10 Top ACL Rehab Exercise TIPS – How to Build Your Knee Strength and Fitness After Injury

ACL Rehab exercises - knee squats

Get the most out of your ACL rehab exercises with our 10 simple yet remarkably effective exercise tips!

Your ACL rehab exercises will vary at different stages of your recovery and it’s important that you are prepared for exercises to be incredibly difficult at first. Even though before the injury they were very easy.

Your Anterior Cruciate Ligament, or ACL, is the key knee stabilizing ligament making it incredibly important for sudden changes in direction and pivoting.

It can be terrifying just trying to do the most elementary of ACL rehab exercises due to knee pain and swelling.

However, you might be surprised by your rate of progress, especially in the early phases of your recovery.

There are no two ways about it, your recovery can feel like it is lasting forever.  Normally you are looking at 9 to 12 months after surgery before a return to full participation in sports is possible.

Important to note

You need to gradually build up the intensity of your ACL rehabilitation exercises over a period of many months.

Consistent application of your exercises after ACL surgery is key to restoring knee functionality and returning to normal activity such as playing sport.

Top 10 ACL Rehab Exercise Tips

ACL Rehab Exercise Tip 1: Plan your exercise program

Seek the instruction of your physical therapist and surgeon to help set out your goals, rehabilitation exercises, and workouts.

As the old saying goes “failing to plan is planning to fail”.  So you and your physical therapist need to plan your exercises in a way that gradually progresses your knee back to recovery. 

Specifically list the exercises, repetitions, sets and frequency. 

As a structured exercise program will help move you forward in the right direction and will help motivate you even on those days when 

So try to stick to the workout plans where possible.

Post surgery, your rehab is a 9 to 12 month process. Engaging in a rehab planning process will also help build your knowledge and understanding of the road ahead.

Important to note

As guidance, at any point in time, you should have a plan which details your specific ACL rehab exercises that are designed to improve stability and functionality. 

More specifically write down your weekly and daily exercises 4 to 6 weeks in advance so each morning when you wake up you can recall exactly what exercises need to be done on the day.  

When it comes to ACL rehab, no one’s recovery is the same and everyone recovers at different speeds.

Allow for some flexibility in terms of the types of exercises and intensity you undertake in your exercises program. 

Don’t be disheartened if your knee recovery is taking longer than you expected to respond to the surgery.  Everyone recovers at a different pace. It is important to maintain your training. 

Any specific concerns with your rehabilitation should be discussed with your physical therapist. 

Click here to grab your free ACL recovery checklist.

ACL Rehab Exercise Tip 2: Start your workouts with a  warm up

ACL-rehab-exercise-bike

When you have an injured knee, your workout routine must be reconsidered and tailored according to your new needs and limits to ensure your ACL tear recovery is as effective as possible.

As you advance your recovery, the first thing to do is a solid warm up to get your blood flowing!

Try some light jogging, but at a careful pace, warming up with the help of bike machines or treadmills.

Focusing on elements like balance, agility, mobility, and engaging in dynamic exercises which also help to warm up the knees.

Progressing from the initial phases to the middle and latter phases of your ACL recovery will enable you to begin your ACL rehab workouts with more substantial warm ups!

ACL Rehab Exercise Tip 3: Focus on the lower body

ACL rehab exercises

Overall really looking to concentrate on the lower body and legs, in order to improve knee strength and flexibility.

Recovering from ACL surgery is a long journey.  Your workouts should be specifically targeted to your legs to restore knee strength and functionality.

Working out your upper body is not going to help restore strength into your lower body leg muscles.

If you are time restricted due to work and personal commitments then focus your workouts exclusively on ACL rehab exercises of the lower body.  Rather than spending time working out your upper body.

ACL Rehab Exercise Tip 4: Build your strength at a slow and steady pace

Engage in routines that build resistance and mobility, but be extremely careful to do it in a slow and steady pace.

Be guided by the level of pain and swelling in your knee. It is not a race.

Following a structured ACL recovery timeline plan is very important.

ACL Rehab Exercise Tip 5: Focus your rehab on 4 critical muscles

The next step when it comes to ACL rehab exercises is to strengthen four critical muscles: quads, calves, hamstrings and glutes.

The role these muscles play in the recovery process is that they offer support to your knee.

One of the key objectives is to build a support system to stay strong and gain flexibility for minimizing the amount of work your ACL has to do.

ACL Rehab Exercise Tip 6: Strengthen your glutes as a high priority!

Glutes should be high on your priority workout list, due to the fact that they are the engine to powering the lower body.

Exercises like clamshells will develop your glutes.

Lie on a side, keeping your feet together and trying to pull your knees apart, while having a resistance band around your upper thighs.

ACL Rehab Exercise Tip 7: Crank out your exercises in your sleep!

For months and months, you should prepare yourself for restoring full range of motion through knee extension and flexion, returning your balance, and maximizing your glute, hip, quadriceps, and hamstring strength.

Squats, quad control, deadlifts, calf raises are all sure ways of developing strong lower body leg muscles.

You should be doing so many of these lower body ACL rehab exercises, that you could almost crank them out in your sleep (not literally of course).

ACL Rehab Exercise Tip 8: Start pedaling

Start pedaling, because another helpful workout routine that will engage your lower-body and is amazing for ACL rehab is cycling.

ACL Rehab Exercise Tip 9: Keep it going!

It would be great if your rehab was easy, however it does require a sustained effort over many months of training.

Often people waiver with their motivation throughout the recovery process.

Typically this can be as early as 3 months after surgery. But at this stage, your knee functionality is not yet restored to pre-injury levels.

Each phase throughout your ACL recovery timeline builds on the previous phase and adds to your knee strength, stability and functionality bit by bit.

To return to your normal level of activity and to minimize the risk of ACL retear you need to “keep it going”. 

Prepare yourself for consistent and high-quality workout sessions many times a week for months on month.

ACL Rehab Exercise Tip 10: Don’t rush back to sports too early!

You cannot rush your ACL rehab exercise program in hope of an early return to sports.

A return to sports is normally only possible from the 9 to 12-month mark post surgery.

It takes about 12 months for the joint to feel normal again.

There are some things you can control willingly such as regaining your knee strength, mobility and fitness.

But you cannot change the rate at which your new ACL heals regardless of how far advanced you are with your rehab program.

Preventing recurring injuries with strength and mobility training

Injury prevention through an effective injury recovery program plus ongoing strength & mobility training is an important strategy for reducing the risk of retearing the ACL.

It is the ultimate nightmare for you to twist or crush your knee that ends with hearing the dreaded pop.

A tear of the ACL in the knee can lead to substantial discomfort and difficulty to carry on with day to day activities.

It is also one of the most unpleasant and difficult injuries to treat requiring specific ACL rehab exercises focused on returning strength and mobility to the knee.

ACL knee injuries are problematic to athletes because they are exposed to significantly knee forces and are most at risk of a career-ending sports ACL tear when participating in the sports arena.

Whether or not your ACL tears depends on a number of factors including your anatomy, strength, and the activity that you are engaged in.

The 10 tips outlined above can be applied to help you formulate your injury prevention strategy.

An ACL injury requires a lifetime of dedication and constant work to prevent further recurring injuries

ACL rehab exercises and intensive physical therapy become mandatory as part of the recovery process with the most important recovery period being immediately after the injury.

Increasing mobility and strengthening the supporting knee muscles is paramount to providing the best opportunity of returning your knee back to pre-injury condition.

Or at least as close to the bad legs pre-injury fitness and strength levels as possible.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Once you have restored knee fitness to near pre-injury levels, ongoing training and strength workouts are required to maintain strength and functionality.  With the aim to minimize the risk of further damage.

What are the symptoms of an ACL injury?

There are several signs and ACL tear symptoms that indicate that a person has sustained an ACL injury.

The most important and hard to miss ones being: a popping of the knee, swelling, the incapability to extend the knee to the fullest, lack of stability while walking, and persistent pain.

Whilst initial despair and overwhelming emotion is completely normal, one must remember that this type of injury can be treated initially by a physical therapist.  Depending on the extent of the ACL tear, corrective surgery may be required to replace the damaged graft with a new graft.

With the right physio and training returning an injured ACL knee back to pre-injury levels are possible.

However, without proper care and appropriate ACL rehab exercises, the knee will not recover and the pain will persist.

A durable commitment from the injured person to an intensive recovery program is therefore very important.

ACL rehab exercises from 0 to 2 weeks after surgery

ACL-full-knee-extension-straightening-exercises

At the very beginning of your ACL recovery, you may initially feel shocked and terrified by the absence of knee function in your operated leg as you battle to control the pain and swelling.

Start your ACL rehab exercises from day 1 following surgery.  This is important to start early!

Begin with basic leg extension and flexion exercises performed many times a day.

Achieving full knee extension after ACL surgery is critical within the first 2 to 3 weeks for ongoing success.

Improving your knee flexion is also important. Start with heel slide repetitions.

It might literally feel like baby steps at the very start but your knee function does improve quickly with time.

Also, understand how and when you can walk after ACL surgery.  You should be aiming to walk with a normal gait in the first few weeks.

Summary

You need to be prepared for your ACL rehab exercises to vary and become increasingly more difficult as you gradually build your knee strength and fitness back to targeted levels.

The first time you attempt a new exercise you may find it to very difficult to start with, even though before injury it was very easy.

Detailed and continuous planning of your weekly and daily exercises will help keep you on track and facilitate the achievement of your goals.

Click here to grab your free ACL recovery checklist.

ACL rehab exercise video summary

Are you feeling challenged by your ACL recovery?

As a helpful guide we have put together this simple yet remarkably effective ACL Recovery Guide with 5 key phases that could help you plan and keep your ACL recovery on track and achieve your ACL rehabilitation goals.

About Brett Mitchell

Our missions is to provide ACL Knee Injury Recovery and Rehabilitation information to improve the health and wellbeing of people who have injured their Anterior Cruciate Ligament and have undergone surgery or are considering their options to increasing the functionality of their injured ACL knee. The information on our site aims to help people understand and manage their ACL knee injury. It does not replace care provided by medical practitioners and other qualified health professionals.

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Disclaimer – The information provided on this Site is accurate to the best of our knowledge, but no warranty as to the accuracy is given and each individual should not act on the basis of its contents whilst interpreting the materials without seeking assistance from a medical or healthcare professional to apply them to your individual circumstances. The information on this site is for information purposes only. If you have any concerns about your health, consult your general practitioner.