Rotator Cuff Exercise: A Smarter Way to do Cable External Shoulder Rotations

In keeping with the same theme I established in my book, Your Workout PERFECTED where I show you how to perform common exercises in a smarter way; In this post I’m showing a better way to perform cable (or band) external shoulder rotations. From there, I also explain 1) why I feel there’s value in regularly doing targeted rotator cuff: shoulder external rotation exercises, along with 2) why I feel it’s a component of comprehensive upper-body strength training program.


Before we get into talking smarter rotator cuff external rotation exercise, I want to make sure you’re caught up on a few pieces of news:

First, check out this review from Lindsay Vastola on the NT Loop Bands in the latest issue, which you can read HERE, of Personal Fitness Professional – PFP magazine.

PFP is an open-access (free) industry magazine that every trainer should subscribe to and read. Every issue features articles from top fitness professionals of all stripes.

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Secondly, here are my upcoming live events:

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Cable External Shoulder Rotation – Rotator Cuff Exercise: A Smarter Way

When performing the standing cable or band shoulder external rotation exercise with the biceps bone parallel to the floor and elbow bent to 90-degrees, it’s very common to anchor the cable or band at roughly one’s shoulder height (as shown below).

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Instead, I recommend anchoring the cable or band lower, around your knee height and standing closer to the anchor point (roughy 2 feet away) where from the cable or band anchor (as shown below).

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Beginning with the anchor point lower means at the top of the range of motion involved in the exercise (when your forearm is vertical), the cable or band will be at a much smaller angle to your forearm than roughly the 90-degree angle created at the top portion of the exercise that’s created when you use the traditional higher anchor point.

Why Use a Lower Anchor Point?

Using a lower anchor point for the band or cable when performing shoulder external rotations in the manner shown above is a small change that makes a big difference because it only 1) provides more consistent resistance over a greater range of motion, but also does so 2) in a manner that better fits your natural strength curve. Let me explain.

The point where you have the least mechanical advantage over the load is when your forearm forms a 90-degree angle to the cable or band. This means that, although 10lbs is 10lbs, how much force it takes your involved muscles to move that 10lbs increases as you lose a mechanical advantage over the load, and decreases as you gain a mechanical advantage. Therefore the weight is heaviest when your forearm is at a 90-degree angle to the cable or band.

That said, the principle of physiology known as the length-tension relationship or the length-tension curve dictates that muscles are stronger in their mid-range and weaker in their shortened range (contracted position). (1)

With the above realties in mind, when you perform this exercise in the traditional manner with the higher cable or band anchor point, it not only works against your strength curve because the weight gets heavier as you get weaker (when your forearm is perpendicular to the floor), it also doesn’t load the bottom portion of the movement (when your forearm is parallel to the floor).

On the other hand, using a lower anchor point, which is especially important when using a band because they get heavier as they’re stretched, not only loads the bottom position of the exercise, it also creates the longest lever arm in the mid-range aspect of the motion (when you’re stronger), and creates a shorter lever arm at the top of the action (when you’re weaker.

In other words, with the lower anchor point, you get more resistance where you’re stronger (when your forearm is closer to parallel to the floor), and less where you’re weaker (when your forearm is closer to perpendicular to the floor). But at no point involved in the range of motion shown above will there be no resistance, unlike the with higher anchor point.

Supine Shoulder External Rotation with Band: 2.0 Version

I developed the supine external rotation with band exercise years ago and first premiered it in THIS 2009 T-nation article. I also highlighted in my more recent post covering my Top 2 Rotator Cuff Exercises for Shoulder External Rotation.

I developed this exercise because it not only prevents people from extending at their lower-back to cheat the movement, but it also provides feedback on range of motion by touching the back of your hand to floor at the top of each rep.

That said, I used to teach it like this with the anchor leg up higher, as shown in this image from my 2009 article.


Now, after re-evaluating things based on the information discussed above, I now perform this exercise with a lower anchor leg position, which creates a shorter lever-arm at the top of the range of motion.

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Put simply, keeping your leg lower places the band at a lower anchor point, which, like the cable version I recommend above, provide tension through a greater range of motion while also better accommodating your strength curve. Not to mention, it’s especially helpful to create a shorter lever-arm at the top of the range of motion given the band is getting heavier as it’s being stretched.

Why Do Shoulder External Rotations?

Shoulder external rotation exercises primarily target and strengthen the supraspinatus and external rotators (infraspinatus and teres minor). These exercises are common in rehab settings because facilitation and strengthening of the supraspinatus and infraspinatus is a common focus of shoulder rehabilitation programs.

Now, I’m aware that some coaches and trainers like to assert that targeted shoulder external rotation exercises are essentially a waste of time, but I can’t agree on the grounds of scientific evidence and the principle of specificity. 

Research has shown that isolated external rotation either in side-lying with a dumbbell or standing with cable or tubing resistance produces significant supraspinatus and infraspinatus muscle forces. Specifically, the prone horizontal abduction with external rotation, isolated external rotation side-lying or prone at 90/90 position – the two external rotation exercises shown above also involve the 90/90 portion – have been demonstrated to be the best at facilitating the supraspinatus. (2)

Even if you reject this research for one reason or the other, the principle of specificity dictates that the more actions you can train in, the stronger and more prepared your body is when that movement is used. And, if you’re a (recreational) athlete, you’re likely going to utilize shoulder external rotation.


  1. Smith, L.K., Weiss, E.L. & Lehmkuhl, L.D. (1996). Brunnstrom’s clinical kinesiology (5th ed.). Philadelphia: F.A. Davis.
  2. Pabian, Patrick & Kolber, Morey & McCarthy, John. (2011). Postrehabilitation Strength and Conditioning of the Shoulder: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 33. 42-55.

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