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Why PTs Need to Embrace Strength Training

by C. Shante Cofield

Three years ago, I almost quit being a physical therapist. I was bored, burned out, and thought I might actually die if I saw another patient performing rows with a yellow elastic band. I knew there had to be a better way to marry what went on in the clinic with what went on in the gym. Surely, strength training and physical therapy weren't the polar opposites that traditional schooling made them out to be.

Shortly after, I attended an informal seminar by a new grad physical therapist and it solidified all my fears. Folks were still coming out of school thinking of physical therapists in such boringly isolated roles, serving either as glorified dog-walkers, or babysitters hired to get their patients through the acute phase of their injuries. This, of course, was then followed by a return to their trainers to do all the fun, "cool stuff". I direct your attention to the likes of physical therapy legends Gray Cook and Shirley Sahrmann.

Stronger people live longer


Career burnout is a very real thing, and one solution that I found was
to take mytalents outside of the clinic and into the strength arena. Now, I realize that some of you reading this may balk at the idea of throwing down in a weight room, or perhaps you work with a population for which you feel strength training, as it is commonly regarded, would be extremely inappropriate. That is exactly why I have written this article. Strength is not a privilege reserved for muscle-bound meatheads with a penchant for bronzer and a proclivity for hair gel. The strength and mobility to move our own bodies is a prerequisite for healthy living and longevity, irrespective of age. If you want to be functional, strength is not a privilege, it is a requirement.

A 2012 study by Brazilian researchers Brito, Ricardo, and Araujo discovered that individuals aged 51-80 who were unable to sit and rise from the floor without external assistance were 6.5 times more likely to die in the next 2 years as compared with individuals who required minimal to no support to perform the same task. [1] However, researchers also found that improving an individual’s score on this sit-to-stand test by just 1 point (total score out of 10) was linked with a 21% reduction in their likelihood of death.

 “It is well known that aerobic fitness is strongly related to survival, but our study also shows that maintaining high levels of body flexibility, muscle strength, power-to-body weight ratio, and coordination are not only good for performing daily activities but have a favorable influence on life expectancy,”  - Araújo

The take-home message? We, the movement experts, can save lives.

Physical therapists have a leg up on the competition

As physical therapists, our backgrounds uniquely prepare us to take patients through the movement continuum that extends from a focus on health to a focus on performance. The inherent creativity and eventual mastery of progressions, regressions, and lateralizations make physical therapists perfect candidates to take their talents outside of the clinic and explore the world of strength and conditioning. With some additional education and/or certifications, physical therapists can become hybrid clinicians, skilled in both the nuances of post-op rehabilitation and the oft-times glorified techniques of strength and conditioning.

Body-weight strength and conditioning

For those with an aversion to the iron, let’s not forget that the world of strength and conditioning is not limited to heavy weights and turf fields. The importance and benefit of body weight movements is quickly becoming accepted and sought after by the movement community, with training schools including Move Nat, Animal Flow, and GMB leading the charge. Their PT practice, providing excellent alternatives to the typical, and at times insufficient, elastic band routines.

Career opportunities

If that’s still not your cup of tea, good career opportunities.

A foray into the world of fitness brings with it career growth opportunities and improved clinical outcomes. Physical therapy and strength training are two sides of the same coin and you owe it to your patients to have a basic understanding of strength and conditioning. It takes strength to be able to stand up from the toilet. It takes conditioning to be able to walk to the grocery store. Make it as complex or rudimentary as you’d like. You can’t escape it. So do yourself a favor, start blurring that line. Your patients and your career will thank you.


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