ACL Recovery and Gym Time

Hi Steph!
I stumbled upon your page just today after looking up how soon I can return to climbing after my ACL repair. I tore my ACL skiing after some dummies were taking a smoke break in a blind spot in the middle of a run. I was popping off wind lips, carving the nice groomers, and searching for some soft stuff in the trees when all of a sudden I had to cut hard to stop and my right ski stuck on ice. I flipped over my right leg, dislocated my knee, and ruptured the ACL in two. I was training for a 50k before tearing my ACL and I was told I won’t be able to start running for a really long time and I am kind of going crazy missing out on all of the trail running that used to fill my mornings. Since the tear I have been climbing about 3 times a week and riding a stationary bike for as long as my mind can possibly handle (I hate indoor cardio activities lol). I walk my dog, hike up the buttes around my home, and have spent hours on the river fly fishing. My knee feels like absolute poo compared to two months ago, but it doesn’t hurt when I’m active.

I noticed you said you spent a lot of time in the gym and I was wondering what some of the things were that you did while recovering from surgery to stay happy and strong! I will literally spend all day doing chin ups or working on a hang board if it means I get to work out even a little part of my body.
I greatly appreciate any advice you can give!
Thank you, Joelle

Hi Joelle,
I know surgery has changed a lot since I got my ACL repaired in 2009. I had a double bundle graft with my own hamstring. It’s a very strong graft and that’s why I wanted it, but the recovery time was longer than with some other types of repairs because they drill 2 holes and the hamstring has to re-grow as well.

My doctor told me that in-line activities would be all right fairly soon after my surgery, but I would have to be really careful with anything that could twist my knee. When you go to PT, you’ll be able to get an idea of what types of exercises are good for recovery: basically, things that strengthen your quads and hamstrings are what you’ll be doing. I went to PT 3 times (that’s all my insurance gave me) and then worked out in my local gym daily to continue to improve my leg strength as I recovered. I used a wobbleboard a lot during my recovery and did a lot of body weight quad/ham exercises like wall squats and lunges. As I started using weights, I used the leg machines a lot (this is a good way to make sure you stay in line). But recovering from a leg injury is a great time to focus on upper body strength as well, and hangboard workouts. I wouldn’t recommend campusing, because you can fall off and you don’t want to impact your leg. In my second or third month of recovery, I was doing climbing workouts on my climbing wall (the max height is about 10 feet), but I made sure to have lots of crash pads and would never put my injured leg down if I came off–you’ll find yourself naturally protecting your leg all the time, so as long as the situation is somewhat controlled, you’re going to be okay trying different things like toproping or staying low on a climbing wall after your most early surgical recovery phase.

I’ve never really enjoyed (can’t stand) doing leg workouts in the gym, partly because I spend so much time running, hiking and carrying heavy things uphill and would rather spend my time on upper body exercises when I’m in there. However, since that injury, I’ve continued to spend at least a third of my time in the weight room on dumbbell lunges, dumbbell squats, dead lifts and cage squats, and I have to admit doing that strength training has been great for my fitness and strength, and definitely helps with carrying things uphill.

Good luck with your recovery!

  • Eric Lett

    Hi! I recently started using Kelly Starrett’s mobility WOD. He’s a PhD physiotherapist and has excellent information and exercises for both prevention and recovery from major things like ACL injuries, both pre and post surgery. I don’t have any affiliation with them but have been super impressed with what his short sessions do for my mobility. There’s a free 10 day to see if it’s right for you, and subscription after that. Hope it helps, and all the best in your recovery.

  • Melodie Meigs

    I’m a climber and had 2 ACL surgeries, both due to climbing, in 2014 and 2015. I’ve put together an extensive series of articles about ACL surgery, post-surgery climbing, and recovery: There isn’t a lot of info in the general public, much less surgeon/PT world about the stresses climbing puts on your body. This blog was one of the few resources I had when I went through my surgeries! My articles have helped a couple dozen climbers who had ACL surgeries who’ve reached out to me. I hope it helps you!


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