Healthy athletes need physical therapy tune-ups

Fit bodies are discovering that instead of treating injuries after they happen, they can work with a physical therapist to learn how to prevent them. Not only does this help you avoid pain later on, but it also boosts your performance in the gym.

“A musculoskeletal checkup is just as important as checking your cholesterol, blood pressure, and the many other areas physicians monitor,” says Scott McGeary, DPT, CSCS, clinical director of Drayer Physical Therapy in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

The general consensus amongst the PTs interviewed for this piece is that healthy athletes should see their PT one or two times a year. Be sure to make it clear to him or her that your goal is to prevent injury and not become a long-standing patient, advises Aaron Hackett, DPT, who is based in Herriman, Utah.

Here’s how preventative PT sessions can help any athlete:

Find out how well you really move.

Having a solid assessment of your strength in multiple areas, how you move, your balance, and your posture matters. “Every one of my visits start with a functional movement assessment,” says Kadeem Howell, DPT, a doctor of physical therapy at Physiofitness Physical Therapy in New York City. “The movements I select are transferable to daily function such as the squat, deadlift, single-leg balance, and raising the arms overhead,” he explains. “Once I determine the movement pattern at fault, I will make sure the patient masters that pattern and then reintegrate it into their lifting form.”

And even if you don't have pain or other complaints when lifting, there could be issues with your form that bring you closer to injury every time you perform the movement incorrectly. For example, you may be given some exercises to help mobilize your shoulders if that's a weak point for you. And while you work those in to your routine, you'll know not to load that barbell super heavy during front squats in addition to temporarily avoiding other shoulder-specific moves.

Complement the work you’re doing with your trainer.

Personal trainers and physical therapists often have different and valuable perspectives to bring to the table, and you can gain more from working with both. “I always prefer to work as a team with personal trainers [of my clients] and foster open, two-way communication regarding the their wellness,” says Stephen Chao, DPT, CSCS, an assistant clinical professor in the department of physical therapy at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York. A physical therapist identifies the areas of risk and points out exercises that the person isn’t ready for or should avoid, while the personal trainer reinforces, supervises, and gives modification ideas for those weak points.

Learn to distinguish between soreness and injury.

When a movement is performed in front of a PT, they will be able to tell you whether what you’re feeling during or afterwards is expected or not. “Becoming aware of soreness versus injury is important because we all have our physical limits,” says Howell. High-perfomers can oftentimes push through pain to get in their workout but a PT can help you make informed decisions about when to work out and when to take a rest day.