Home Baseball Content Baseball Strength and Conditioning Programs: How Much Rotator Cuff Work is Too Much? – Part 2

Baseball Strength and Conditioning Programs: How Much Rotator Cuff Work is Too Much? – Part 2

Written on January 10, 2012 at 9:34 pm, by Eric Cressey

In part 1 of this feature, I talked about how many throwers actually overuse the rotator cuff because they don’t appreciate that throwing in itself is a tremendously stressful challenge to the shoulder.  I also made the point that cuff timing is more often the problem than cuff strength, so many folks are really training the rotator cuff incorrectly with thousands of reps of band exercises.  Let’s examine that in a bit more depth.

First, I should preface this piece by saying that I think there are definitely places for utilizing bands to strengthen the rotator cuff in a baseball training context.  They obviously provide outstanding convenience for on-field work and travel circumstances, as well as scenarios where players may not have qualified professionals at hand to help with manual resistance work and rhythmic stabilizations. Some cuff work is better than no cuff work!  Additionally, many players swear by bands during the warm-up phase to help with getting blood flow to the shoulder complex with a bit of activation at the same time.

However, there are two primary issues with relying exclusively on bands:

1. In an external rotation variation, the resistance is actually greatest at the point (near maximal external rotation) where the athlete is weakest.  In other words, the band doesn’t ideally accommodate the strength curve.  This is a huge concern for me, as one of the biggest things I notice in athletes is that when training in a position of somewhat significant external rotation, they can’t “pick up” the resistance quickly enough. More on this later.

2. Most people simply overlook eccentric control.  This is something that is coachable, no doubt, but most people do band exercises for so many reps per set that the athlete can quickly lose focus and resort back to bad habits.

As you can imagine, these are shortcomings that also exist – albeit to a slightly lesser extent – with cable and dumbbell/plate external rotation rotator cuff strength exercises:

So, how do we overcome these shortcomings while helping to address rotator cuff timing?  You have two great options.

1. Rhythmic Stabilizations

The true role of the rotator cuff is to stabilize the humeral head (ball) in the glenoid fossa (socket).  And, during throwing, it does a ton of work, as the humerus goes through extreme ranges of motion in all three planes.  Rhythmic stabilization drills are a great way to train the cuff to fire quicker, and they’re particularly valuable because you can train them at various points in the range of motion, modifying the challenge depending on how stable an individual is in a given position.  Plus, this is an outstanding way of monitoring cuff function over the course of weeks and months with athletes you see regularly; regular improvements are easily perceived.

You’ll notice that I don’t crank him back to extreme external rotation in this video; rather, we stop short of it and just assume that we’ll get some carryover in stability a bit further (as per previous research on carryover of isometric exercise).

The sky is really the limit in terms of how you train this one; we have about a dozen variations that we use on a daily basis.  A few quick guidelines:

a. The more congenital or acquired laxity an athlete has, the less aggressive you’ll want to be with your perturbations. When someone is less proficient, gently destabilizer, and apply the prturbations closer to the shoulder.  When someone is more stable, perturbate a bit more firmly, and apply it further down the arm.

b. I sometimes start those with significant laxity with closed chain exercises so that they can draw some stability from the floor or wall.

c. Make sure that the scapula is positioned appropriately; it certainly shouldn’t be protracted, but don’t crank it into excessive retraction, either.  Just keep it from winging off the rib cage.

d. I like 2x/week rhythmic stabilizations during off-season training.  We typically integrate it between sets on lower-body strength training days.

2. Manual Resistance External Rotations

These drills are “where it’s at.”  On one hand, they are the best strength-building exercise for the cuff because they train it in its most function context: eccentric control.  However, more specific to today’s point, they are great for improving cuff recruitment at the most vulnerable point in the throwing motion: lay-back.

When we do a drill like this, I encourage the athlete to “pick it up early.”  In other words, I won’t apply downward pressure (eccentric overload) until they apply some external rotation force into my hand). 

Some quick guidelines for manual resistance external rotations:

a. Emphasize eccentric overload, but make sure you aren’t pushing all the way down, as most people will go into scapular anterior tilt as they are more internally rotated.  Pushing someone all the way down puts the shoulder in a pretty vulnerable position, as scapular stability is lost and the subacromial space is closed down.

b. Given that you have to apply the force further down the arm, make sure that the athlete isn’t cheating by just utilizing the wrist extensors.

c. In the manual resistance external rotations at 90 degrees in the scapular plane, your other hand should “cup” the elbow to make sure that the rotation is taking place at the shoulder (as opposed to horizontal adduction/abduction).

d. I like to utilize manual resistance external rotations twice a week during the off-season, usually toward the end of upper body strength training sessions.  We’ll use less manual resistance work in this regard, though, when guys start to ramp up their throwing, as it tends to create a bit more soreness.

This wraps up our look at a different perspective on how to attack rotator cuff exercises with timing – and not just strength – in consideration.  For more information, I’d encourage you to check out Optimal Shoulder Performance: From Rehabilitation to High Performance.

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18 Responses to “Baseball Strength and Conditioning Programs: How Much Rotator Cuff Work is Too Much? – Part 2”

  1. Sam Says:

    As always, great stuff EC. I’ve read a lot about your cuff work, and the majority of it has been about maximizing cuff strength in the off-season benefiting from no or very light throwing. You mentioned that you stay away from manual resistance in-season because of increased soreness. In-season, would you recommend using rhythmic stabilization at a lower volume to compensate for throwing volume and completely leave out light manual resistance? Also, I came to a team that uses bands religiously before practice in warm ups. Where does this traditional band work fit in-season and should I encourage their routine? Thanks EC.

  2. Anthony Mychal Says:

    Rhythmic stabalizations are great exercises, and anyone interested in human performance should do them. Sucks that you have to have a partner, so if you’re a throwing athlete get a bum off the street.

    But I love how the focus isn’t so much on getting the cuff strong as possible, it’s about managing the total stressors it encounters. In my opinion, this is where the injury prevention is at. And, of course, doing the correct type of cuff movements to begin with.

  3. James Sieveke Says:

    May try to do rythmic stabilization by having the athlete or patient hold on gently to a stationary object ie. doorknob or handle and then gently push, pull, move in a variety of directions to facilitate the cuff stabilization emphasis voiced by Eric.

  4. Hollis Says:

    Very good, clean info Eric!

  5. Chris Melton Says:

    Great explanation and great visuals…thanks Eric!

  6. Curtis Says:


    for the external rotations with plate, would you try and go as high as you could with weight while still maintaining control or stay ar a relatively low weight?

    Curtis Taylor

  7. Eric Cressey Says:

    Curtis – it’s okay to load them up a bit, but not if it means that you’re compensating by doing the movement in the wrong places (lumbar extension, thoracic rotation, etc).

  8. phil Says:

    Awesome stuff as always! To address the strength curve disconnect with bands, I used to have the person horizontal row the band to max resistance then externally rotate while smoothly moving forward to lessen the resistance. Obviously have to pay close attention to what the scapula is doing. I couldn’t get everyone to figure it out but it seemed to work pretty well with some. Hopefully that made sense

  9. Matt Kenny Says:

    Thanks, Eric! This is great.



  11. Ted Says:

    BALL will be quoting and cross-linking this in a special BALL lesson on CUFFS. Thanks again for the awesome resource, Eric!

  12. Larry Jusdanis Says:

    I agree that bands do not accomadate the strength curve at all and really should not be used with RC saying that …THE RC muscle group is like any other and should be overloaded..as always weight is dictated by form…emphasize proper form and less recruitment from the triceps when performing exercises. We incorporate 1 each of RC exercise- elbow close to the body and one exercise away from the body. I like to do these exercises in what I call Pre hab work- exercises before the wout. Just like any muscle you need to add a variety of exercises to stimulate growth.

  13. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Ted!

  14. Phil J Says:

    Eric, what is your take on using a baseball during open chain rhythmic stabilization exercises considering the roll your grip plays in rotator cuff activity? And what about sets/time on rhythmic stabs? 2-3 sets of 15-20s work/arm is typically what I use between med ball sets. Do you think it’s detrimental implementing them this early in the workout?

  15. Eric Cressey Says:


    Yes, we’ve done some stuff with the ball in the hand. Just one more way to add some variety.

    We usually go 5s per position with rhythmic stabilizations.

    Totally fine to do it early in the workout. In fact, I prefer it.

  16. james nonnemacher Says:

    Read both articles with interest. Would like to here what your thoughts are on the use of Indian club swinging and Tai Chi for shoulder health. After having watched Gray Cook’s DVD on Indian Club swinging I thought it would be a great form of pre/rehab for anyone whose shoulder takes a beating.Same goes for Tai Chi, as a certified yoga instructor I prefer the use of Tai Chi for many people, I believe the fluid movements are more conducive to shoulder health and retaining ROM, than just plain stretching and other forms of exercise.

    Wondering if you or others have thoughts on this.

  17. Tim Says:


    I’m wondering if I missed your response to Sam’s questions (the 1st reply following this post). I am wondering about “pre-season/in season” for manual resistance and rhythmic stabilization. Do you suggest eliminating those or tone them down? Maybe utilize on occasion after live outings, since the arm will be sore after that anyway?

  18. Eric Cressey Says:


    We’ll use manual resistance right after a relief pitcher comes out of the game, and only with starters on 7-day rotations.  Bouncing back on a 5-day rotation is really challenging if you add in a lot of eccentric stress.

    Rhythmic stabs can be worked into the warm-ups with loose guys, and with just about everyone during 1-2 lifts per week.

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