3 Best Supraspinatus Exercises (with Pictures!)

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 12, 2022

A lesser known muscle group is that of the rotator cuff, a structure that surrounds the end of the humerus and is essentially responsible for movement of the arms and rotation of the shoulders to a major degree.

One muscle among these is the supraspinatus, one-fourth of the rotator cuff that is primarily recruited during external rotation of the arm alongside the deltoid muscles.

Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to isolate the supraspinatus muscle by itself - and the most effective way to go about exercising this particular muscle is to perform exercises that feature its biomechanical function within a small range of motion, such as in face pulls or the full can exercise.

What is the Supraspinatus Muscle?

The supraspinatus muscle is one among four skeletal muscles that make up the rotator cuff of the shoulder, with the supraspinatus in particular being responsible for movements such as humeral extension overhead, rotation of the arms and even simply raising the arm beyond a certain elevation.

supraspinatus muscle

It is often injured during bouts of high intensity athletic activity, or can otherwise degenerate over time due to the effects of aging and cardiovascular weakness.

Fortunately - being a skeletal muscle - the supraspinatus is capable of undergoing muscular hypertrophy when subjected to controlled training stimulus in the form of resistance exercise; reinforcing the shoulder girdle structure and reducing the risk of rotator cuff injury over time.

Benefits of Training the Supraspinatus

Training the supraspinatus, whether it be through compound exercises or more isolated movements, will result in several benefits that are otherwise unachievable without training said supraspinatus directly to some extent.

Better Throwing and Overhead Extension Mechanics

As the shoulder muscles are among the most important for motions like throwing and overhead extension of the arms, exercising the supraspinatus will result in significant improvements and greater stability during such actions.

This is particularly useful for athletes like football players or basketball players, all of which make significant use of throwing mechanics that involve the supraspinatus in a stabilizing or accessory capacity.

Reduced Rotator Cuff Injury Risk

Recruiting the supraspinatus muscle will also usually recruit the rest of the rotator cuff structure itself, reinforcing it and reducing any risk of future injury by ensuring greater tissue tensity and range of mobility.

In particular, exercises like the open can are particularly adept at reinforcing the rotator cuff against future torsion or shear forces, as they improve both the strength and flexibility of the tissues therein.

Rehabilitative Potential

Exercises targeting the supraspinatus muscle are often low enough in intensity to qualify as effective rehabilitative tools, allowing individuals with a history of rotator cuff injury (and prior approval of a physician) to remedy and reinforce this particular part of the shoulder joint.

Exercises that Targets the Supraspinatus

1. Face Pulls

An exercise that primarily targets the rear or posterior deltoid head; face pulls are also known for being an excellent method of strengthening the shoulder girdle in its entirety, including the rather hard to target supraspinatus muscle of the rotator cuff.

cable face pull

Face pulls are most often performed with the help of a cable machine, but may also be performed with resistance bands for individuals that do not have access to expensive and bulky resistance training machines.

Furthermore, individuals wishing to rehabilitate a previously damaged rotator cuff may find that the angle of resistance involved in the face pull exercise is inappropriate for their situation, as it may even worsen or cause a recurrence of said injuries at the higher levels of resistance.

What Equipment Do You Need?

In order to efficiently perform face pulls at the correct angle of resistance, either a cable pulley machine will be required, or a resistance band wrapped around an object at approximately eyeline-height. 

There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to the use of either type of equipment, but in terms of supraspinatus recruitment, either are perfectly suitable and are unlikely to yield much of a difference in end-results.

How-to do Face Pulls

To begin performing the face pull exercise, the source of resistance must be set to approximately eye level in elevation - either by wrapping the resistance band around an object or by adjusting the pulley housing of the cable machine.

Then, gripping the handles or band in both hands, the exerciser will draw their elbows backwards behind the trapezius muscles, keeping the wrists in a neutral grip and the head facing forward as the hands pass behind the ears.

cable face pull muscles

Once the pulley or resistance band has come within a close distance to the face, the exerciser can then slowly reverse the motion, allowing their shoulders to be activated both isometrically and dynamically.

This completes a repetition of the face pull exercise, with subsequent repetitions simply repeating the motion until the set is finished.

2. Reverse Lateral Dumbbell Raises

Reverse lateral dumbbell raises are a free weight deltoid muscle exercise that also target the supraspinatus in an isometric and dynamic capacity - reinforcing the posterior deltoid head, trapezius muscles and those of the rotator cuff in a single low-resistance movement.

dumbbell chest supported lateral raise

They can place a certain amount of strain on the rotator cuff when performed with excessive amounts of weight or incorrect form, and as such are better left for more advanced exercisers to utilize for the purposes of supraspinatus training.

What Equipment Do You Need?

The reverse lateral dumbbell raise only requires that a pair of dumbbells be utilized, though certain variations that place the shoulder at a more advantageous position can also make use of an incline bench so as to position the torso at an angle as well.

In the event that a dumbbell is not present, a light-weight kettlebell or weight plate may also be used.

How-to do Reverse Lateral Dumbbell Raises

To begin performing the incline reverse lateral dumbbell raise, the exerciser will grip the dumbbells in both hands and bend at the waist and hips, angling their torso somewhat so as to target the posterior deltoid head to a greater degree.

Then, fully extending the arms, the exerciser will raise the dumbbells to approximately shoulder height in opposing directions, essentially forming the letter “T” with their upper torso.

Once reaching the apex of the repetition, the exerciser will simply return to the starting position in a slow and controlled manner by lowering the dumbbells once more. This completes the repetition.

3. Resistance Band Full Can

The full can exercise is a rehabilitative exercise performed for the purposes of reinforcing and strengthening the rotator cuff, with this particular variation placing a particular focus on the supraspinatus muscle due to its angle of resistance and general range of action.

The full can may be performed with a variety of different types of equipment, but it is recommended that the resistance band be utilized so as to avoid the normal injury risks that come with the usage of free weight equipment in a rehabilitative setting.

Due to the rather low intensity and impact of the resistance band full can exercise, it may be performed by nearly every exerciser for whatever purpose they may have, be it rehabilitation or athletic conditioning.

What Equipment Do You Need?

Though the full can exercise can be performed with items like dumbbells, weight plates or resistance exercise machines, it is best to make use of a resistance band unless otherwise familiar with the exercise.

How-to do a Resistance Band Full Can

To begin performing the full can exercise with a resistance band, the exerciser will grip the band in both hands at opposite ends as they raise one arm at approximately 45 degrees in comparison to the torso, continuing this motion until the hand has cleared the neck.

Then, reversing the motion in a slow and controlled manner, the exerciser will then repeat this action with the opposite side, taking care to ensure that the opposite hand remains stationary so as to maximize resistance placed on the supraspinatus.

Once the succeeding arm has returned to its original position at the exerciser’s side, the full can repetition has been completed. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What Exercises Work the Supraspinatus?

Quite a number of different exercises and stretches are capable of targeting the supraspinatus, with the majority of such exercises having the common characteristic of involving some sort of rotation of the shoulder as the arm is lowered or raised accordingly.

The most commonly seen exercises that recruit the supraspinatus muscle are the dumbbell lateral raise, the barbell bench press and overhead press or military press exercises.

How do I Strengthen my Supraspinatus Tear?

In order to remedy a tear of the supraspinatus muscle or its succeeding tendons, it is important to give the area an adequate amount of rest and nutrients, as well as to perform rehabilitative stretches and exercises that contribute to the muscle regaining its full range of motion and density.

Keep in mind that not every injury or individual is the same, and it is better to seek out the personal attention of a physician so as to structure a proper recovery plan rather than attempting to rehabilitate the injury on your own.

How Do You Relieve Supraspinatus Pain?

Supraspinatus pain can be relieved through following the “R.I.C.E.” procedure, consuming over the counter anti-inflammatory medications, performing physical rehabilitation and following the advice of a physician.

Depending on the severity of your rotator cuff injury and the advice of your doctor, some of these procedures may be inappropriate or even dangerous to use, and as such we advise that you do not take any drastic measures until a medical check-up has been completed.

Final Thoughts

Though a supraspinatus injury is quite common among athletes and weightlifters alike, it is nonetheless quite important to ensure that the muscle is being stimulated appropriately during regular workout sessions. 

Even if your rotator cuff has not sustained any sort of injury and you simply wish to reinforce your shoulder structure, performing exercises that target the supraspinatus and surrounding muscles is an excellent method of going about this goal.

References

1. Edwards P, Ebert J, Joss B, Bhabra G, Ackland T, Wang A. EXERCISE REHABILITATION IN THE NON-OPERATIVE MANAGEMENT OF ROTATOR CUFF TEARS: A REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2016 Apr;11(2):279-301. PMID: 27104061; PMCID: PMC4827371.

2. Dominguez-Romero JG, Jiménez-Rejano JJ, Ridao-Fernández C, Chamorro-Moriana G. Exercise-Based Muscle Development Programmes and Their Effectiveness in the Functional Recovery of Rotator Cuff Tendinopathy: A Systematic Review. Diagnostics (Basel). 2021 Mar 16;11(3):529. doi: 10.3390/diagnostics11030529. PMID: 33809604; PMCID: PMC8002167.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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