Did you know that your shoulder is the most mobile joint in your entire body? It’s able to rotate inward, outward, to the side, and out behind you — and it’s mainly thanks to the rotator cuff.
As an athlete, you depend on this busy muscle group to stabilize your arm when you swing, lift, push, and throw. And if you’ve been looking for the best ways to keep your rotator cuff healthy, you might wonder: Could regular massage help?
For many people, yes — especially if you lead an active lifestyle. Read on for a simple guide to rotator cuff massage for athletes, including the benefits, self-massage gear, and tips to get started.
Understanding the Rotator Cuff
Your rotator cuff is made up of four busy muscles, spanning from your shoulder blade all the way to the cap of the humerus (upper arm bone). These muscles include:
- Supraspinatus: This muscle sits at the top of the back of your shoulder. It helps with internal rotation and lifting your arm out to the side.
- Infraspinatus: This triangle-shaped muscle helps with rotation and stability, stretching across your scapula (shoulder blade) to the tip of your shoulder.
- Teres minor: This is a smaller muscle that sits beneath the infraspinatus. It spans from your upper arm bone to the side of your shoulder blade.
- Subscapularis: With a name that translates to “under the scapula,” this is the busiest, strongest muscle in the rotator cuff. It starts at the inner side of the shoulder blade and ends at the humerus.
What Causes Rotator Cuff Pain?
As we age, our shoulders — and especially our rotator cuffs — tend to become more prone to everyday wear and tear.
But even if you’re on the younger side, you might still face rotator cuff pain due to repetitive swinging, lifting, or other overhead motions. And too much of this strain can lead to other issues down the line.
As an athlete, it’s not uncommon to run into injuries such as:
- Tears, which occur when your rotator cuff tendons are either partially or completely removed from the humerus. These may require surgery, as they can’t always heal on their own.
- Tendonitis, or inflammation of the rotator cuff tendons.
- Strains, which may involve micro-tears in both the rotator cuff muscles and tendons.
In many cases, massage can help soothe away mild rotator cuff pain. But if you’re dealing with injuries like these, it’s important to check with your doctor before getting started.
Benefits of Rotator Cuff Massage for Athletes
Whether you’re dealing with soreness or simply want to protect your rotator cuff for the long haul, here are three benefits of massage worth knowing about:
Promotes Mobility and Flexibility
Your rotator cuff works together with your deltoid and pectoral muscles to keep your shoulder stable, flexible, and strong. Fortunately, a good massage could help all of these muscles stay more elastic and mobile.
And if you’re someone who’s always on the move, here’s some more good news: Research has shown that regular massage can help relieve muscle stiffness, boost range of motion, and even help prevent injuries.
Relieves Pain and Stiffness
As it turns out, a quick massage could be one of the easiest natural ways to manage rotator cuff discomfort.
In fact, one 2017 review found that massage offered short-term relief from shoulder pain, with sports massage (combined with heat) having the most soothing effects.
Supports Healthy Blood Flow
Beyond relieving pain, a good massage can also boost blood flow and prepare your muscles for action. And as an athlete, you can use this to your advantage before training.
Just a few minutes of rolling your rotator cuff with a foam roller or ball can help add warmth, stretch your muscles, and bring a boost of nutrients and oxygen prior to any sweat session.
3 Best Athletic Massage Tools for Rotator Cuff Massage
To get started with regular rotator cuff massage, here are three of the best home tools to try:
Massage balls are a great introductory tool to self-massage, especially if you’re looking to target pain points in the shoulders.
Not only are they good for soothing sore muscles, but they can also be extremely affordable. (And if you don’t want to go out of your way to buy a therapeutic massage ball, a tennis ball can even work.)
That being said, if you’re looking for deeper relief, you can also try a more advanced option like the Medvibe Mini. This battery-powered ball is designed with a textured surface and oscillating technology to work more deeply into muscle tissue.
Overall, a tool like this is ideal for:
- Targeting muscle knots
- Easy portability
- Precision for specific areas of discomfort
If you’re in the athletic world, chances are you know someone who uses a massage gun.
These high-powered tools use percussive therapy to melt away muscle pain, increase blood flow, and break up stiffness. And because they’re so user-friendly, they’re a fantastic choice for rotator cuff massage.
They offer the portability of a ball plus a variety of attachments — so you can tailor your session to any muscle group.
Generally, you might be a good candidate for a massage gun if you want something that’s:
- Completely customizable
- Easy to use, even on the go
- Uses “bursts” of massage rather than slow, sustained pressure
Many athletes swear by foam rolling as part of their recovery routines, and for good reason. These simple tools allow you to stretch and massage almost any muscle on your body with deep, relaxing pressure.
This is called self-myofascial release, and it’s great for boosting blood flow, reducing stiffness, and improving flexibility before your workouts. In addition, it can also help soothe delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after exercise.
These tools also tend to be on the more affordable side, and are excellent for athletes who:
- Have 5-15 minutes to spare before or after training
- Want to regularly target large muscle groups, including the rotator cuff
- Don’t mind the more manual nature of foam rolling
Rotator Cuff Massage for Athletes: 4 Soothing Home Techniques
Looking to add rotator cuff massage to your daily routine? Here are four easy, effective ways to give it a try:
1. Foam Roll the Lats and Rotator Cuff
If you happen to own a foam roller, this two-minute massage is ideal for relieving sore, tense shoulder muscles.
It targets and stretches the latissimus dorsi and outer rotator cuff, making it perfect as part of a pre or post-training rolling session.
Here are the steps:
- Grab your foam roller, and lie sideways on a comfortable surface.
- Place the foam roller horizontally underneath your armpit.
- Extend your lower arm to stretch your shoulder muscles.
- Begin to rock back and forth over the foam roller with moderate pressure to warm up the muscles. Repeat for 10-20 seconds.
- After a few seconds, slide your body upward about one inch, so that the roller moves down the lat and rotator cuff muscles. Repeat the rocking motion for 10-20 seconds more.
- Roll down another inch, and repeat the motion.
- Continue to use this technique to massage the muscles for 1-2 minutes.
2. Try a Massage Gun
If you want a deeper, more powerful massage that can be done in 60 seconds or less, this quick massage gun session is just what you need.
For this exercise, you’ll focus on the deltoid and rotator cuff muscles situated behind your armpit. (These can be tricky to reach on your own, so don’t be afraid to ask a partner if you could use some help.)
Keep in mind: Because these tools are so high-powered, it’s important to avoid massaging over the outer edge of the shoulder, the armpit, and the bony ridge of the shoulder blade. Instead, be sure to stick to areas with plenty of muscle tissue.
To get started:
- Using the round ball attachment, set your massage gun to a gentle setting.
- Begin to glide it at an angle along the infraspinatus, or the upper side of your back, below the bony ridge of your shoulder blade.
- Make your way to the deltoid muscle, at the upper side of your arm. Spend 10-20 seconds sweeping the massage gun over the muscle.
- Then, spend 10 seconds gliding over the teres minor muscle — aka the small muscle just behind your armpit.
- Finally, spend 10-20 seconds on the supraspinatus, or the muscle above your shoulder blade ridge.
3. Use a Massage Ball for Knots
To knead away knots in the rotator cuff, try this massage ball exercise for quick relief:
- Grab your massage ball of choice, and stand next to a sturdy wall.
- Rest your hand on top of your head, and place the ball on the muscles just behind the edge of your armpit.
- Lean into the wall with light-to-moderate pressure to hold the ball in place.
- Once the ball is firmly in place, remove your hand from your head.
- Rest your arm against the wall and bend your elbow at a 90-degree angle, so that your forearm points upward.
- Keep your elbow in place, and rotate your forearm down to gently stretch and massage the muscles.
- Rotate back up, and repeat for 30-60 seconds.
- Move the ball back 1-2 inches, and repeat the movement for 30-60 seconds more.
4. Try Hands-On Rotator Cuff Massage
Not having any massage gear on hand can feel like a setback, but it doesn’t have to be.
As long as you have a few minutes of free time, you can use your hands to give yourself a soothing, mobility-boosting rotator cuff massage at home.
- Sit in a comfortable position with upright posture.
- Use one arm to reach up over your opposite shoulder. Find the upper ridge of your shoulder blade, and move just above it to find the supraspinatus.
- Use gentle circular motions to massage this area for 30-60 seconds.
- Next, you’ll work on the infraspinatus. Find the ridge of your shoulder blade, and move a few centimeters down to find this broad, triangular muscle.
- Massage in circular motions for 30-60 seconds more.
- Finally, move down toward the teres minor. This muscle is below the infraspinatus and just behind the side of your armpit.
- Use circular kneading motions to massage for 30-60 seconds more.
What About Professional Rotator Cuff Massage?
If you lift weights, play throwing sports, or have a labor-intensive job, you might know firsthand what it’s like to have chronic rotator cuff pain. And in these cases, it may be worth seeing a massage professional before trying it yourself.
Trained therapists have the know-how to reach the deeper layers of the muscle, all while being mindful to avoid worsening inflammation or pain. And if you have questions, they could even share a few self-massage tips and tricks with you during your visit.
In a session, your therapist might use a mix of modalities, including:
Sports massage is a powerful type of massage that can benefit almost anyone with an active lifestyle — whether or not you’re an athlete.
Even if your rotator cuff pain stems from repetitive motions at work, for example, a sports massage therapist can still help support your mobility, relieve pain, and help reduce your odds of future injury.
Common sports massage techniques include:
- Kneading and squeezing to improve blood flow and break up stiffness
- Effleurage (or gliding) to warm up muscle tissue
- Friction to break up adhesions
Swedish massage is a great option if you don’t enjoy the “hurts-so-good” kind of pain that can come with a deeper massage. Instead, it tends to be lighter — focused more broadly on encouraging healthy circulation and relaxation.
While not as targeted as sports massage, it can still help:
- Alleviate muscle pain
- Break up knots and stiffness
- Boost range of motion
Strengthen and Stretch Your Rotator Cuff
Massage is an excellent tool for in-the-moment relief — but when you combine it with strengthening and stretching exercises, you can ensure your rotator cuff stays mobile and pain-free for the long haul.
According to OrthoInfo, the right exercises can stabilize your shoulder joint, encourage a healthy range of motion, and prevent injury.
So, which rotator cuff exercises should you add to your routine? Here are a few options to know about:
Cross-Body Arm Stretch
The cross-body arm stretch is a beginner-friendly exercise that helps target the rotator cuff and deltoid.
To try it:
- Stand or sit in a comfortable position.
- Lift your chin, straighten your back, and relax your shoulders back towards your spine.
- Extend your left arm out over your chest.
- Use your right forearm to pull your left arm in towards the body. You should feel a stretch in the outer back and shoulder muscles.
- Hold for 20-30 seconds, and repeat with the other side.
Passive Internal Rotation
This exercise helps you stretch the supraspinatus muscle — aka the muscle at the top of the back of the shoulder. Simply:
- Start by grabbing a light stick, such as a yardstick.
- Stand upright and hold the stick behind your body, with one hand on each side. (Tip: Your palms should be facing out behind you here.)
- Use your left arm to pull the stick out to the left, still holding it with your right hand, until you feel a stretch in the right shoulder.
- Hold for 20-40 seconds, and repeat with the other side.
Side Lying External Rotation
As the name implies, this movement involves lying on your side instead of standing up. In turn, it helps take some of the load off your biceps, all while honing in on your deltoid and infraspinatus muscles.
Here’s how to try it:
- Grab a light dumbbell and a rolled-up towel.
- Lie on your left side, and place the towel underneath your right armpit.
- Hold the dumbbell with your right hand.
- Keep your upper arm at your side, and bend your elbow at a 90-degree angle. In this position, your forearm should drape across your waist with the dumbbell resting in front of you.
- Holding your elbow in place, rotate your arm to raise the dumbbell.
- Slowly lower it back down, and repeat 5-10 times.
The Takeaway on Rotator Cuff Massage
Whether you lift weights, use a lot of overhead motions, or are just feeling the effects of aging, you’re not alone if your rotator cuff could use some TLC. The good news is that massage can soothe stiffness, ease pain, and help support your shoulder flexibility long-term.
It’s always best to check with your doctor before trying massage, especially if you have a medical condition or rotator cuff injury. Once you’re sure it’s right for you, you can try hands-on massage or invest in a therapeutic tool to start elevating your recovery routine.