External Rotation Exercises
for the Shoulder

Many athletes are already familiar with the beneficial effects of weight training. From increased strength to injury reduction, the benefits are far reaching. This article will outline specific exercises designed to prevent and rehabilitate shoulder injuries which are related to an imbalance in the internal and external rotator muscles of the shoulder. Please note that rehabilitation of a shoulder injury should only be performed under the direct supervision of a qualified healthcare provider.

Swimmers are particularly prone to shoulder imbalances and their related injuries. The freestyle stroke utilizes the large muscles of the back (latissimus dorsi) and chest (pectoralis major) as prime movers. These muscles are both internal rotators of the shoulder. The external rotators of the shoulder (infraspinatus and teres minor) are comparatively small muscles on the outer surface of the shoulder blade which are often forgotten in weight training programs. This is because basic weight training routines emphasize the prime mover muscles (bench press for pecs, pulldowns for lats,) which further develop the internal rotators while neglecting the external rotators, thereby setting the stage for injury.

Because the external rotators are small muscles in comparison to their internal rotating counterparts very light weights are all that are required for these exercises. Therefore a simple 5-10 minute routine can often be performed at home using something as light as a can of soup or some surgical tubing. A basic routine would involve doing one set of each exercise outlined below for 12-15 repetitions. Do these 2-3 times per week and after 2 weeks you may increase to 2 sets of 12-15 reps.

The Exercises

There are three main external rotation exercises. They can be done lying down or standing, depending on whether you’re using a weight or tubing.

Lying Flyes - Lie on one side such that your top arm is flat on your side. Now move your top arm out in front of you so that it's pointing forward, parallel to the ground, with the palm facing downward (picture). From that starting position bring your arm upwards so that when you finish your arm points straight to the ceiling (picture).

Lying L-Flyes - Lie on your side again just like you did above, arm flat on your side. Bend at the elbow so that your upper arm remains flat against your torso but your forearm and hand are now pointing forward, parallel to the ground, palm facing downwards (picture). This position is easier to maintain when a folded towel is placed between your side and your elbow. From that position, keeping your upper arm against your torso, rotate your arm so that the forearm and hand point to the ceiling (you won't be able to go all the way vertical - just 45 degrees or so) (picture).

Seated L-Flyes - Sit in a chair in such a way that your side rests against the backrest. That is, you're rotated 90 degrees in the chair. Take the arm that is next to the backrest and rest it on the top of the backrest at the elbow such that your fist points forward, your elbow is bent 90 degrees, and your palm faces downward (picture). From that position, keep your elbow on the backrest and rotate your hand and forearm so that they point to the ceiling (picture).

Those are the three main ways to externally rotate your arm. The external rotators are small muscles and most likely quite weak so do your repeats with a very light weight. Choose a weight that allows you to do at least 12 reps. Good luck!


Horrigan J, Robinson J. The 7-Minute Rotator Cuff Solution. Los Angeles: Health For Life; 1991.

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