How Recovering From An ACL Injury Can Make You A Better Gymnast

This post was a letter written in response to a gymnast with an ACL injury…

Disclaimer: Nothing in this article is intended to be medical advice or to contradict the medical advice of your personal doctor and the doctor who handled your surgery.

Disclaimer 2: I have never personally had a gymnast with an ACL injury. This letter was to a gymnast who went to another gym and called and asked for my advice.

The Good News About Your ACL Injury (Yes, Really!)

This “downtime” from your ACL injury could be an important opportunity to increase your upper body strength to the Elite level. While training skills on all four events, it is difficult to free up enough time to make radical improvements in conditioning. When you are unable to work all four events and can’t do certain skills requiring the use of your leg, you have more time and energy to condition.

Strength is such an important part of the sport of gymnastics that you could even end up a better gymnast overall because of this period of concentrating on conditioning and strength.

The competitions that you miss are regrettable, but your overall progress toward becoming an Elite gymnast is not as significantly sidetracked as you may think. You have many more years as a gymnast and many more meets you will win.

If you work diligently, you could even make a significant leap forward in your progress by radically increasing your strength.

Gymnastics Goals While Recovering From An ACL Injury

It is as important to set goals during this injury time as it is during the rest of your training cycle. Goals focus your workout and your attention and result in significantly more progress. You must set your own goals but here are just a few sample ideas and suggestions:

  • Handstand 1& ½ pirouette on floor bar
  • 1 minute side handstand on beam
  • 1 minute English handstand on beam
  • 25 straddle press handstands in a row
  • 50 chin-ups
  • 50 pull-ups
  • Planche on beam
  • Climb rope (no hands)
  • Set personal records in every possible strength category (limited only by use of leg)
  • Most handstand pirouettes in a row on team
  • Longest handstand on floor on team
  • Most leg lifts on team

Stages Of ACL Injury Rehabilitation

There are four distinct stages for rehabilitating your ACL:

  1. Post Accident
  2. Post Operation
  3. Casted Workout
  4. Knee rehabilitation
  5. Skill re-acquisition

Even without practicing them, you will likely retain 80-90% of your gymnastics skills after your rehabilitation of up to seven months. The rest you can recover much more quickly than the time it took you to learn them originally.

What To Avoid During Recovery From An ACL Injury

Avoid working out while there is still significant swelling from the injury or the operation. Exercise just pumps more blood into the area swelling it up more and slowing down the ultimate recovery time.

Avoid using or landing on the injured leg while working out. While injured the knee is subject to further injury that would slow or even prevent complete recovery. It is easy to re-injure your knee during the recovery period and ending up with a worse injury.

What You Can (And Should) Do During Your ACL Injury Recovery

Working out muscles in general and the muscles (collateral muscles) close to your knee can actually help keep your lower leg and muscles attached to your knee from shrinking in strength and size as much and reduce recovery time.

It is important to keep your eating habits healthy during your ACL injury recovery time. You will not be as active, especially as far as aerobic exercise is concerned, and will not easily burn as many calories as you do doing a full workout. So you will want to make sure you are eating as healthy as possible. Swimming is great for maintaining your aerobic capacity and improving breath control.

Gymnastics Skill Training With An ACL Injury

You will eventually be able to do some events (bars) within limits (no dismounts) and some skills (switch leg walkovers and one-legged skills). Be careful on bars to protect your hands from overuse and severe rips. Gradually increase your bar workouts from a normal hour workout to 1 hour and ten minutes, 1 hour 20 minutes, etc.

Strap bar workouts may be the best, safest and most productive type of workout for you. You can safely do any circling skills (giants. Stalders, free hips – front and back; plus toe on, toe offs, timers for release moves, etc.).

Remember, severe rips will prevent you from working to capacity and will waste some of the only workout events you can still do. Be smart about it. Don’t risk further injury. Work over the pit and protect your knee. No one doubts your courage and determination – those qualities in you are evident. But don’t risk an unnecessary re-injury, that might cause further knee damage. You have lots of other thing you can do.

You may find yourself working on your own at the gym or working partly on your own and partly on some events. Spend your time on your own doing and tracking your conditioning and workout.

You may find it useful to do some conditioning at home. While it is not a great idea for your parents to help or coach you in gymnastics, conditioning is more easily understood and they may help you, track your progress, motivate you or help you do partner conditioning.

Working on leg flexibility is difficult during an ACL injury period. Even with a cast or brace, we do not want to put lateral pressure on the knee. This is exactly the direction and type of movement that caused the injury in the first place. We do not want to repeat the injury-like daily while you are trying to recover. Partner splits, with your partner pushing on your leg above the knee, are the only type of leg flexibility that is wise to perform. Your parents could help with this kind of thing.

It may become necessary as you get stronger to add an ankle weight to your good leg to increase the difficulty of the exercises. Strapped ankle weights, not Velcro work the best (they don’t come flying off while you exercise).

Weight Training During ACL Injury Recovery

There is much debate about whether gymnasts should lift weights or not. Time is such a factor in gymnastics training that many coaches don’t feel they have the time to devote to weight training. Many weight-training exercises are oriented toward bending the arms and legs, while gymnasts use straight arms and legs. They do have the advantage of being progressive (you can easily make the exercise more difficult by increasing the weight) and measurable (you can easily measure your progress by counting your sets and the weight you are lifting). Since you have more time free, you may find this a useful and different approach to keep from getting bored doing the same old workout everyday.

You will certainly need a weight bench for leg flexions and extensions to fully rehabilitate your knee. You will undoubtedly be given therapy sessions by the doctor, but to fully recover and get back to full gymnastics knee strength, you will need your own weight bench to do this or access to a training facility (like the YMCA, etc.).

You are going to be the best judge of your condition and capacity to workout. Beware of increasing swelling in your knee. Swelling is an indication that your body is in a damaged, not a recovery stage. Increased swelling is an indication that further injury has occurred and you may need to rest. You must be especially aware of this now and right after your knee operation. It makes no sense to continue to damage the knee instead of waiting until healing can take place. Further damage now increases the overall downtime.

Good luck and be careful.

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