7.  But I like to record total work, which would be 80 in this case. Watch out for swinging the air of your sore shoulder too much!

So for this workout, you do 8 intervals of squats as I’ve just described, then straight into 8 intervals of situps (with only 10 seconds rest between the last squat and the first sit up), and then 8 intervals of kettle bell swings, for a total of 12 minutes.

Again CrossFitters will recognise this as an adaptation of “Tabata This” which is the same formula but 4 Tabata rounds of squats, pushups, situps, and pullups.  For my rotator cuff tear, even push ups give me shoulder pain, and pullups are how I tore it in the first place, so they’re out.

DB Hang Squat Clean in the squat positionTorn Rotator Cuff Workout 6

Round 1:

  • 400m run
  • Then 5 rounds of the dumb bell bear complex (see Workout 3 above):
    • 5 Dumb Bell Deadlifts
    • 5 Dumb Bell Hang Squat Cleans
    • 5 Front Squats

Round 2:

  • 400m run
  • Then 4 rounds of the dumb bell bear complex (see Workout 3 above):
    • 5 Dumb Bell Deadlifts
    • 5 Dumb Bell Hang Squat Cleans
    • 5 Front Squats

Round 3:

  • 400m run
  • Then 3 rounds of the dumb bell bear complex (see Workout 3 above):
    • 5 Dumb Bell Deadlifts
    • 5 Dumb Bell Hang Squat Cleans
    • 5 Front Squats

To be clear then, you go through the bear complex a total of 12 times, so 60 Dumb Bell Deadlifts in total for example.  3 rounds is hard enough (I suggest again, that you go light on the Dumb Bells) but you could always do rounds 4 and 5, with 2 and 1 times through the bear complex respectively.

As you can see, a torn rotator cuff is a right pain (pun intended!) in terms of reducing the types of individual exercises you can do, and there’s a lot of box jumps, sit ups and kettle bell swings in there.  At some point I’ll move up to doing GHD sit ups for some of these workouts.  What’s important to me though is keeping up some strength through some range of motion, without exacerbating my injury.

I have been to see a physiotherapist about my shoulder, but for some reason I always come away underwhelmed by them.  They charge a fortune and I’m never convinced by the efficacy of what they do.  But perhaps that’s just the one’s near me!  I’m all for self learning and educating myself as to the problems, issues and treatments, as it makes me better able to understand and manage my own recovery, and I thank the stars for the internet, which enables this to happen so effortlessly in this day and age, particularly when it comes to accessing the best information from around the world.

As such I’ve spent some time researching rotator cuff injury exercises and treatments and am currently following a program put together by a specialist injury physiotherapist from Ohio.  When I’m sure I’m happy with it, I’ll post the details up here, but at the moment, things are looking good.  Combined with the workouts above, as I said at the start, my shoulder pain has diminished considerably for 90% of day to day activities.

I’d love to hear your own shoulder pain experiences or if you have any questions, please post a comment below.

{ 17 comments… add one }
  • Alisha 18 September 2011, 2:54 am

    Hi Colin! Either my webpage is weird or I cannot see what date you posted this but I’ve been reading your comments on the cfforum and found your page. I like the workouts above. My doc (sports ortho) suspects I have a SLAP Tear….grrr. And this was from kipping and I remember precisely how and when it happened (bottoming out). I tried moving to the butterfly as I found that gentler on my body, but did not have time to grow in it due to my injury. I have a MRI scheduled in about a week and review with the doc soon after. When my cfforum account gets approved I will post my results there under Gravel’s blog. I’m really surprised the hang cleans nor kb swings bother you. Now, I will agree that they didn’t bother me, but when I got home and settled down I would feel it. But then again, it could easily be this injury acting up all by its lonesome. I wish you much success in your healing journey. This is a great blog that you have and I do appreciate the time you have invested in it to make us all more the wiser 🙂 You have some really good detailed info here, especially on the MRI (not looking forward to the needle….bleh). Please keep sharing and updating!

    Your “Torn” Friend,


  • Colin McNulty 19 September 2011, 8:05 am

    Hi Alisha

    I’m sorry to hear that your shoulder is sore too. It is possible to get a distorted view of the world by looking on the net, as I don’t think shoulder injuries from CrossFit are a major problem, considering that tens of people have reported issues from the hundreds of thousands that follow the programming.

    Thats not to say that it shouldn’t be considered an issue and managed appropriately, as I’m sure that for every person who bothers to post online and on the forums, there are 10+ who surfer in silence, or just tell their local affiliate.

    I’m glad that my post has helped you, there is certainly still stuff you can do to keep fit and active, I just hope the diagnosis of you shoulder injury is a good one, and if there is a tear, it’s not as bad as it could be.

    For me, I’m still waiting for my results 6 weeks after my MRI! The NHS is this county is free, but slow. 🙁

  • Alisha 22 September 2011, 1:02 am

    Thanks for your response, Colin. You are 100% right. Many people do kipping pulls, butterflies, and dead hangs with no issues. I remember when I felt the “ouch” when I crashed kind of hard in the bottom of the kip and overextended quite a bit. Now I know what NOT to do. Hahaha. Before with rest, my shoulder would still hurt badly, but now it is feeling better (still a dull aching occasionally), although this weekend was tough one.

    Sorry to hear your MRI is taking so long, but maybe, just maybe, they have stuck you in “to be called later” pile because you don’t need surgery 😉

    Keep working it out and healing! Sounds like you are progressing and healing quite, well. I wish for good news for you 🙂

  • Colin McNulty 22 September 2011, 9:15 am

    Cheers Alisha, finally I have my follow up appointment through in a couple of weeks. Let’s hope for the no-surgery option! 😀

    I had the same experience as you, but on butterfly pullups, not kipping. Dropped into the bottom and felt the yank.

  • Tim 20 May 2012, 3:16 pm

    How are things going with the injury?

  • Colin McNulty 23 May 2012, 11:16 am

    Very good Tim. There are a few exercises that I have to be careful on. E.g. pull ups I do at 2/3 normal speed, and I discovered last week that on multiple reps of hang power cleans, I get a little bit of pain when catching the bar on the way down, back in the hang position to start the next rep, so just needed to scale the weight. But apart from that, I’d say I was 99% back to normal. Amazing what a bit of rehab can do!

  • Colin McNulty 23 May 2012, 11:19 am

  • Chris 29 May 2012, 7:30 pm

    Hello my name is Chris,….I was just diagnosed wIth a Rotater cuff tear smaller than 3 cm…..I want to exercise it and am doing so.i just want to be In The Loop as they say!!!!


  • Michal 19 June 2012, 1:12 pm

    Ive got similar shoulder injury, but will probably require surgery. I cant do most of the things with weights which invoices benchpress, presses etc. There are days when i can do 150 pushups with no pain and some days when i cant do one. Ive also managed to set up sets that are heavier for legs, pushups and cleans with lower weight. Hope you’ll recover well 🙂

  • Erik D. 10 April 2013, 10:25 pm

    Thanks for these workouts! My trainers are running out of ideas for alternate workouts for me and I still have at least 3 weeks of PT before I get the clear from my doc to start doing overhead things again.

    (No serious injury–bicep tendonitis in both shoulders as a result of “curling” my cleans. During the examination, I mentioned how my shoulders have a habit of popping out every year or so, so they want to focus on strengthening the muscles around it before I go back full speed. In the meantime, no overhead stuff, nor front rack position or even back squats!)

  • zina 22 February 2015, 7:45 am

    I like the workouts and will try them out. Massive full rotator tear. Had surgery and it failed. So I will be living with it for a while.

  • orthopedic specialist 10 April 2015, 3:15 am

    These simple exercises can often help ease shoulder pain and restore proper joint health. Followed your exercises and did some rows and my shoulders feel so much better now. Thanks for sharing!

  • Julie 14 September 2015, 8:30 pm

    Finally I’ve found some movements – thank you! I am 7 weeks into my rotator cuff tear rehab – we’re trying to avoid surgery so I’m doing what I can to stay busy but can only do so many squats, I’ve done all the squats!! My ortho told me no jarring movements and obviously no weight movements for shoulder to OH. I see plenty of box jumps and running, I’ll check in and see if he’ll release me on those just yet. You also mentioned that you had a routine that you worked up a program put together by a specialist injury physiotherapist from Ohio – did you post that also? I see this entry is a few years old, hoping you’re still out there =)


  • Sue Merriam 29 September 2015, 7:03 am

    Hi Colin! It’s been a tough year for me. I spent most of 2014 enjoying my first year in Crossfit. The only problem was an old small rotator cuff tear I got skiing, I mean crashing, that jerked my arm overhead in the 80’s. I had it repaired in February. Unfortunately my shoulder froze up due to scar tissue. To make a long story short. I had a couple of steroid injections, then a MUA. That helped a little but not much. So 6 weeks ago I had a capsular release surgery that showed tons of scar tissue and part of the cuff surgery failed causing a small hole that he stitched with 2 stitches. After 3 weeks my improved range of motion was decreasing alot. So…3 weeks ago I had one final MUA. I think things are finally looking better!!! Range of motion is much better and staying that way. I have been doing physical therapy 3 days a week for the last 7 month and do stretching at home everyday throughout the day! That’s getting a bit old!

    My doctor said it was okay to go back to the box and use pain as my guide. My question would be….what lifts and movements would be risky and which would be safe to do. I’m 48 and in fairly good shape. But I’m not a super crossfitter. I’m still trying to get my first strict pull up! At least that way my goal before my surgery. I was working out 4 to 5 times a week before the surgery. The problem was that I had alot of pain with overhead lifts and just hanging. It was also weeker than my other arm for cleans. My shoulder would drop. Thanks for reading this and I appreciate your feedback

  • Ricardo 22 November 2016, 4:49 pm

    Hi, I have an injury to the rotator cuff. I understand it’s in the supraspinatus.
    I was wondering if it is advisable to do Bar Cleans or Power Cleans.
    In my exercises I am excluding everything related to the shoulder, including wallballs.
    I’m in physiotherapy and I’m progressing. However, I do not know if I will continue to include cleans in my workouts.

  • Colin McNulty 28 November 2016, 3:09 pm

    I had a similar concern Ricardo. I very much let pain be my guide when it came to deciding which exercises to do / not do.

    On the one hand cleans didn’t hurt my shoulder, but on the other hand, I was nervous about the impact on my shoulder from catching the bar.

    My solution was to drop the weight I was doing cleans e.g. 30-40kg, so I could effectively catch them without impact, i.e. the bar hovered above my shoulder and my forearms were vertical at the top of the clean, not horizontal with pointing elbows as you should have.

    Yes it’s poor form and makes you look like a newbie again, but it meant I could still do cleans in a workout, and I was comfortable with the reduced risk of further injury. Leave your ego at the door and all that.

    After many months had passed and I was starting to notice I was recovering in other areas, I slowly redeveloped my normal clean and slowly increased the weight.

    I’m not saying that’s the right thing for you, or right for anyone, but it worked for me. Eventually my cleans came back to as strong as they’d ever been.

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