Rotator cuff stretches are important exercises to prevent swimmer’s shoulder, which is a rotator cuff injury caused by incorrect swimming technique and overtraining.

A woman stretching one of her shoulders

Rotator cuff stretches help prevent swimmer’s shoulder

The rotator cuff muscles and tendons stabilize the shoulder joint and allow the arm to rotate internally, to rotate externally and to abduct.

When you swim a lot, the internal shoulder rotators and chest muscles grow stronger and shorter while the external shoulder rotators and scapular stabilizers don’t grow as strong and have a tendency to stretch over time. Muscular imbalances result that can lead to rotator cuff problems.


Shoulder stretching exercises allow the internal shoulder rotators and chest muscles to recover their length and contribute to the shoulder’s health. Other important aspects of swimmer’s shoulder prevention are correct swimming technique and rotator cuff strengthening exercises.

Rotator Cuff Stretches – Exercise #1

  • Stand upright.
  • Take a towel or a belt, hold it with both hands a little bit more than shoulder width apart. Your arms are extended.
  • Slowly lift the arms in front of you, then further above your head and to the back, until you feel a stretch in your chest.
  • Hold that position for 30 seconds, then release.
Rotator Cuff Stretches - Exercise #1

Rotator Cuff Stretches – Exercise #2

  • Stand upright, with arms hanging relaxed to the sides.
  • Arms still extended, bring them behind you, palms facing each other, then clasp the hands together.
  • Now raise your extended arms behind you until you feel a stretch in the chest.
  • Hold the position for 30 seconds.
Rotator Cuff Stretches - Exercise #2

Rotator Cuff Stretches – Exercise #3

  • Stand next to a wall
  • Lift your arm to the side, bend your elbow until your upper arm is horizontal and your lower arm points straight to the ceiling.
  • Turn your palm towards the wall and rest your arm against it while keeping the 90° angle
  • While keeping the arm against the wall, rotate the opposite hip away from the wall until you feel a stretch in the front of your shoulder and chest
  • Hold the position for 30 seconds
Rotator Cuff Stretches - Exercise #3

Rotator Cuff Stretches – Exercise #4

  • Stand upright.
  • Bring your extended arms above your head, on hand on top of the other, like in a streamlined swimming position.
  • While keeping the arms above your head, bend to the left until you feel a stretch on the side of your upper body.
  • Hold the position for 30 seconds, then do the same on the other side.
Rotator Cuff Stretches - Exercise #4

Rotator Cuff Stretches – Exercise #5

  • Extend the first arm, lift it in front of you until it’s horizontal, then rotate it towards the other arms shoulder.
  • Place the second hand on the first arm’s elbow, and start to pull back the elbow until you feel a stretch at the side of the shoulder.
  • Hold the position for 30 seconds.
Rotator Cuff Stretches - Exercise #5

Rotator Cuff Stretches – Exercise #6

  • Place the back of one hand against the lower back. The elbow sticks out at the side.
  • Grab the forearm or elbow of the first arm with the opposite hand.
  • Pull the elbow gently to the front while keeping the first hand on the lower back.
Rotator Cuff Stretches - Exercise #6
  • Alternatively, instead of grabbing the first arm with the second, you can also lean the elbow of the first arm against a wall, then rotate the opposite hip away from the wall.
Rotator Cuff Stretches - Exercise #6 variation

Rotator Cuff Stretches – Exercise #6 variation

Stretching Tips

  • Once you feel the stretch in your muscles, hold the position for 30 seconds. When you stretch a muscle, a reflex causes the muscle to contract. It needs at least 15 seconds before it relaxes and stretching becomes effective.
  • When you stretch, you should feel a light to medium pull in your muscles. If it hurts, you are stretching to hard! The muscle reflex will fire and the stretch will be ineffective or can even injure your muscles.
  • Never bounce while stretching. Again, if you do this, the muscle reflex will kick in and you risk to generate small muscle tears.

Going further

Treat Your Own Rotator Cuff by Jim Johnson, PT is a short book (about 90 pages) that first explains the anatomy of the shoulder joint, then covers how rotator cuff exercises can fix shoulder problems, and finally gives you rotator cuff exercises and routines you can use to get rid of shoulder pain. Highly interesting, not only for active swimmers but also for anybody experiencing rotator cuff problems.


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