Are Rows Bad For Rotator Cuff and Shoulder Pain?

Rows are one of the most common physical therapy exercises for rotator cuff and shoulder pain.  But do they actually help? Or could they be making your shoulder pain worse?

Learn how to do rows properly, plus 3 exercises for shoulder pain that are better than rows.

6 Simple Solutions For Rotator Cuff & Shoulder Pain More 4 Life Physical Therapy St. Louis MO 63011 Gladly Serving Ballwin, Manchester, Chesterfield, Des Peres, Ellisville, and St. Louis County.

Are Rows Bad For Rotator Cuff & Shoulder Pain?

Doing rows for rotator cuff and shoulder pain is a good idea in theory.

However, in practice, doing rows can often be bad for shoulder pain. Or at best, they certainly don't help.

Why do people do rows for rotator cuff and shoulder pain?

The reason people do shoulder rows is that shoulder pain is often caused by a rounded shoulder posture.

Rounded shoulder posture can cause rotator cuff and shoulder pain

The rationale is, if you pull your shoulder blades back, it'll help strengthen the muscles in the back of your shoulders and get you out of that rounded shoulder posture.

Again the theory is good, but in practice, it doesn't quite work out.

Common Mistakes When Doing Rows

When people do rows, they often pull their elbows too far back behind the plane of the body. This in turn tilts the shoulder blades forward.

Movements Of The Shoulder Blade

This is the opposite of what you're trying to accomplish.

Additionally, rows use muscles called the rhomboids between your shoulder blades.


When you use your rhomboids, they do pull your shoulder blades back together.

However, but also rotate them downwards, bringing the arch of the shoulder down closer to the ball of the shoulder.

Doing rows can cause Scapular anterior tilt causing rotator cuff and shoulder pain

This position may lead to pinching of the rotator cuff tendons.

Forward tipping of the shoulder when doing rows can cause rotator cuff pain

Additionally, if you pull too far backwards with a shoulder row, causing an anterior glide of the humeral head. That means that the ball of the shoulder starts to glide forward in the socket.

Anterior glide of the shoulder when doing rows can cause rotator cuff and shoulder pain

This forward glide can, again, pinch the rotator cuff tendons.

For these reasons, the practical application of shoulder rows is, at very best, not helpful and might even make rotator cuff pain worse.

So here's what to do instead...

How To Do Rows Properly If You Have Rotator Cuff Pain

If you are going to do shoulder rows, make sure to pull your elbows towards your body.

Start from a slightly rounded shoulder posture, holding on to an elastic resistance band.

Then just pull your elbows toward your sides, but not farther back than the midline of your body.

Shoulder rows corrected

Avoid going too far back.

Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together rather than pulling you arms back.

Even when you do rows properly, you still use the rhomboids in this form of shoulder row.

However, recall that the rhomboids downwardly rotating the shoulder blades.

3 Exercises For Shoulder Pain That Are Better Than Rows

Middle Trapezius Rows

An alternative form of row can target the middle trapezius, which pull the shoulders back together without downwardly rotating them.

Hold an elastic band with your arms at shoulder level with palms facing inwards.

Pull backward, squeezing your shoulder blades together. This is a shorter movement, and your elbows don't come back behind the plane of your body.

Middle trapezius rows

Lower Trapezius / Serratus Anterior Wall Slides

If you have shoulder pain, strengthening the lower trapezius and serratus anterior is also important.

Trapezius serratus anterior

These muscles help upwardly rotate your shoulder blade as you lift your arm above shoulder level.

You can strengthen it by doing a slide up the wall, putting pressure into the wall.  This activates the serratus anterior.

Then lift off like the letter Y to strengthen the lower trapezius.

This movement helps upwardly rotate the shoulders, a crucial action when raising your arm overhead.

Lower Trapezius Lift With Band

If you need resistance, you can add a band to the wall exercise.

Instead of rowing, make it more like the lift-off exercise on the wall with added resistance.

Lower trapezius row with band


If you've been doing rows and experiencing shoulder pain, reconsider why you're doing them. If you don't have a good reason for doing them, then consider trying one of these alternative exercises.

Need more help for rotator cuff and shoulder pain?

There's more to getting rid of shoulder pain than just doing exercises. Even the right exercises are only a small part of the recovery process.

Keep in mind that even if you exercise 1 hour per day, what you do the other 23 hours of your day have a much larger effect on your shoulder pain.

If you live in the St. Louis area and need help to figure out what's causing your shoulder pain and how to get rid of it, tap the button below to request an appointment with one of our specialist physical therapists.

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