4 Keys to Picking the Right Physical Therapist

May 4, 2018

Being a Physical Therapist in a CrossFit gym has given me a great opportunity to talk to many athletes about the sport as well as current issues they may be having.  It’s always surprising to hear how grateful they are when you spend a couple minutes listening to their situation.  It makes me think what are we, in the medical community, actually doing that no one has been able to answer these questions.

Unfortunately, in the state that Physical Therapy is right now, seeing patients in a one on one environment is very rare.  It’s just too hard to maintain a profitable business with this type of strategy due to insurance reimbursements.  What happens instead, is we move from a patient centered model of care to a therapist centered model of care, where the Physical Therapist  is seeing anywhere from 3-5 patients an hour.  What happens then is the PT will get to spend about 10 minutes per patient before having to move on to the next one, while you get handed off to an assistant, aide, or volunteer.  The PT ends up just running around putting fires out all day, instead of actually getting to listen and talk with you about what’s going on.

As we’re learning more and more about pain.  We’re learning it’s a very complex, multifactorial thing that isn’t always connected to biomechanical factors, other variables such as sleep, diet, and stress also play a role.  These are things your Physical Therapist should be talking about with you and how to manage them.  In the therapist centered model of care, it’s easy for a PT to get caught up in the injury and forget about the whole person.  The focus should always be on you, not just your injured body part!

With that said, these are the 4 things I recommend checking out before you commit to a Physical Therapist:

1. Pick a Physical therapist who will work with you 1 on 1 for an hour.

  • Physical Therapy isn’t unlike any other business. The saying “you get what you pay for”, definitely applies.  It’s very unlikely, you’ll see a business  advertising that they treat 4 people/hour.  Would you go to an accountant that set up 4 different meetings at the same time?  I hope not, because why would it be ok for people to treat your most important asset, your body with less respect than your accountant gives to your tax return.

  • Due to poor Insurance re-imbursements, many clinicians will practice in fee for service type model or accept limited insurances. The reason they do this is out of necessity.  They refuse to sacrifice quality for quantity.

  • Not just Physical Therapists but many physicians, dentists, and chiropractors have also begun to shift to this model of care. This allows them to treat patients, the way they deserve.  Some lady in Iowa who works for Blue Cross, should not be determining how many visits of PT you get!

  • Medical Providers with a true passion for helping other are shifting to this model every day. It’s good for them, and even better for the patient.  You should work with someone that treats you the way they would treat a family member.
  • Understand that you have a choice in the matter, do your own research and choose a PT that you feel comfortable working with.

2.  Pick some who performs hands on treatment

  • The act of putting your hands on someone can be very powerful. Sometimes to get the nervous to relax, the best way is just putting your hands on someone.  Think about when you go to the doctor, you wouldn’t like it if they just stood there and said what’s the matter.

  • From my experiences, putting my hands on people has definitely helped them get better quicker. Your PT sessions shouldn’t consist of getting a hot pack, some ultrasound, e-stim, and some dumb leg raises that don’t even make you feel tired.  These are the kind of places that give physical therapy a bad name.  Leave and don’t ever go back!

  • When looking for a PT, a safe bet is someone who performs manual therapy. Other key words are mobilizations, manipulations, as well as soft tissue or fascia techniques such as Active Release Technique.

3. Pick someone who has experience in working with people who are similar to you

  • Pretty easy, if you’re a crossfitter, make sure they’ve worked with crossfitters before. If you’re a runner, make sure they’ve worked with runners before.  If you’re a baseball player, make sure they’ve worked with baseball players before.
  • You don’t want to get attached to a PT that doesn’t understand A) your goals and B) the demands of your goal.
  • If you do CrossFit or Olympic lifting, your PT clinic should have a squat rack and barbells to help prepare you for a return to your sport. Just as if you want to be able to walk up the stairs pain free, they should be able to help you accomplish that as well.
  • Even though, we all have that same sheet of paper from an accredited university, there can be a massive difference in physical therapists. Pick one that understands your sport and your goals.  You should feel comfortable with them and if they tell you to stop doing CrossFit or to stop running, tell them no thank you and kindly get up and leave.

4.  Ask your prospective physical therapist, how much they dead lift.

  • This is a recommendation from Kelly Starrett at MobilityWOD. Danny Mattas of Athletes Potential in Atlanta, GA think you should ask them how much they snatch.
  • Realistically, if you’re a crossfitter, your therapist should have knowledge of both. As well as squatting, thrusters, pullups, double unders, etc.  You get the idea, they should be well versed in what you’re trying to do.  If they don’t know what a snatch or a clean is, you’ve definitely gone to the wrong place.
  • Many physical therapists will tell you to stop doing CrossFit. This is like telling a runner to stop running, it just isn’t going to happen.  If you look at injury rates from CrossFit, they’re no different than the rates for running, soccer, and hockey to name a few sports.  No one is trying to end those sports!  Make sure they understand that return to your sport is vital.
  • I’m not saying that they need to be able to deadlift twice their body weight, but they need to be well versed in what you’re trying to achieve.

If you’re injured and seeking out a physical therapist, I hope this post helps you.  No matter where you are in the country, you have the right to take these principles and apply them to your search.  Don’t let anyone tell you, you’re resigned to only 1 place whether or not their interests align with yours.


If you’re in the Washington D.C. area and have been struggling with an injury, we can help.  You don’t have to live with pain, no matter how severe or nagging, you deserve to do the activities you enjoy.  We help people just like you get back to the CrossFit gym, back to playing with their kids, and back to waking up pain free every morning!

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