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Managing Your Exercise Toolbox

Often during the period of rehabilitation from an injury we are given a number of different stretches and strengthening exercises to do. The first set of exercises seems quite doable. Then inevitably, more stretches and strengthening exercises are added. Soon there seems to be an insurmountable number of exercises to learn and perform. How do you navigate through all the prescribed exercises? How make the best use of your exercise time and perform those which are most helpful?

Imagine a toolbox. In your toolbox, you gather useful tools. Over time you know the name of the tool, the tool’s purpose and how to use the tool. In physical therapy, the exercises and stretches you are taught are the ‘tools’ you will place in your Exercise Toolbox. While you are recovering from injury, you’ll add new exercise tools to this toolbox. Soon you’ll have a collection of exercises. When working on a house project, you need specific tools to get the job done. You would not use the same tools to paint a wall as you would to retile a floor. The same analogy applies here. If you’re focusing on building up your shoulders, you will choose exercises specific for your shoulder versus the ones for your legs.

There is also a progression of exercises. Usually the exercises are simple and meet your needs where you are. This is analogous to a screwdriver. As you progress the exercises may become more challenging. For example, you may start an exercise lying down so that you can focus on the exact muscle being recruited. A much more advanced exercise may be recruiting that same muscle while standing on an uneven surface. Just so, if you start with a basic screwdriver, you may progress to a power screwdriver.

In your toolbox, you may have various types of hammers or different sizes of screwdrivers. As you would use the one or two tools best meeting the needs of your job, when you’re exercising your shoulder, use the top two to three exercises that will give you the most benefit towards building a particular muscle group.

You may even come to therapy with a pre-existing set of exercise tools. Sometimes the therapist will need to “sharpen” your existing tools or give a bit more insight as to when you would use that exercise tool. On occasion people are using the wrong tool for the job. This was the case for a patient who was doing the same back exercises everyday for years. These exercises were actually straining her back. Once we reviewed and modified her home program, this patient had far less low back pain.

In physical therapy, we want to be aware of the stages of tissue healing and incorporate them into your exercises. Your therapist can give you guidance and streamline your exercises so you can safely target areas of deficiency and heal. Just like home projects, you aren’t going to need all the tools in your toolbox at once, but it’s nice to know you have them. Let us know if you seek guidance in managing your exercise toolbox. We’d be happy to assist you!

Michele S Jang, PT is a physical therapist who likes to look outside the box. A physical therapist for almost 23 years, she has extensive training in manual therapy or the use of hands to help rehabilitate the body. She has taught in the United States and abroad. A team of therapists at her clinic, Spirit Winds, offers an array of expertise on exercise, fall prevention, body mechanics and proper breathing technique to increase awareness and healing. Spirit Winds offers Free Consults on Tuesday afternoons. Call 805 543-5100 or

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