Physical Therapy Exercises

If you have been referred to physical therapy after an injury or an illness, then you may have questions about what will happen. Most people visit a physical therapist because they are experiencing pain or difficulty with normal functional mobility. Your physical therapist may prescribe treatments and exercises to help you move better and feel better. One of the best ways to improve your overall mobility is with physical therapy exercises.

Therapeutic exercise should be one of the main treatments you receive from your physical therapist. It doesn't matter if you are in a hospital, nursing home, school, or an outpatient orthopedic clinic. Physical therapists are movement experts, and exercise should be the primary tool your PT uses to get you moving better and feeling better.

When your physical therapist prescribes exercises for you to do, they should be considered as specific movement strategies to help your body change and grow in a positive way. The exercises you do in physical therapy are designed for your specific condition and are an integral part of your rehab program.

Should exercise be the only treatment you receive in physical therapy? Not necessarily. Some physical therapists use other techniques like massage, joint mobilizations, or modalities—like ultrasound or electrical stimulation—to help their patients move better and feel better.

While passive treatments may feel good, they should not be the only treatment you get in physical therapy. There should always be an active component to your rehab program which includes various types of therapeutic physical therapy exercises.

Types of Physical Therapy Exercises

There are different types of physical therapy exercises that may be prescribed for you depending on your specific condition.

These exercises may include:

A physical therapy exercise program should be tailored for your specific needs. For example, if you are having difficulty walking after a total knee replacement surgery, your physical therapist may assess your quadriceps function and prescribe specific exercises to help improve the strength of this muscle group.

Your physical therapist may use certain tools and pieces of equipment for your PT exercises. These may include:

The type of equipment you use depends upon the specific exercises you are doing and the goals of each exercise. Sometimes, no special equipment is necessary for your PT exercise.

Exercises are typically done in the physical therapy clinic, but they can also be done in the hospital while you are lying in bed or sitting up in a chair.

Your physical therapist may visit you in the hospital and work on improving functional mobility—like moving in bed or climbing stairs—so you can safely go home. One component of this in-hospital rehab program may be to complete physical therapy exercises.

Your physical therapist may also prescribe exercises for you to do as part of a home exercise program. This program can help you improve your condition while you are not in the PT clinic, giving you control over your injury or illness. Your PT can also show you exercises that can be used to prevent future problems from occurring.

Choosing the Best Exercises for You

So how do you know which physical therapy exercises are best for your specific condition? The best way to know that you are doing the right exercise for you is to visit with your physical therapist for a few sessions. Your PT can assess your condition and prescribe the correct exercises for you to be doing.

Naturally, you can expect a little soreness from doing new exercises that your body may not be accustomed to. Delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, typically lasts a few days after starting exercise. But the exercises your PT prescribes should not make your condition significantly worse. If exercising causes your condition to worsen, stop the exercises and check in with your physical therapist. You may be doing your exercise improperly, or you may simply need to find an alternative exercise to do for your condition.

Many exercises that are prescribed by your physical therapist are designed to help you feel better. When performing your physical therapy exercises, you should feel like your pain is improving or changing in a positive way.

Getting Started With Your Physical Therapy Exercises

Getting started on physical therapy exercises is easy. If you have an injury or an illness that causes pain or prevents you from moving normally, visit your doctor and ask to be referred to a physical therapist. Choosing physical therapy first—before medication or surgery—is a good idea, as PT tends to be a safe and value-packed mode of care for many conditions. Many states in the US allow you to visit a physical therapist via direct access, and no doctor's referral is needed.

When you first meet your physical therapist, ask about different exercises that you can do to help your condition. Your PT should be a wealth of knowledge on proper exercise technique, and he or she can prescribe exercises that can help you improve your mobility and decrease your pain. Think of your physical therapist as an expert guide who can teach you the proper exercises for your specific condition. He or she can help you, but it's up to you to take the first step and commit to performing your PT exercises.

A Word From Verywell

Most people show up to the physical therapy clinic and say, "I hurt, and I can't." They are in pain and are not able to do the things that they normally do. You may feel anxious about going to physical therapy. This anxiety is normal, and your PT can help put your mind at ease as your learn exercises and movement strategies to help you move better and feel better.


Guide to Physical Therapist Practice 3.0. Alexandria, VA: American Physical Therapy Association; 2014. Available at:

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