Did you know that your rotator cuff strength is a reflection of the amount of weight you can lift in the barbell bench press? These muscles are that important, despite being relatively small. Did you also know that this same muscle group can have a direct effect on your weapon shooting accuracy?
The rotator cuff, which is a group of four muscles attached near the shoulder, is involved in stabilizing the shoulder. The infraspinatus and teres minor externally rotate the arm, the subscapularis internally rotates the arm, and the supraspinatus abducts (raises) the arm. In the standing or kneeling position in pistol shooting, the rotator cuff muscles play a role both in isometrically stabilizing the humerus and in eccentrically absorbing the recoil forces placed on the shoulder girdle.
The health of the rotator cuff musculature is associated with handgrip and trigger pull strength. Research on EMG muscle activity has shown that the rotator cuff musculature, particularly the supraspinatus, increases activity with static handgrip tension at over 60 degrees of humeral flexion. In the testing of baseball pitchers over the past eight years, I have noticed weaker hand dynamometer scores in athletes with weak rotator cuff musculature on the pitching arm.
Weak rotator cuff musculature can be exposed and potentially aggravated by the recoil from the firearm – the subscapularis is the muscle most commonly injured. This pain may show up in the dominant arm side when shooting a pistol. Over time, chronic aggravation of weak rotator cuff musculature can lead to inflammation, impingements, decreased range of motion and, eventually, a strain or tear.
The Right Twist on Shoulder Training
Even Captain Jack Sparrow knows the meaning of the expression “You can’t fire a cannon out of a canoe.” To shoot a cannon, you need a solid base to handle the recoil of the cannon. Likewise, to improve your shooting accuracy, you need to create a stable base with specific rotator cuff exercises.
Although bands are popular among many strength coaches for training the shoulder muscles, you should try to minimize their use in rotator cuff exercises. With bands, the resistance is unquantifiable and they overload only the end range of motion due to inherent material properties. The rotator cuff, like any other muscle, should be trained through a complete range of motion. For these reasons, cables and dumbbells are ideal apparatus to train the rotator cuff muscles.
With this background, here are three rotator cuff exercises that will get you started on maintaining their structural balance.
1. Standing, Straight-Arm, Front External Rotation, Cable.
Set up a cable column at shoulder height. With your arm extended directly in front of you, hold the ball of the cable in your hand with palm down and thumb pointing toward the machine. Keeping your arm completely extended, rotate it externally, pulling the cable outward until your thumb is pointing directly away from the machine and your arm is in complete external rotation. Perform 3 sets of 10-12 reps at a 4020 tempo.
2. 45-Degree Trap 3 Lift, Dumbbell.
Hold a dumbbell in your left hand with your thumb pointing forward and your right forearm supported by the top of an incline bench. Rest your forehead on your right forearm. Your feet should be positioned in a staggered stance, left foot back and right foot forward. Maintaining the position of your back in a neutral or slightly arched posture, allow your left arm to extend downward until it is perpendicular to the floor. Initiate the movement by retracting your left shoulder blade down and back. Begin raising your extended left arm at a 45-degree angle away from your head until your elbow passes your ear. Once your elbow has passed your ear, reach as far as you can outward and begin lowering back to the start position. Perform 3 sets of 8-10 reps at a 3012 tempo.
3. Seated External Rotation, Cable.
Sit on a bench with your right foot on the bench and left foot on the floor, with knees bent. Holding a dumbbell in your right hand, place your right upper elbow on your knee. Maintaining a 90-degree angle at your elbow throughout the entire movement, slowly lower the dumbbell down toward your right thigh by rotating at the shoulder capsule. Once in a stretched position, rotate upward back to the start while maintaining elbow contact with your knee. Perform 3 sets of 8-10 reps at a 4020 tempo.
Training the relatively small rotator cuff will pay big dividends in shooting accuracy and keeping your shoulders injury free. As they say, “Little things mean a lot!”
Some extras things you should know:
By Charles Poliquin
1. The larger the caliber of the handgun, the more the rotator cuff helps shooting accuracy. As more law enforcement agencies are switching from the 9 mm to the 0.40 and the 0.45, it’s even more important to have a strong and healthy rotator cuff. One of the reasons agencies are using larger calibers is today’s obesity epidemic. If this unhealthy trend worsens, cops will need ammo strong enough to bring down rhinos and elephants.
2. A strong rotator cuff is even more critical when you’re using a shotgun and firing it from a compromised biomechanical position. You cannot always fire your weapon under optimal biomechanical conditions, especially when you’re under fire. Again, a strong rotator cuff will increase the odds of saving your life and the lives of those you are supposed to protect.
3. Due to equal opportunity employment laws, recruits with much smaller frames are being hired now. Having a strong rotator cuff is key in weapon retention – it can save lives. How much is it worth to avert the tragedy of law enforcement officers being killed with their own weapons?
4. If you need to have your rotator cuff status assessed properly, please see one of our PICP coaches. (Use our Find A Coach directory
Sporrong H, Palmerud G, Herberts P. Influences of handgrip on shoulder muscle activity. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1995;71(6):485-92.
Sporrong H, Palmerud G, Herberts P. Hand grip increases shoulder muscle activity, An EMG analysis with static hand contractions in 9 subjects. Acta Orthop Scand. 1996 Oct;67(5):485-90.