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Physical Therapists Can Help Improve Athletic Performance

Bridging Physical Therapy and Personal Training

Most people think that, when an athlete is hurt, they see a physical therapist (PT), but if they are looking to run faster, jump higher, or get stronger, they see a personal trainer or strength coach. The fact is that a physical therapist can help a healthy athlete improve their performance, too.

Most physical therapists graduating today have a doctoral degree which takes six or seven years to obtain and encompasses all aspects of non-surgical orthopedic and neurological care.  As musculoskeletal specialists, PTs are, of course, experts in injury rehabilitation.  But they are also experts in maximizing athletic potential, whether it be a quarterback who wants to throw the ball further or harder, or a running back looking to explode faster out of the backfield.  

Physical therapist examining teen's shoulder

Anchors away 

How? By using the same orthopedic tests, measures, and assessments involved in treating injured athletes to expose musculoskelatal weaknesses in healthy athletes. In taking a thorough medical history, including previous injuries and pre-existing medical conditions, a physical therapist can identify what I call an athlete's "anchors": conditions that are holding him back.  For example, a baseball pitcher working to increase velocity needs to focus on building strength in the core, legs, and throwing shoulder.  But a pitcher's ability to generate velocity is also limited by the arm's ability to decelerate. (Think of a car: no matter how fast it may be able to go, it will never be to reach maximum speed safely, if its brakes are worn out)  While strength training is beneficial, a physical therapist may identify functional problems (muscular timing, weakness in the scapular muscles that stablilze the shoulder, or thoracic spine dysfunction) that are limiting the arm's ability to brake, and hence, ironically, preventing the athlete from increasing pitch velocity. 

Combining disciplines

Not surprisingly, given a PT's ability not just to treat injuries but to help maximize athletic potential, recent years have seen a movement to bridge the fields of physical therapy and performance training. The person probably most responsible for bridging the two disciplines is Gray Cook, author of Athletic Body in Balance and creator of the Functional Movement System (FMS), a screening system coaches and trainers use to determine if an athlete is capable of performing normalized movements appropriately, identifiying weakness, and then developing a training program to correct those weakness. Utilizing the same principals as FMS, another diagnostic tool, the Selective Functional Movement Screen (SFMA), is used by professionals with more extensive medical training.

Together, FMS and SFMA  allow physical therapists and personal trainers to communicate using the same language, creating a seemless treatment and sports training model that identifies risk factors while still attaining desired performance goals.

Communication is key

Whether personal trainers and physical therapists are  FMS- and SFMA-certified (such certifications are not the only measures by which excellence in sports training is measured, of course), the key to an athlete's safety and success is always dependent upon communication. Doctors, physical therapists, trainers, coaches, and parents are all part an athlete's foundation for success.  Working together, they can minimize risk of injury and maximize every young athlete's opportunity for success.

Posted December 31, 2012