Training with a torn ACL


I have recently suffered a torn ACL injury; therefore I am unable to do full body workouts. I was wondering if you could help me get on the right track for an upper body workout while I am recovering from my injury. I do not want to get out of shape and still want to do a WOD but it’s hard to follow without being able to use my legs for a lot of sections of the workout. As an NFL veteran, I am sure you have seen this type of injury and how to work around it. I was wondering if you could put me in the right direction and provide me with an appropriate guideline.


Jon S.



I have torn my patellar tendon and had 3 arthroscopies to clean out torn meniscus, scar tissue and a bone chip. I know something about not being able to train your lower body due to injury.

I would stick with the basics: upper body push and pull. Bench press, floor press, seated dumbbell press, pull-ups, chin ups, push ups, lat pull downs and every movement you can create to isolated the arms, chest and back. This is a great time to focus on those big upper body movers and put in some concentrated work.


And above all else, continue to train the good leg. Leg raises, hamstring curls, isometric contractions, single leg glute bridges, four-way hip movements with stretch bands and single leg step ups are a great place to start. For years, they have done extensive studies on the carry over of training a healthy limb and its effect on the injured limb.

I wouldn’t put too much focus on metabolic conditioning just yet. You will have plenty of time to bust your ass and get your heart rate up when doing your rehabilitation post surgery. I would take this time to make sure I was strong and stable in all the places we tend to overlook when doing "functional training". Keep your upper, mid and low back strong, as you will need to in your rehab when learning to squat and deadlift again.

Remember, surgery is more physically/emotionally taxing than anyone cares to admit. Ask any athlete that has been hurt and required to have a few surgeries and they will tell you, each one is harder and harder to come back from.

With that in mind, make sure you nutrition and supplementation is on track. Things like water, fish oil, vitamin C & D3 and a diet free of crap are fundamental to speed healing. Start doing these things now; if you wait till after surgery it will be too late.

I know things have changed light years from when I had my ACL repaired in 1996. Back then, they used the middle 1/3rd of my patellar tendon and the rehab and recovery was lengthy and painful. I never understood the destruction of a healthy body part to fix another. In 2011, they use cadaver ligaments and space age stuff to fix ACL’s. Without inducing the massive trauma of cutting into the patellar tendon, the knee heals pretty fast and I have seen people back to full speed in 6-8 weeks, instead of 6-8 months.

The last clean out I had was after I left New England in September 08. I went up to San Francisco to have surgery and rehab with the great Kelly Starrett of Mobility WOD fame. Twenty-four hours out of surgery, I was at San Francisco CrossFit doing a Kstar-inspired metcon involving pulling myself off the ground by a rope, push-ups and DBs. We capped the day with a friendly challenge of me trying to good morning more weight than Kelly could back squat. I won that day.

And just for some reference, nothing adversely affects your ability to recover like anesthesia. The faster you can get the anesthesia out of your system, the better you do.

*Now for the legal stuff...I don’t suggest or recommend you start training 24 hours after surgery to flush the system of any lingering anesthesia. Please follow the advice of your doctor and make sure you are healthy and ready to engage in physical activity before starting any training regiment.

However, personally, it has always helped to speed healing.

Sorry you got hurt. I hate to hear about injuries, as I have had several, and they are never easy. Be smart with your rehab and let your body dictate the rate of recovery. Push too hard and you can set yourself back. Push too little and never make it back.




John Welbourn is the creator/operator of CrossFit Football and Power Athlete. He is a 10 year NFL veteran. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft. He went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John also is owner of CrossFit Balboa, an S&C gym in Orange County, CA. CrossFit Balboa is one of a handful of Westside Barbell certified gyms in the world. In addition to training MLB, NFL and other professional and Olympic athletes, John travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie.

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Posted in Diet, FAQ, Football, Talk to Me Johnnie, Training | Tagged , | 16 Comments

16 Responses to Training with a torn ACL

  1. Daz

    You leave any other comment other than “well said”.

  2. Eric

    This article couldnt have been posted at a better time. I managed to tear my right lateral meniscus a few weeks ago playing hockey. Im thinking that I should obviously follow the same suggestions that youve layed out for an ACL tear as well until I get my scope done…

    Would you make any modifications would you make for someone whos had scope on both knees and training via CFFB? I tore my left meniscus racing motocross a few years back as well. Im a Firefighter here in Toronto and Crossfit Football is probably the best progam Ive found to meet the demands of the job. Id really like to be able to continue following it.

    Thanks for the info and excellent programming John!

  3. Henry Adderley

    As an addendum to this, and with no intention to hijack anything, what are your thoughts on whether or not it is necessary to even replace the ACL at all once it is torn?

    And can you advise on whether or not there are ways to train through cartilage issues without surgery?

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  9. timing=impeccable; i just had my distal biceps tendon reattached. for 2.5 weeks was doing mobility and 1-armed wods + lower body strebgth. now after surgery five days i am feeling ready to get back to it, am going to focus lower body, of course w a few 1armed mini-metcons.
    dude this just REALLY inspired me!

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  13. Brady

    Hey, I have suffered from the acl tear. From football. I was in outstanding shape and happy with my body and mass, like you said the recovery is mental and physical. But I became depressed knowing I can’t play my senior year and my body has went to shit from no confidence or drive and its hard. Very hard. Can someone give advice on how I could get the great upper body again. And I have had surgery. So I’m limeted to mobilize! Please help:(

  14. Anne-Marie

    This article came up on a google search….full ACL Reconstruction surgery scheduled in a couple weeks….will be needed! Thanks for the opinions:). But alas I have a doc that worked on many collegiate athletes in the area and the patellar tendon is still the “gold standard”!!!! So be happy even with pain you got the gold laying in your knee…

    • Don’t do the patellar tendon. Why destroy a healthy tendon to fix a ligament? The rehab and tendonitis makes this a year on the shelf. A donor graph is the only way to go. The patellar tendon graph is an old way of thinking.

      Sorry but you need to find a better doctor that works with pro athletes. College athletes? No so much.

  15. Devendra Singh

    Can you tell me exercise, as I have ACL tear 20 years back (current age is 40) in my left knee. I do have some swelling some time without any reason and after few days swelling goes away. While sitting on foot light pain persists.
    My weight is 94 kg and height is 170 cm.
    I dont want to go for surgery.

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