With an understanding of what the ACL does and how it’s torn, let’s now discuss how to reduce the risk of injury.
Learn How to Land!
Whether you cut, land from a jump, or change direction, you must teach your body to carry out the action correctly. But just because an action is performed adequately doesn’t necessarily mean it’s performed efficiently and safely. If you remember from the first article on the ACL, I mentioned that females have a tendency to rely more on their quads in response to forward motion of the tibia, which can increase the risk of trauma at the ACL. So how do guys and girls disengage this quad-dominant landing strategy? By working on landing and cutting mechanics with the following drills:
Coach Dixon has already done an excellent job of demonstrating the landing exercise, so I won’t beat this one down. This exercise is great because it simulates the yielding action necessary to properly decelerate, and will give you immediate feedback on your dominant landing strategy. You should land on the balls of your feet and shoot your hips back upon ground contact. Consciously focus on engaging the glutes and the hamstrings as soon as you impact the ground and don’t allow yourself to fall deeper than a quarter squat. Perform 3 to 4 sets of 5 to 8 reps and you should be good to go.
Lateral and Medial Hops
The medial (hopping opposite direction of your leg) / lateral (hopping same direction as down leg) hop series is great because you begin to challenge your body to not only decelerate and accelerate on one leg, but you’re also forced to stabilize with your core. Start on the ground before you move to jumping over cones or hurdles, and focus on landing on the balls of the feet while engaging the posterior chain muscles (hamstrings, glutes, and lower back). Perform 1 to 2 sets each of the lateral and medial hops for 6 reps.
Bounds (Forward, Lateral, Diagonal)
Bounds are a great way to improve coordination, and train force application, and redirection. While they look simple, these progressions are difficult, so I wouldn’t recommend starting with anything more difficult than a basic forward bound. Again, we want to avoid collapsing at the knee or landing on your heels so have someone watch you to ensure proper technique. Once you’ve mastered forward bounding, feel free to move onto lateral and diagonal variations. Perform 2 to 4 sets of bounds for 20 yards, giving yourself ample time to recover between sets.
One of my favorite quotes in performance is “you can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe.” Basically, this quote is referring to your ability to stabilize and control your movement. If you can’t effectively resist motion, many times you won’t be as effective at creating motion because you’ll have to waste too much energy on stopping momentum. Here are a couple exercises that will help you stabilize more effectively.
This is a tremendously simple exercise but one that’s extremely effective. Think about trying to stop and cut if you can’t resist lateral flexion of your core: you’d look like a Jack-in-the-Box swaying from side to side! Perform 3 sets of ten second holds per side, and gradually add time until you can do them for sets of 30 seconds.
Cressey Split Squat Iso-Holds
Basically, you’re holding a static split squat to add strength to your glutes and hamstrings, as well as flexibility to your hip flexors, while increasing stability at your core and hips. Changing the pull on the band will emphasize the hip abductors (pulling outside) or adductors (pulling inside), making this a must have exercise for your ACL prevention program. Start with two sets of holds per leg for 15 seconds, alternating between pulling outside and inside.
One of the best ways to take stress off the ACL is to have strong glutes and hamstrings. Remember from Coach Straub’s article when he talked about the importance of the posterior leg muscles like your hamstrings and glutes? If not, go back and read up! Our glutes and hamstrings are our “brakes,” so if we want to keep them healthy, we better strengthen them with the following exercises.
Partner Glute Ham Raises
This exercise is a must in your ACL-prevention toolbox. The goal is to keep the glutes engaged throughout the entire movement because this is how they naturally function during athletic movements; in harmony with the hamstrings. Additionally, this is why training the hamstrings in isolation during movements like a machine leg curl is useless for athletes. As you lower yourself, keep your butt as tight as possible, and maintain a straight line from the shoulders to the knees upon rising, using your arms as little as necessary. Think it looks easy? Try it! Start with sets of 3 to 5 reps for 2 to 3 sets and let me know how it works out for you.
Single Leg RDL
This exercise requires tremendous coordination, flexibility, and balance to perform correctly. In addition it engages the hamstring and glutes simultaneously and can be loaded in a myriad of ways (body weight, cable, dumbbell / Kettlebell, or even barbell). Coach DeMayo describes the exercise (per the link above), so I won’t go in to detail on its execution, but know that this is one of the best exercises you can do to strengthen your hammys. Perform two to 3 sets for 8 to 12 reps each leg.
Look, the bottom line is that the risk factors for ACL injuries are diverse, and therefore your plan of attack must be diverse as well. If you add these exercises to your plan you’ll enhance your stability, improve your technique, and increase your lower body strength for the demands of your sport which will in turn, keep you off the sidelines and on the field.
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