Philadelphia Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin is out for the season with a torn ACL. Maclin isn’t the only player whose season ended before it began due to an injury in training camp. A torn ACL is one of the worst injuries a player can suffer, since it automatically means the end of the season, surgery, recovery, rehab and a long road back to full strength.
So why are some of the best athletes in the world tearing their ACLs?
The best medicine for an ACL tear is prevention, but is that even possible for NFL players?
Many of the best strength coaches in the world, most notably Mike Boyle, have stated strongly that ACL injury prevention programs are not necessary if athletes are trained in a complete and structured program.
But if NFL players are not effectively trained, who is? These are among the best and strongest athletes on the planet.
Why do ACL tears occur? Various movements or contact can cause an ACL injury: a twist, a tackle, poor knee positioning while cutting. A ligament can withstand a certain amount of force before it ruptures. Exceeding this amount is called load failure. When this occurs, the ligament pops.
Violence and Mass
If you want to play football and you’re concerned about violent collisions and risk to your knees, become a kicker. You cannot prevent all injuries, and violent collisions in football will not go away. The greatest deterrents to ACL injuries from force of impact are lower-body strength and mass. Mass around the knee from the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves both functionally and structurally protects the ligaments inside and outside the joint. For a great example, check out Trent Richardson’s massive legs.
Anatomy and Physiology
The body an athlete is born with can predispose him or her to injury—e.g., physiological features like a narrow intercondylar notch or a small ACL (usually discovered and corrected after an ACL has been torn), a wide pelvis or lax ligaments.
As muscles fatigue, they do not function as well, so the ligaments are not as well protected. To reduce the risk of ACL injury, strong hamstrings are imperative. The hamstrings directly oppose the action of the stronger quads in protecting the ACL.
Poor Neuromuscular Control
Why does this matter? Guys who are smarter and stronger than I am, like Martin Rooney and Mark Rippetoe, have recently written about the need to eliminate the use of “corrective exercise” and just get athletes stronger. Green Bay Packers OT Bryan Bulaga just tore his ACL. If an NFL left tackle is not strong, then no one is. The ACL is most often torn in a non-contact situation. A comprehensive training program must include training the hips and ankles to correctly position the knee during deceleration, backpedaling, full stops and jumps (landing on two legs and on one leg). Such a program is most effective after an athlete has improved strength, as part of a dynamic, focused warm-up.
Speed and Eccentric Training
The high speed that all athletes desire to achieve is another factor in ACL injuries. “Bigger, faster, stronger” is the mantra of every football training program in the country. High velocity running itself is a risk factor for ACL tears. The NFL has some of the fastest athletes in the world. These athletes constantly stop, cut, turn and change direction. The faster the forward rate of motion, the stronger the athlete must be to slow down. Thus, training should include eccentric work of the lower body. Vital eccentric quad strength and concentric hamstring strength can be developed with squat variations. Barry Sanders may be the best example of this.
To prevent knee injury, athletes must perform Squats with a heavy load to low depth. Because they cut on one leg, or outside the sagittal plane, they must perform Squats on one leg and in multiple planes with goblet, front loads, and back loads. Loaded plyometrics are another effective strategy for football players to build eccentric strength.
Not just for the mirror, and not just the abs. Stability in the core allows the top half of the body to maintain position and takes stress off the knees when an athlete cuts or stops. Excessive motion to the side, front or back during a change of direction or speed movement increases the force and strength required to decelerate and change direction. It also slows the athlete down as the top half of his or her body redirects prior to reaccelerating.
I do not train NFL athletes day in and day out. But their anatomy, physiology and strength needs are the same as other athletes. They may not be able to eliminate ACL injuries, but they can lower the risk by focusing on the above aspects of a comprehensive training program.