So You Tore Your ACL, Now What?

Emily Pappas

Hatfield, Pennsylvania, United States

Exercise Physiology, Strength and Conditioning, Nutrition


Tearing your ACL sucks.


It's frustrating, defeating, and often comes with an influx of fears of never being able to return to the field as the athlete you were before. Just because your friend who tore her ACL became slower, maybe gained some weight, and never seemed to trust her body on the field again does not mean you are destined for the same outcome.



Yes, you most likely won’t return to play until nine to twelve months post-surgery—but you get to decide what type of athlete you are when you do step back onto the field. In order to take the necessary steps for recovery, let's talk about why the injury occurred in the first place.


What Caused Your Tear?

An ACL tear (non-impact) occurs when the musculature around the knee is not strong enough to absorb the forces being placed on it from movements such as sprinting, cutting, and landing. The muscle may not be strong enough because the joint is improperly loaded (poor body control), overly fatigued (too much volume for the body to recover from), or just lacking adequate strength overall.


So You Tore Your ACL, Now What? - Fitness, nutrition, rest and recovery, strength and conditioning, mindset, competitive sports, acl injury, acl, knee injury


If the muscle is not able to fully absorb the force, the force must travel to less equipped tissues such as tendons, ligaments, and bone. The result? Sprains, strains, tears, and breaks.

After the tears and heartache, it's time for surgery to kickstart the recovery process.


ACL Recovery Process

Within the first couple of months after surgery, your physical therapist will help you regain strength and stability at the knee joint in order to handle your body weight. Once you achieve full range of motion at the joint through flexion and extension and can demonstrate stability at the knee in movements such as hopping, skipping, and jumping, it's time to take the next step.



Most athletes are cleared to return to play at around the nine or twelve-month mark. During the six to nine months after the initial physical therapy stages, you get to decide the athlete you develop into before you return to play. Strength training is the base of athletic development and the necessary next step in your recovery process.


Post-Injury Athleticism

As we have talked about before, strength training is an essential component of athletic development process. Strength is the base from which all other athletic qualities are built—such as speed, agility, and power. Training that emphasizes the development of movement patterns while acquiring new skills (such as through weightlifting) helps an athlete develop her athleticism a step further.


Through weightlifting, an athlete must focus on the position of her body in order to perform the technical movement pattern of a snatch or clean and jerk. This focus on body position helps an athlete develop neuromuscular coordination.




These improved mind-body connections help the athlete be more coordinated, balanced, and aware of her body in space. The combined benefits from strength training, including an increase in absolute and relative strength, body control, balance, and coordination, help improve your athleticism.


While it is unfortunate that most females are not introduced to the weight room until after an ACL tear, the injury becomes a blessing in disguise when considering the opportunity to help her develop into an even better athlete than she was before. Weightlifting produces more coordinated and conditioned athletes. These athletes are less likely to have the injury re-occur.


Develop Mental Strength Post-Injury

After an ACL injury, it's common for a female to fail to return to the field as the same player she was before. Often this is not because of lack of ability, but more so lack of mental strength and confidence.



Too often we see a female athlete’s carer end early because she isn't confident and is hesitant about pushing her body to the extent she did before (and of course she is, her body literally gave out on her before).


Introducing strength training to a female post surgery helps her become more than just strong and coordinated. Lifting weights helps her develop the confidence in her body to step back on the field without hesitation her body will fail on her again. Remember, the best athletes on the field encompass a combination of strength, skill, and mental fortitude.


If an athlete isn’t confident, she can’t showcase her strength and skills to their fullest extent. Strength training helps her get more than physically strong. It helps her become confident that her body won’t fail her again.


Weight Gain Concern During Recovery

Another common fear we hear is gaining weight after surgery, but instead of getting scared, get pro-active. Many females in high school and college can “get away” with eating whatever they want because their activity level is so high. But after surgery (or post-athletic career), your activity level is going to significantly decrease. This change in lifestyle means you need to address your food intake differently.


Your body needs adequate calories to fuel the recovery process. Where you choose to get those calories determines how well you will recover. With less activity and muscle use, your body is more inclined to break your muscle down for protein sources. That saying "if you don’t use it you lose it" is true.


To prevent muscle loss, " target="_blank" rel="noopener">make sure to have protein in each meal so it is available in your bloodstream when your body needs it to repair. Remember that recovery is a process that cannot occur without enough energy to fuel it. Choose to energize this process through a combination of complex carbs, veggies, and healthy fats. Remember, because you are less active while recovering, slower release energy types are more fitting to match your energy needs.


Instead of worrying about weight gain and muscle loss, take charge of your recovery process. Fill your plate 4-5x a day with a palm size of protein, two or three handfuls of veggies and complex carbs, and one to three thumb size servings of fat. With this combo, you will be sure to conserve your muscle and energize the recovery of your injury.


Recovery Is Up to You

Recovering from an injury can be frustrating, deflating, and may make you feel like you are helpless—but how you respond to your injury is completely up to you.


The best athletes are those that look at hardships in the face and decide how to grow in response. Tearing your ACL is heartbreaking. But only you can decide how to make something positive come from it. Find a coach, step into the weight room, and fuel your body to become an even better athlete than you were before your injury.


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