My ACL Recovery Story: Day 1 through Month 4
Tearing my ACL was one of the biggest eye openers of my life. I was just coming off of a competition prep where I managed to get down to a 4-5% bodyfat range, when my competition was abruptly cancelled 6 weeks short due to COVID19. Adapting to the circumstances and setting new goals, I went into a rebound diet with a goal of putting on lean mass while remaining as athletic as possible.
Being a bodybuilder and spending a vast majority of my time training in a weight room, I like to find ways to increase my endurance and athleticism outside, especially in the summer. During the Spring and throughout the Summer of 2020, my main sources of cardio was running and basketball. I always despised running growing up until I experienced my first runners high and the rest was history.
I started challenging myself using the Strava App, shooting to beat my previous time every time. I would run in total 3.65 miles at a time, running at roughly an 8 minute mile pace. Running the same distance 3 times a week, every other week. On weeks I wasn’t running, I would be playing basketball. Even though it was just pick up games, my competitive nature always had me giving 110%. Along with all of this cardio, I was still weight training at a high intensity 5 days a week, for roughly 2 hours per workout. This all accumulated to my downfall.
The day prior to tearing my ACL, I had a high intensity leg day. Working up to 365 pounds for 6 reps on barbell back squats. The leg day overall consisted of 35 sets and between 250-300 total reps. So, playing basketball after a leg day like that probably wasn’t the best idea. Essentially, I shocked my central nervous system so much, no amount of rest in that time span was going to have my legs recovered and ready to go that day.
I got to the court roughly 45 minutes before the rest of the crew showed up, to shoot around and loosen up. I remember experiencing multiple signals from my body that my legs weren’t ready, but I played through it anyway. Everyone that has played basketball with me before, knows my main strategy of scoring is driving to the hoop at full speed for the lay-up. At 5’ 11” and roughly 190 pounds, I took pride in having a 37 inch vertical, and wasn’t shy about using it. But on that day, it all came crashing down.
The day I tore my ACL, is a day that I will relive for the rest of my life. I completely tore my ACL in my right knee after trying to change directions while coming down from a lay up (I missed) in a pickup game of basketball. When I saw the ball roll off the rim behind me, I started to twist in the direction the ball was heading. After planting on my right foot, my twisting momentum continued. Which then was followed by a lot of crackling and a loud pop in my right knee. With a past riddled with injury, I knew something was wrong right away.
Being I’m 23 and in the best shape of my life, my adrenaline took over. I immediately wanted help off the ground and attempted to walk it off. The first step I took with my right foot, I knew my afternoon of playing basketball was over. I had zero stability through my right leg, like it was made of Jell-O. Shortly after, I got a ride back to my place and began icing.
While icing, I started googling my symptoms. You might ask why I didn’t go straight to the ER, because at the time I was in-between health insurances and wasn’t covered. All symptoms pointed to either a meniscal or ACL tear, that’s when I knew I needed to get medical attention ASAP. Luckily for me, my bosses at the bar I’m employed at knew an athletic trainer who agreed to meet me late that night to put my leg through some tests to give me some ideas of what the injury might be.
After putting my leg through the tests, the athletic trainer told me with the amount of movement between my femur and tibia, there was a 99% chance I no longer have an ACL, bringing my biggest fear to light. Later that week, an MRI confirmed I ruptured my ACL (looked like spaghetti) and damaged my lateral meniscus. Which left me with two options: Live the rest of my life without an ACL and lose most of my athleticism or go through ACL reconstruction and be able to compete at a high level again. For me, the answer was easy, ACL reconstruction.
It’s important to weigh your options when it comes to any type of surgery. Don’t be afraid to get more than one opinion from different orthopedic surgeons, because feeling confident in the person operating on you brings a lot of relief before heading into surgery. I highly recommend doing your research and considering the experience level of your orthopedic surgeon. In my case, I chose an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in knee surgeries, performing hundreds of surgeries like mine yearly. Now let’s start going over my ACL Recovery timeline.
Training arms 3 days after injury occurred.
Month 1 (Week 1-4)
If you completely tore your ACL like me, week 1 is where I experienced the most discomfort. Of all my past surgeries, this one caused the most pain. No matter how much pain you’re experiencing, you need to dig deep and follow the post-op physical therapy instructions and icing. Any type of knee reconstruction surgery puts you at a high risk of possibly developing a blood clot, which happened to me because I let the pain keep me laid up.
During week 2, the sharp pain started to subside, turning into a more sore/achy feeling. Before I forget, I chose the bone graft option. Using a piece of my patella tendon as my new ACL. If you aren’t already used to your crutches, this is the time to start using them. Start practicing normal walking form, allowing a comfortable amount of pressure on your new knee. For me, I felt as if I were a baby learning how to walk again for the first time. I also started seeing a physical therapist during this time, going twice a week. Make sure you’re continuing to do the at-home physical therapy as well, it’s just as important as seeing the physical therapist!
Onto week 3, moving around continues to get easier and the amount of pressure you’re comfortable putting on your recovering leg increases. I was able to take my first steps during this week without crutches around the house. I highly advise continuing to use crutches (or just 1) when out and about. My range of flexion started to noticeable increase during this week. Physical therapy continued at twice a week, along with at-home exercises and icing. Something your physical therapists might touch on during this time is physically touching your knee, moving your kneecap, and breaking up any scar tissue. This will also aid in the numbness of your knee, bringing back the nerves to sense feeling.
Week 4 brought a lot more peace of mind. I was able to comfortably walk without crutches completely with the help of a knee compression sleeve. I was also able to finally complete a full cycle on the stationary bike, instead of rocking back and forth like the weeks prior. My flexion and extension improved immensely, and the only remaining soreness reminded me of a strong “growing pain”. Continue to ice and be patient with the process! I started to learn more exercises, including stairs and leg press. This wraps up my experience with month 1! The first month might feel like an eternity and be filled with a lot of negative emotion but take pride in the little achievements like flexion and extension measurements and taking your first steps because just like anything else in life, you need to start somewhere!
Left: Day before injury | Right: 5 weeks post-surgery
Month 2 (Week 5-8)
Week 5 brought a sense of normalcy back into my daily routine, as I was comfortable enough to get back to my passion of bodybuilding and started training other muscle groups outside of legs for the first time since surgery. Being able to weight train other muscle groups was extremely therapeutic and took my mind off of my injury for the time being. I believe weight training also boosted my ACL recovery process, elevating natural anabolic hormones such as testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), which activate to repair damaged muscle fibers. Walking continued to improve along with both measurements of flexion and extension.
During week 6, the sense of normalcy continued, and I could finally walk without my injury affecting my walking motion. I continued to work hard with my physical therapists, focusing on strength exercises for my quads, hamstrings, adductors, abductors, and calf muscles. After starting to train these muscles with more resistance, briefly after the workouts, my recovering knee would feel the most normal. At this point, the only real pain is just a sore and achy feeling in the knee when using it!
In week 7, I was able to achieve 130+ degrees in flexion and my extension, after stretching for some time, could reach 0 degrees. I was now using the stationary bike to warm up with ease and started increasing the resistance. I started making it a habit when I went to the gym to at least use the stationary bike for 10 minutes each day.
It wasn’t until week 8 that I included an actual “leg day” in my weekly training routine. I started confidently doing hex squats and leg press on my own, which was a huge boost in moral. Even though it was at a light weight and really just going through the motion, I was able to get a slight leg pump and finally started experiencing real muscle soreness in my recovering leg! Week 8 is also the week that your body starts to accept and build with your new ligament instead of trying to break it down. Your body is smart enough to know that your new ligament, in my case the patella tendon, isn’t supposed to be there and tries to break it down. After 2 months, your body realizes its anchored in and not going anywhere and starts to build it stronger! The dark days start to disappear after the second month, being able to walk normal and workout other muscle groups goes a long way. Stay grateful about the little achievements, it only gets better!
Continuing to train other muscle groups, while only weight training my legs at PT.
Month 3 (Week 9-12)
Month 3, the recovery process really started to ramp up for me. Week 9, my physical therapy sessions were less about stretches (which you should still be doing at home) and more about strength and straight-line movements. I started doing weighted lunges, both forward and reverse, along with stationary lateral lunges. My biggest struggle was with any lateral movements, so that was my main focus to improve.
Week 10, my physical therapy sessions were cut back to only once a week. My sessions became more about explosiveness and being able to trust my knee again. My favorite exercise at this time was going through athletic stances with a resistance bungy cord strapped around my waist. The farther you were from the base, the more resistance you felt. This helped quite a bit with my lateral strength. Using the same resistance bungy cord around my waist, at a distance of challenging resistance, we worked on step ups. Focusing on driving through the heel during extension and finishing through the balls of my feet for calf extension. This exercise helped with stability and overall strength.
Into week 11, I continued to be ahead of schedule with recovery. I took my first jog on a treadmill, 2 weeks ahead of protocol, hitting 6 miles per hour. My physical therapist had me doing intervals of 1 minute on, 1 minute off, going from a brisk jog to a walk, doing so for 10 minutes total. At the end of my physical therapy, she told me I had the opportunity to take over the training on my own. With my experience in weight training, I took over rehabbing my leg on my own and quit going to physical therapy.
Finishing off month 3, week 12 brought along a lot more of the growing pain feeling. I started implying more balance and coordination exercises, balancing on my rehabbing leg in an athletic stance, using battle ropes at 30 second intervals. Along with another balancing exercise in similar form, alternating throwing and catching a 5 pound weighted ball that I threw off a slanted trampoline. The takeaway from month 3, is to keep grinding and following the orders of your doctor and physical therapists and you’ll see improvements come fast!
Working on stability, warming up with a 2lb weighted ball! (Knee sleeve is pulled down)
Month 4 (Week 13-16)
Month 4, starting with week 13, was a slight step backwards for me because of gym closures in the state of Minnesota due to COVID19. Right when I was settling into a solid routine of rehabbing my leg, gyms were taken away. Luckily, my good friend and nutrition coach allowed me to train with him in his shed for the time being. Week 13 was the first week since before my ACL injury I’ve been under a barbell attempting to squat. I was able to squat 135 pounds for 10. It was a very emotional lift, overwhelmed with excitement that I was actually able to barbell back squat again.
During week 14, was the first week I caught myself not thinking about my injury when I was out in the yard playing with my puppy. We all know how much energy puppies can have, so without thinking about my leg, I accelerated a short distance (10-15 yards). In doing so I felt a slight numbing feeling in my knee. It’s important to listen to your body closely and understand the difference between good and bad pain. I instantly was reminded by the voices in my head that this is a long process, and I shouldn’t try sprinting yet and gradually work up to it.
Week 15, I wasn’t able to make it to the shed to train legs. So, at home I focused on mobility. Making sure I was maintaining a full range of motion with my stretching. With an ACL injury, something is always better than nothing. The pain thus far is just minor soreness when I over stretch or when I get up to fast after sitting for an extended period of time.
During week 16, I lucked out and the governor decided to open up the gyms towards the end of the week. So, I pushed off my leg day for opening day! I surprised the hell out of myself, working up to 225 pounds for 8 reps on the hex squat and following it up with 245 pounds for 6 reps. It was hard for me to hold back a few tears as emotions and thoughts flew through my head of how far I have come over the last 4 months.
In conclusion, for those of you who have found my blog looking for answers after experiencing this injury. I hope I could bring some relief to any stress you might have about going through the surgery. Only thing you can do is remain present and leave your injury in your past. We can all dwell on what could have been and why this injury happened to you, but life doesn’t slow down for anybody and you’re only going to make the stress and depression worse. All you can ask of yourself is to show up every day and get BETTER. Before you know it, you’ll be looking back at everything you overcame, as a better version of yourself, both physically and mentally.
· Don’t dwell in the past and remain present, one day at a time.
· Take pride in the little accomplishments.
· Follow your doctor and physical therapists’ orders, there’s no shortcuts.
· Stay mindful of your injury but don’t fear pushing your limits.
· Don’t be afraid to show your emotions, the depression will eat you alive.
· Workout other muscle groups when ready.
· Find something to take your mind off of your injury on your down time when you aren’t doing therapy. (Reading, Video Games, Netflix Series)
· Eat healthy and stay heavy on protein and nutrient filled foods.