Balanced Shoulders: Train Your Rotator Cuff

Juan Rodriguez, Los Rocks, CA

Juan Rodriguez, Los Rocks, CA

Hello Portland rock climbers! We're back again with a follow up training post to help you keep your shoulders healthy, balanced, and ready to crank. If you missed our last post on healthy shoulder and training serratus anterior, click here.  You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel for even more rock climbing content featuring climbers and tips from professionals in the Portland metro area.

We're back with local climber and physical therapist Hui En Gilpin this month to learn about an easy exercise to keep our rotator cuffs healthy, allowing movement of our arms through their full range of motion. Climbing requires us to use our arms in all sorts of creative ways besides just reaching over head to pull down. Sometimes we press down into a mantle position to top out a boulder problem; sometimes we lock an arm at the elbow at greater than 90 degrees in a shouldery gaston position; sometimes we need to press when we're squeezed inside a chimney or reach behind us to transfer onto a stalactite.

In order for us to be able to do all these creative but often difficult movements over and over again (especially overhead), we need to have healthy rotator cuffs. On top of the abuse we put our shoulders through when we are climbing recreationally, during training we often put our limbs through repetitive movements and stress which can lead to shoulder injuries if we don't take preventative measures.

In this climbing post, Hui En takes me through a very easy external rotation exercise to add to my shoulder workouts. The external rotation can be performed laying down on your side or standing up with a light weight or you can add resistance with the use of a cable machine or theraband. In my lesson we chose to stand up and use a theraband.

Disclaimer: Exercises discussed are for healthy climbers. Contact a health professional if you are unsure about your ability to perform this exercise.
— AntiGravity Equipment

Part of performing the exercise routine is starting in the correct posture; back straight, chest up, shoulder blades together. To help my left arm stay properly aligned, I rolled up a sweatshirt and put it between my bicep and rib cage; you can also use a towel.

Grasping the band in both hands, my right hand served as the anchor (meaning it would not move as I performed the motion with the left arm. Both arms bent at 90 degrees, keeping my upper left arm in place, I rotated my lower arm outwards like I was opening a sliding door. Since the right arm stayed anchored in place, the band caused some light resistance as I completed the external rotation outwards through my full range of motion. Once at the end, I slowly reversed the movement back to the start position instead of letting the band snap my arm back to the start. 

Compared to Hui En it was pretty easy to see that I did not have a very wide range of motion during this exercise which means I'll have to do some stretching if I want to improve. She also reminded me that my wrist needs to be straight throughout the movement; sometimes people will have a tendency to bend the wrist back in an attempt to get a little bit more range of motion out of the exercise.

There you have it! This is a really simple and quick exercise that you can add to your pre or post rock climbing workout routine to help you avoid injuries to your rotator cuff from climbing or training. If you're a climber in the Portland area, stop by the climbing shop and let us know how your workouts are going or leave us a comment.

  • Light resistance
  • 3 sets, 8-15 reps
  • 3 times per week

Hui En Gilpin is a physical therapist certified in ASTYM, Functional Movement Screening and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. She can be contacted via email at and is available for cash pay services. She also regularly hangs out at AntiGravity Equipment with me and climbs at Stoneworks.

- Juan Rodriguez


Juan RodriguezComment