One of the things athletes fear most is suffering an ACL injury. ACL tears are devastating. They can immediately change an entire season. The injured player is usually out for a year, spending lots of his or her time in rehabilitation.
Despite the fear factor, however, typically, athletes think about their ACL only after an injury occurs. But injuries are somewhat preventable, even the dreaded ACL tear. As an athlete, you need to understand how to protect yourself. Each sport has unique physical demands. Yet the majority of ACL injuries happen without contact. Prevent them and protect yourself with proper training, progressively during the pre-season and with dynamic warm-ups in-season.
ACL rehab exercises are also used in pre-season prevention programs. Innumerable studies prove that such programs can protect an athlete from injury if they include movements for joint stability when fatigued and exercises that strengthen the quadriceps and hamstrings. These muscles are directly affected during ACL surgery, when one or both are typically cut.
Let's discuss muscles and movements.
This strong and powerful muscle group makes athletes explosive jumpers and sprinters. However, the quads can have a fatal flaw: they are so strong that they can force the knee joint into a position that places too much strain on the ACL.
These are the ACL's primary protectors when you squat, land or stop after a sprint. Proper training, especially with eccentric exercises, aligns the hips and knees and reduces stress on the ACL.
When you perform high-level activity, these muscles do a lot of the unseen dirty work, like preventing the knees from "caving in" when you jump, land, stop or cut.
Seems simple: controlling a Bodyweight Squat is a step in a larger progression. Master correct squatting form—weight on heels, knees behind toes and not caving in, chest up—then focus on the more advanced movements below.
When performed properly, the Lunge, regardless of the plane, appropriately aligns the knee joint, distributing a share of the load to both the hip and the knee. During competition, lunging mimics the position of an athlete's lower extremity when cutting laterally, stopping and restarting.
Balanced mobility is key. Excessive mobility in the abductors and tightness of the adductors is a common cause of knee valgus (abnormal turning of a bone). Strengthening and stabilizing the hips in a neutral position with exercises like the Ankle Band Series is imperative. Together with stretching the adductors (groin), this will help balance mobility.
Maintaining balance when fatigued is essential to prevent or rehabilitate an ACL injury. Improve your balance and endurance through single-leg stability exercises like the Single-Leg Balance Reach.
In nearly every sport, athletes must land from a jump. Regardless of the jump's height, proper technique can reduce strain on the ACL. Plyometric exercises are the gold standard for training explosiveness. However, the technique is what's critical for injury prevention.
During competition, sometimes an athlete injures his/her ACL without contact when changing direction. But if you can lunge in all planes with high speed and proper joint alignment, you should be able to safely cut and change direction.
Slowing down is essentially a Speed Squat. Athletes who squat well stop well. Again, the hips and hamstrings must work together to keep the knees in proper alignment. Overall this diminishes strain on the ACL.
For more information on the ACL please see the STACK ACL Guide.