top of page
  • Writer's pictureDr.Ben Bumguardner

Fitness Vs. Rehab: What’s the Difference and How to Transition from Rehab to Fitness?

Hey there, Alphas!

Today, we’re talking about the difference between rehab and fitness.

What’s the difference?... Is there a difference?... Let’s dive into it!

Multi event track athlete getting recovery work done by Dr. Ben Bumguardner

The best way to understand the difference between rehab and fitness, at least in my world, is to look at what’s going on during rehab versus fitness. For us, they look very similar. The biggest difference is pain, dysfunction, or a combination of the two. In fitness, there is little to no pain or dysfunction, you’re just getting fit, crushing goals, and living your best life. In rehab there is typically pain, there is dysfunction, and you’re trying to get back to the normal that you once knew. It is a paradigm.

The paradigm of rehab as it leads into fitness from a sports medicine aspect can be seen as a continuum that aims to optimize your physical and functional capacity while minimizing the risk of re-injury.

Phase 1 - Acute Injury Management

The first phase of this paradigm is the acute phase of injury management, which focuses on immediate medical attention, pain relief, and reducing inflammation. In the early stages of rehabilitation, the focus is on restoring mobility, flexibility, and range of motion. This is followed by the strengthening and stability phase, where the focus is on strengthening the muscles and developing your core stability to support the injured area.

Phase 2 - Functional Progression

The next phase is the functional phase, where we work on specific skills and movements required for your sport. This phase emphasizes neuromuscular control, agility, balance, and coordination. As you progress through the functional phase, you will eventually reach the return-to-sport phase, where we will begin to integrate your sport-specific skills into your rehabilitation program. Your fitness level is also gradually increased during this phase to ensure they are physically prepared to return to their sport safely.

"Its not the load that breaks your down, it's the load you're not prepared for." – Craig Liebenson

Phase 3 - Performance

Finally, the last phase of this paradigm is the performance phase, where we focus on maximizing your athletic potential. This phase includes ongoing injury prevention strategies, continued strength and conditioning training, and sports-specific skill development to optimize performance.

How to Transition from Rehab to Fitness

So, how do we transition from rehab to fitness? This is a question I get asked a lot. Overall, this paradigm of rehab as it leads into fitness from a sports medicine aspect is focused on gradually progressing through the different phases of rehabilitation to restore function and safely return you to your sport while minimizing the risk of re-injury. It emphasizes the importance of a multidisciplinary approach involving healthcare professionals, rehabilitation specialists, and strength and conditioning coaches to optimize your recovery and performance.

When we’re working on rehab, we’re trying to load you to your threshold every time. This helps us to increase your threshold a little bit every time until we get to the point where you have no more pain in your ranges of motion, and you have symmetry from side to side. We want to make sure that you’re within 3% symmetry side to side in terms of your mobility and strength.


Research shows that you’re about 3.8 times more likely to injure yourself if you’re outside of that range. Once we get you to the point where you’re symmetrical and (and most the time) pain-free, we’ll transition you back into fitness. We’ll start you off at 50% of what you were doing before your injury, and every week that you have no pain, no dysfunction, and no loss of range of motion, you can increase the load by 10%.

If you have a loss of range of motion, increased pain, or dysfunction, you’ll go back down 5% and start again. This will help us to slowly build on top of ourselves and have a solid foundation, ensuring that your threshold is never exceeded by your load.

The bottom line is that rehab and fitness are similar but with one significant difference: pain and dysfunction. To transition from rehab to fitness, do what your provider tells you to do and work on it every day between appointments. Start slow and build up gradually to avoid injury and ensure that your threshold is never exceeded by your load.

Bottom Line

In conclusion, whether you are starting fresh or coming back from an injury, it is important to listen to your body and take things slowly. Work with a healthcare provider to ensure that you are doing the right exercises and routines to prevent pain and dysfunction. The difference between rehab and fitness lies in the presence or absence of pain, dysfunction, and limitations. Rehab aims to reload the system and increase the threshold to prevent future injuries, while fitness is about pushing the body to new limits and achieving goals. The transition from rehab to fitness requires patience, consistency, and following the guidance of your healthcare provider. It's important to focus on building a strong foundation, gradually increasing load and intensity, and monitoring your body for any signs of pain, dysfunction, or loss of range of motion. Remember, taking the time to properly rehabilitate and prepare your body will ultimately lead to better performance and a reduced risk of injury in the long run. So, focus on personalization, injury prevention, the mind-body connection and with patience and dedication, you'll be well on your way to achieving your fitness goals.

Here is our video about Fitness vs. Rehab

If you have any questions please leave a comment below.


bottom of page