What are External Rotations?

Dan Cavallari

External rotations are exercises in which a limb is rotated outward away from the body. They are also known as lateral rotations, and are common in rehabilitation settings as well as in strength training programs. Several exercises exist that use external rotations to build muscle and improve mobility, but the term is not limited to just exercise. Any motion that extends a limb outward and to the side of the body is technically considered to be an external rotation, but doing external rotations for a specific purpose can be helpful in increasing mobility, flexibility, and muscle strength.

External rotations may be used to reduce pain and build strength in an injured rotator cuff.
External rotations may be used to reduce pain and build strength in an injured rotator cuff.

An example of an exercise that uses external rotations is the lying shoulder rotation. To perform this exercise, the exerciser will lie down on his or her side with the knees slightly bent and the head supported by the lower arm. The upper arm will grasp a dumbbell firmly. The weight of the dumbbell depends on the fitness level of the person exercising; a beginner should start with a smaller weight and work up from there. To execute the shoulder rotation, the user will start with the upper arm bent at a ninety degree angle at the elbow, with the elbow planted in the side of the body. The user will then lift the weight upward and away from the body, keeping the elbow planted. This motion will force the shoulder to rotate. The exerciser will then return to the starting position and repeat several times for one set.

It's a good idea to stretch muscles prior to performing external rotations.
It's a good idea to stretch muscles prior to performing external rotations.

Another good external rotation exercise that works the rotator cuff is the sitting knee rotation. The user will sit on a bench with one leg up on the bench, bent at a ninety degree angle. He or she will then plant the elbow into the side of the knee, grasp a dumbbell, and rotate the arm upward. The rotation should again occur at the shoulder. This exercise is particularly useful in rehabilitation settings, in which a patient is recovering from a rotator cuff surgery or similar injury.

External rotations can also be done with cable machines at the gym. After selecting the proper weight, the user will stand perpendicular to the machine with the handle of the cable in the far hand. He or she will then start with the handle positioned at the navel and pull outward away from the body, once again rotating at the shoulder. This exercise also works the rotator cuff and the shoulder muscles.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


My personal trainer has been a big help for me while working through some physical therapy exercises. She has me focusing on doing shoulder external rotation repetitions.

After consistent exercise, I have much greater range of motion in my shoulders. I used to have a hard time being able to raise both hands above my head and keep them there for very long. Even reaching up for something on a high shelf was sometimes painful.

I can now lift both hands above my head and even hold small weights in my hands while doing it. Being persistent with the exercises has really paid off for me.


I have a friend who has had rotator cuff surgery, and that is not a fun surgery to have - with quite a long healing time too. I know part of her therapy was doing rotator cuff external rotations, and those are pretty hard to do if you are having a lot of pain.

Sometimes you wonder if doing external rotation exercises is making things better or worse. I suppose it is important that you do the exercies in the right way so you don't get more damage to your muscles.


Exercise and strength training have always been important to me, and I had never given much thought to it - until I broke my arm while skiing.

I was told to give my arm and shoulder one year to completely heal, and my doctor was right. I could do most of my work out routine without any problem, but when it came to lifting dumbbells or weights above my head, I could really tell a difference in which arm was weaker.

It took almost the full year before all the external arm rotations were the same as before the accident.

Post your comments
Forgot password?