Strength Training as Part of a Physical Therapy Program

Laura Williams, M.S.Ed.
Physical therapy exercises

Most physical therapists and doctors recommend including strength training as part of a physical therapy program. The goal of physical therapy is to increase the range of motion through your joints in order to improve overall mobility and function. By strengthening your muscles, you help stabilize your joints, facilitating improved function.

Strength Training as Part of a Physical Therapy Program

Here's what you can typically expect during physical therapy when it includes strength training.

Isometric Exercises

When you perform a static strength training exercise without moving your joints through a range of motion, it's referred to as an isometric exercise. Physical therapists will often use isometric exercises with individuals who are recovering from an injury or who have experienced joint inflammation due to arthritis or another joint condition. Isometric exercises help strengthen and stabilize a joint without further aggravating the injury or condition, preparing you for further strength training.

Types of Isometric Exercises

  • Static Leg Extension: Your physical therapist may use a leg extension machine with light weights to have you perform an isometric leg extension. In this case you would press up against the leg extension, straightening your leg to the angle your physical therapist determines, holding the weight in a fixed position for a certain period of time.
  • Static Wall Press: Your physical therapist may have you press against a sturdy wall as hard as you can for a certain period of time. She may ask that you perform the wall press from different angles, with your arm in different positions in order to strengthen and stabilize your shoulder joint at different muscle attachment points.

Isolation Exercises

When rehabbing an injury or starting a physical therapy program, your therapist will often prescribe exercises that isolate individual joints, rather than engaging multiple muscle groups or joints at once.

Types of Isolation Exercises

  • Leg Curl: You can perform a leg curl on a machine or with an exercise band. To perform the exercise, you bend your knee backward against resistance, while keeping the rest of your body in a stable position. When you perform a leg curl, you're only engaging the single joint of your knee while isolating your hamstring muscles to perform the curl movement.
  • Shoulder Raise: Using a resistance band or dumbbell, the shoulder raise isolates your shoulder joint as you lift your arm laterally from your side, to an extended position in line with your shoulder. The only joint to move throughout the movement is your shoulder.

Multi-Joint Exercises

As your physical therapy progresses, your therapist may start using multi-joint exercises that engage multiple muscle groups in a manner that more readily mimics everyday movements. These exercises might include open kinetic chain movements or closed kinetic chain movements.

Open Kinetic Chain Movements

Open kinetic chain movements involve strength training exercises where the terminal joint is not fixed to a specific location. For instance, when you perform a seated row, your hands represent the terminal joint of the movement, but even though they're holding onto a cross-bar, you have the freedom to move them and change their position. Open kinetic chain movements tend to enable you to isolate a particular muscle group or joint more readily, even though they do engage several muscle groups at once.

Closed Kinetic Chain Movements

Closed kinetic chain movements involve strength training exercises with a fixed terminal joint. When you perform push-ups, the terminal joint of your hands remain fixed in place on the floor throughout the movement. Similarly, during a squat, the terminal joint of your feet remain fixed in place. Performing closed kinetic chain movements will more closely relate to functional activities while also helping stabilize your joints.


Because individuals who include strength training as part of a physical therapy program tend to see greater results, faster, make sure your therapist plans to start you on resistance training as soon as you see a decrease in initial inflammation.

Strength Training as Part of a Physical Therapy Program