Injury-Proof Your ACL

Protect your knee from ACL tears with these simple exercises, including the vastus lateralis release.
Protect your knee from ACL tears with these simple exercises, including the vastus lateralis release. 

Injury to the ACL, the anterior cruciate ligament, is fairly common for athletes. Before the 2015 NFL season even started, 25 players were out with the injury. But ACL tears aren't just sustained on the field — about 200,000 Americans are sidelined by one every year. And though the ligament is small, the injury is devastating because the ACL keeps the tibia in place, while also stabilizing the knee.

Some 70 percent of ACL injuries are non-contact injuries, meaning it happens when an athlete is cutting, decelerating, or jumping. The reason routine moves cause such serious damage is muscle imbalance. Some muscles are stronger or tighter than others, and you wind up compensating to move correctly. The human body is amazing and will do whatever it can to help you perform, but it can only compensate for so long. Eventually, even a routine move can cause injury to the ACL. 

While you may not be able to avoid a helmet to the knee, you can make sure your body is balanced to avoid an ACL tear when you're working out or playing a pick-up game with friends. The first step is identifying imbalances and correcting them. I start by looking at the pelvis to make sure it is in the proper position, and then the Q angle (your hip to knee angle, read more about it here). I see that the Q angle is off in most people; it’s important to address, because it can set off a chain reaction of compensation all over the body. Try these releases and exercises to create better balance in your leg and more knee stability.

Vastus Lateralis (Outer Quad) Release

  • Lie on your side with a foam roller under and perpendicular to your bottom leg, positioned halfway between your hip and knee.
  • Slide your leg up and down along the foam roller — this is your IT band — moving it from the top of the knee to the base of the hip. Focus on more tender areas.
  • Repeat in 30-second intervals for two minutes.
  • To focus on a specific area of the IT band, locate the most tender area with the foam roller and stop. Bend your knee at a 90-degree angle, and then straighten. Repeat the motion of bending and straightening for 10 to 15 seconds.

Distal Hamstring Release

  • Sit on the edge of a table or a high chair so that hips and knees are at 90 degrees. You should have enough room to kick your foot out and straighten your knee.
  • Place a lacrosse ball on the table or chair surface, and under one of your hamstrings.
  • Extend your leg straight in front of you, then return to start. Repeat.
  • Move the ball up and down the hamstrings, performing the same motion. Repeat as often as needed until the hamstrings feel loose and released.

Golf Ball Pick Ups

  • Stand with your weight on one foot, the other foot staggered behind you with only your toes touching the floor, hips squared ahead. Maintain a slightly bent front knee throughout the exercise.
  • Keeping your back flat, hinge forward from hips until torso is parallel to the floor. Push through the heel of your planted foot as you stand. 
  • Perform three sets of 10 reps.

VMO Squat

  • Stand with feet staggered, knees slightly bent, weight on your front foot.
  • Slowly squat down and twist torso toward front leg while forcing your front knee out. 
  • Rise back up, pushing through balls of feet, and repeat. 
  • Perform three sets of 10 reps.