Lifting Weights to Strengthen the Upper Back & Rotator Cuff

Burn off fat with a comprehensive weight training, cardio and diet program to reveal your sexy back and shoulders.

Burn off fat with a comprehensive weight training, cardio and diet program to reveal your sexy back and shoulders.

Swap too many back workouts for late nights at the office, and you could end up looking like your frail, hunched-over grandma. Strong upper-back muscles help you naturally maintain upright posture, while your rotator cuff muscles act as a strong support for your shoulder joint. Your shoulder is a ball and socket joint, which looks sort of like a baseball sitting on the top of a little league tee. Take care of this freely movable structure to be able to gesture freely, excitedly cheer at the game and seductively undo your dress later that night.

Strengthen your upper back with a cable machine. Position the arms of the cable machine so they’re one notch above parallel with the floor. Set a much lighter weight than you would use for seated or standing rows. Hold the left handle with your right hand and the right handle with your left hand. Straighten your elbows and position the handles one above the other, straight in front of your chest. Use the muscles in your upper back to bring your shoulder blades toward one another and your arms straight out to the sides. Use the same muscles to resist your arms back to the start position.

Work the infraspinatus and teres minor, rotator cuff muscles that are located next to one another on the back of your shoulder blades. Lie on your right side and prop your head up with your right hand. Hold a dumbbell with your left hand and place your elbow and upper arm at your side. Keeping your upper arm against your torso, externally rotate your shoulder to lift the weight. Lower back to the start. Complete the set, and then repeat on the other side.

Strengthen the subscapularis, the rotator cuff muscle that covers the front of your shoulder blades. Stand next to a cable machine so the handle is on your right hand side, set at elbow height. Hold the handle and step a foot or two to the left so you have tension in the cable at the start of the exercise. Keep your upper arm at your side and internally rotate your shoulder against the weight. Slowly rotate your shoulder back to the start. Complete the set, and then repeat on the other side.

Do lateral raises to work the supraspinatus, which sits on the upper rear part of your shoulder blades. Stand tall with feet about shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Keep your elbows straight and thumbs pointing slightly downward and raise your arms out to the side until they’re slightly higher than parallel with the floor. Slowly lower back to the start.

Items you will need

  • Cable machine
  • Dumbbells of varying weights


  • Keep the tension in your muscles between repetitions to increase the effectiveness of each exercise.
  • Choose a weight for each exercise that is much lighter than what you would use for a chest press or seated row. Set the cable machine around 10 to 15 pounds for the upper-back and subscapularis exercise, use 5-pound dumbbells for lateral raises and 2 to 3 pounds for the infraspinatus and teres minor exercise. The lighter weight engages these small supportive muscles. Using heavier weight will cause larger muscles to get involved and take the focus off the rotator cuff.
  • Do 12 to 15 repetitions of each exercise with impeccable form. Understand and focus on the muscles working in each exercise to add integrity and effectiveness to the movements.
  • Maintain upright posture throughout the day to reduce everyday strain on your upper back and rotator cuff muscles.


  • Consult your doctor before starting any exercise program and stop if you feel sharp or sudden pain.

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About the Author

Suzanne Reilley is a fitness professional with a BS in exercise science and more than four years of experience as a full-time ACSM-certified personal trainer. She has been featured in DailyCandy and "The Washington Post," and has taught at Rancho La Puerta, rated Top Destination Spa by "Travel + Leisure."

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