Posts

Performance Physical Therapy: Why Our Profession Needs to Progress

Physical therapy can span a wide spectrum, ranging from injury rehabilitation, to injury prevention, and even performance enhancement. To truly help people get the most out of their bodies, we need to focus on all three of those.

But many of us don’t, and if you’re one of them, I think you may be really missing the boat.

I’m not completely sure why this happens, but if I had to guess, I think there may be two main thoughts holding us back:

  1. The vast majority of the physical therapy profession is focused on injury rehabilitation, this includes both our college curriculums and most workplace settings, which is really limiting our potential to help people maximize their function and performance.
  2. We spend the majority of time focusing on “function” and not “performance.”

Perhaps this is just terminology, but I know when I was in school and early in my career, “function” was people’s activities of daily living, and “performance” was sports. Would you agree? That was my perception at least.

I couldn’t disagree with these definitions more. Here is how I would define them now:

  • Function is an activity. Sure, this could include things like bathing and getting dressed, but I would also say running, jumping, throwing, and just playing a sport, in general, is also a function.
  • Performance is how well you perform that function.

Performance is not something that only athletes do. We all need to perform at whatever function we want with our bodies. This is probably the most important concept to understand, and one of the main things that people have said have helped them most after going through my Champion Performance Specialist course.

The Need for a Shift Towards Performance Physical Therapy

Here’s what I suspect is the most common vision of the performance spectrum to most physical therapists. At any point in time, you have your baseline. Most people then focus on either restoring or enhancing performance based on that baseline.

restore and enhance performance

We sit back and wait for someone to get injured, then help them restore themselves back to baseline.

Well, what if their baseline was part of the reason why they got injured in the first place?

If we just focus on restoring their function back to their baseline, we’re completely missing the boat on helping them optimize and enhance their performance.

I can’t help but think that this is one of the reasons why so many people have recurring injuries, chronic pain, and failed surgeries. Restoring people back to their baseline isn’t enough, we need to build their capacity and enhance their baseline.

As we all know, many things can predispose a person to injury, including weakness, mobility concerns, and imbalances.

There has been a recent uptick in criticism on social media that too many physical therapy interventions are either ineffective, transient in nature, or both. Rightfully so.

But maybe it’s not the physical therapy treatments that are the concern, but rather the overall strategy? Maybe we are focusing too much on just restoring function, and not enough on optimizing and enhancing performance?

If you have limited shoulder range of motion overhead, and you have pain in your shoulder every time you overhead press in the gym, then we can do a great job reducing that pain with physical therapy. But don’t you think that pain will likely just come back when they get back to overhead pressing? We reduced their pain, restored them to their previous baseline (which wasn’t optimal), but we didn’t optimize their mobility.

Their long term outlook can’t be great, right?

The Goal of Performance Physical Therapy

The goal of performance physical therapy is to raise the capacity of the body, not just restore their function. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should watch our podcast episode discussing our vision of performance based physical therapy.

It’s not enough to simply try to restore someone to their previous baseline. That’s “traditional” physical therapy if you ask me. Performance physical therapy not only restores function, but also works on optimizing and enhancing performance. That’s the key difference to me.

If you add optimizing performance to the spectrum, it could look like this:

restore optimize and enhance performance

But I still don’t think that’s enough, we can do better.

If you are working on restoring or enhancing performance, you should also be working on optimizing performance. Realistically, there is an overlap between these concepts.

performance physical therapy restore optimize enhance

This changes our focus in a couple of ways:

  1. It shows that these concepts all overlap. We can restore and optimize performance, and we can optimize and enhance their performance. Thinking of them as independent factors, is not ideal
  2. It shifts our thought process from retrospective, to prospective. When you know the endpoint isn’t just to simply restore their baseline, but also to optimize and hopefully even enhance their performance, it changes your entire outlook on the injury rehabilitation process from day 1.

Our Profession Needs Performance Physical Therapy

I have good news for you.

Physical therapists are really good at diagnosis and treating injuries. All of the assessment and diagnostic skills that allow physical therapists to evaluate and treat an injury can easily be adapted to also assess someone’s function and level of performance.

Think about it, what’s the difference between an evaluation of someone with an injury and someone that is healthy that wants to enhance their performance?

Special tests. That’s kinda it, right?

Special tests were designed to help diagnose a specific injury. If this special test, or cluster of tests, is positive, then you may have this injury.

But everything else other than special tests essentially evaluate someone’s level of function, right? Strength, mobility, balance, movement. These are all things that we can evaluate to help develop a complete performance therapy and training program for a person. We can then work on optimizing and enhancing each of those qualities.

How do you blend all this together? Treat the injury and optimize the body.

All it takes is a shift in your perspective.

How Do You Get Started?

If you’re interested in learning more about my approach to performance physical therapy, you should check out my free Introduction to Performance Therapy and Training online course.

Introduction to performance therapy and training - laptop mockup

When we started our facility at Champion PT and Performance, one of our biggest goals was to develop a simple system for our physical therapists and strength coaches to help people move and perform better.

My Introduction to Performance Therapy and Training program will teach you our 4-step system at Champion to assure you have everything you need to start helping people move and perform better.

Assessing Overhead Arm Elevation – Video Case Study

Assessing overhead arm elevation is one of the many things I look for during my integrated movement assessment.  This is a big part of the Champion Performance Specialist program.  The information you gather on the person’s ability to perform such a basic task is often invaluable when designing someone’s rehab or training program.

I have a video below of an assessment I performed that I wanted to share.  It’s an interesting case with a bunch of movement compensations.  I thought it would be nice to outline my thought process

But first, let me give you a little history…

The patient is a competitor high school swimmer with insidious onset of bilateral generalized shoulder discomfort and fatigue in the pool after prolonged swimming.  He had been seeing another clinician for soft tissue treatments in the past (hence the cupping marks.  His laxity was mostly posterior in nature, but certainly multidirectional.  The exam obviously reveals generalized laxity you would expect with a swimmer, however no significant structural pathology detected.

Here’s what I saw:

Pretty interesting, right?  Scroll down to the comments section and let me know what you think!

Let’s dig into some of my thoughts.

 Assessing Overhead Arm Elevation

  • I would first comment and state that this is one quick video in a long series of assessments.  I chose overhead elevation because it was simple and reproducible  and showed a bunch of interesting things!  I start my assessment off by simple asking them to raise their arms over head.  That is it.  No other instructions.  I feel that it is important to assess how “they” want to move, not how “I” want them to move. assessing overhead arm elevation
  • A test like overhead elevation in the sagittal plane, such as in this video, assumes two thing: symmetry and neutrality.  I don’t think either of these exist.  So it is inherently flawed.  Think about it, if his scapulae are off, then doesn’t that mean his glenoid is off?  Then technically the “sagittal” plane is just in relation to the ground, not to his body.
  • There is also a “chicken and the egg” concept here.  Did his pain create the dysfunctional movement or vice versa?  Unfortunately in retrospect we’ll never know.  Taking this into consideration I don’t think it is fair to assume that anything we are seeing is the “cause” of his pain.  Essentially it is all just the summation of where we are today.
  • Many people often want to jump right in and label specific muscles, such as being “tight,” “long,” “short,” or “weak.”  Remember all we know here is that he has a movement dysfunction.  I think it is appropriate to suggest these may be true, but you will need to take the next step and assess these assumptions.  I wouldn’t just jump in and treat based on assumptions.
  • I should also comment on the marks on his back.  One relevant, the other not so relevant.  The circles are cupping marks.  He is seeing another provider that performs this as part of his maintenance program while swimming in addition to massage etc, not for treatment of his symptoms.   However, the horizontal marks on his low back are relevant.  Those are stretch marks.  More on this later…

Static Scapula Position

  • I have commented on this before in my article on Myths of Scapula Exercises, but I don’t put a lot of emphasis on resting static scapular position.  Realistically, the scapula sits on the ribs, so it’s resting static posture is likely more a reflexion of rib and thorax position that scapular position.  I prefer to look at scapular dynamic movement quality.
  • Interestingly, you can see his dynamic concentric control of his scapulae doesn’t seem as bad as you would think based on his static resting position, especially as he gets high into elevation:

static and dynamic scapula position - assessing overhead arm elevation

The Head Wiggle and Scapula Wing

  • The first thing that really stuck out to me was his head wiggle.  I bet you missed it the first time!  A very interesting movement pattern.  In retrospect, you can find him shift his neck in this fashion quite a bit while observing him moving around and performing activities, even just talking to you sometimes.  It is not limited to just overhead elevation in the sagittal plane.  
  • We can’t really separate this from his winging scapula, they go together.  It sure looks like the head wiggles when the scapula wiggles.
  • To me, this looks like the levator scapula pulling the head with a complete lack of opposition from the lower trapezius and serratus anterior.  His head goes into side bend to the left and extension.  This is the cervical responsibility of the levator.  However, his scapula also shoots up into elevation and downward rotation.  This is my biggest indicator that levator is the one acting.  There could be more involved, like SCM, but I’m focusing on levator.
  • There is obviously some winging and lack of opposition of the levator by the traps and serratus.  This is really obvious on eccentric lower.  He also does not have a painful arc during this movement.  He is not shifting away from pain.

scapula winging - - assessing overhead arm elevation

  • So while the levator may be causing the head wiggle, it sure looks like the serratus and lower trap are not doing their job and creating the scapula wiggle.
  • See how everything plays together?

 

The Elbow Wiggle

  • Did you notice the elbow wiggle?  I don’t think this is really an elbow issue.  If you watch closely he keeps his hand in the same position.  He essentially fixes his hand on an imaginary sagittal plane track.  To me his shoulder and scapula want to move into adduction and internal rotation with the beginning of his scapula winging about to occur.  I feel like his glenoid may be the one the is not stabilized.  Since we have forced him to perform a strict overhead assessment in the sagittal plane, he is keeping his hand fixed and his elbow has to hyperextend to not allow his hand to horizontal adduct.  Again, just shows some of the flaws of assessments like this.

elbow compensation - assessing overhead arm elevation

  • So while this may be glenohumeral instability, I think it is still just the scapula as it occurs during the eccentric lowering and he has almost no ability to control winging.  And again, he does not have a painful arc.
  • This really illustrates a general point that I tend to make about humans in general, but even more so on high level athletes.  We are excellent at getting from point A to point B.  It’s all about how we get there.  Unfortunately the overhead elevation assessment uses an internal cue to “raise your hand up in front of you.”  Perhaps it would be better to give an external cue like “reach up and touch the ceiling.”

 

Thoracolumbar Flexion

  • So taking away all the interesting things happening from the scaps up, I also notice some interesting thoracolumbar compensations.  Remember, this client is a swimmer, and a high level swimmer.  Is it me or does his left latissimus look too small for a swimmer?
  • I mentioned earlier the stretch marks on his lower back.  When he tries to pull down with his arms with any resistance, his movement compensation was to go into a large amount of thoracolumbar flexion, which is a compensatory movement for the inability to extend his arms against resistance.  His lumbar paraspinals show hypertrophy.  So while this could be poor core control, I feel that may be too simplistic.  He goes into thoracolumbar flexion with minimal resistance.  Seems more compensatory rather than poor patterning.  In the photos below, that is not just paraspinal hypertrophy, that is also flexion:

latissimus - assessing overhead arm elevation

  • In looking at the photos above, see how he moves into thoracolumbar flexion?  These are fairly recent photos.  Here are a couple of photos from two months prior.  You can really see the thoracolumbar flexion compensation.  But also notice the dramatic increase in body composition in 2 months.  He put on 15 pounds of muscle mass in a 2-month program designed specifically for him:

thoracolumbar compensation - assessing overhead arm elevation

  • One thing I mentioned was that he feels symptoms with prolonged swimming.  He actually fatigues out well before his fellow swimmers.  Feels strong and swims well, then hits a wall quickly from 10-20 minutes in the pool, while everyone else is in there for 60-120 minutes without complaints.  While he looks a lot better.  There are still some muscles that are not coming back as expected, and he is still fatiguing out in the pool and feeling generalized symptoms.
  • This really makes me question a nerve issue that is just not allowing proper muscle function, and/or the fact that he is essentially swimming with his accessory muscles like his teres major and deltoids.  This is something we need to explore further.

 

Conclusion

Assessing overhead arm elevation is an important part of my overall movement assessment process.  There are many compensations that I typically see, but most don’t present as complex as this video case study.  I hope you enjoyed reading through my breakdown of how I assess overhead arm elevation and some of the things running through my mind!

Comment below if you think I missed anything!

Interested in learning my whole movement assessment system?  It’s a part of my Champion Performance Specialist program, where you’ll learn our exact system of assessing movement, then optimizing and enhancing performance.  It’s exactly what all the physical therapists and strength coaches follow at Champion when building our performance therapy and training programs.

 

Champion Performance Specialist - laptop mockup

 

 

Do You Want to Learn More About Optimizing Movement and Enhancing Performance? 

I’m really excited to be launching my brand new course for rehabilitation and fitness professionals looking to help people restore, optimize, and enhance performance.   It’s my Introduction to Performance Therapy Training course.

And you know what the best part is???

It’s absolutely FREE!

Check out the information and video below, and click the link below to enroll today!

 

Introduction to Performance Therapy and Training

If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you’d love to work with more highly motivated people, and even athletes, that want to focus on improving their performance.

But I remember not really feeling prepared for this or knowing how to get started, I really felt overwhelmed. We all learned the basics, but no one really teaches you how to optimize movement and enhance performance.

Over these years, I’ve learned a ton. Good and bad! But everything I have learned has shaped what I do, and it took some time and experience to realize this.

There so much info out there, but people tell me all the time they’re still confused and that they feel like they just start treatments and training programs and aren’t even confident that they choosing the right ones!

Check out this video for more of what I mean:

 

Enroll in My Course for FREE

I want to help.  When we started our facility at Champion PT and Performance, one of our biggest goals was to develop a simple system for our physical therapists and strength coaches to help people move and perform better.

My Introduction to Performance Therapy and Training program will teach you our 4-step system at Champion to assure you have everything you need to start helping people move and perform better.

Introduction to Performance Therapy and Training

Best of all, it’s absolutely free to anyone that signs up for my Newsletter. You’ll get all my best articles straight to your email, and immediate free access to the course.

Thank so much, hope you enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Integrating Performance Based Physical Therapy

The latest Inner Circle webinar recording on Integrating Performance Based Physical Therapy is now available.

 

Integrating Performance Based Physical Therapy

Integrating Performance Based Physical TherapyThis month’s Inner Circle webinar is on Integrating Performance Based Physical Therapy.  This presentation is actually my talk from the recent Champion Bridging the Gap From Rehab to Performance Seminar that we conducted in Boston last month.  

I wanted to share this with Inner Circle members as I feel the topic is important as performance based therapy is definitely the future of our professions.  Performance therapy is something that is performed to help people optimize themselves and improve performance, no matter what performance means to you.  You don’t need to be injured to benefit from performance therapy.  This is a lot of what we do at Champion and something that I really wanted to share.

We are actually going to be releasing an online version of the Champion Bridging the Gap From Rehab to Performance Seminar, which will include this presentation, plus others from Lenny Macrina, Dave Tilley, Rob Sutton, and Kiefer Lammi.  

Inner Circle members can access my talk now, and get early access to purchase the seminar.  Everyone else will have to wait until the official launch next week!  Plus, if you’d like to purchase the seminar, I also have a $10 off coupon just for Inner Circle members.  All the links will be in the Inner Circle Dashboard.

This webinar will cover:

  • What is “performance therapy”
  • The need for a paradigm shift in what we do
  • What I look for in my movement assessments
  • The components of manual therapy I perform
  • How to integrate and maximize your outcomes with corrective exercises

 

To access this webinar: