Preserve Your ACL & Accelerate Performance

Megan Stearman
Kettlebell squat swing (A)

To produce players who stop balls from dropping on defense, jump out of the gym on offense, and stay injury-free throughout the season, a volleyball training system must contain elements for both athletic performance and injury prevention. Performance training for volleyball players should include vertical-jump development, foot-quickness exercises, and lateral movement. Injury prevention should cover several areas that commonly cause problems, but the most noted issue for female athletes is ACL injuries. ACL-protective training includes correcting quadriceps-to-hamstring strength ratios, teaching force absorption, grooving neural patterns that correct valgus knee (the caving in of the knees when squatting, jumping, and landing), and developing strong postural lines so the shoulders stay over the hips.

As the athletic performance director for KIVA Volleyball and co-owner of EDGE Sports Performance, I have blended performance and injury-prevention strategies into a comprehensive system. This system has been a part of the development of many volleyball athletes who have excelled at the local, national, and even international levels. Below are some great performance exercises we use at EDGE Sports Performance that also help protect the ACL.


Vertical Jump Development

Kettlebell Squat Swings

These will strengthen the hips, legs, and back. The swing motion reinforces a quick drop into the bottom position of a jump, followed by a firing of the muscles used to jump when you return to standing. During the swing you get both force-production and absorption-training benefits. The path the kettlebell travels reinforces knee separation, corrects valgus knee response, and takes lateral pressure off the knee joint.

- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a kettlebell in front of your waist with both hands.

- Lower into a squat until your thighs are parallel to the ground, while allowing the kettlebell to swing back between your thighs, keeping your arms straight. (A)

- Drive through your heels and explode up with your hips to bring the kettlebell to chin level in front. (B)

- Return to squat position with control and repeat rhythmically.

- Perform 3-5 sets of 15-25 reps. Rest 60 seconds between sets.

Deadlift

This exercise increases ground-force production in a way that simulates how you jump. It also develops the posterior chain (backside muscles) and corrects any front-to-back strength imbalances caused by seasonal play. Deadlifts even correct posture and balance out hamstring-to-quadriceps strength, which is a key part of any ACL-protection strategy.

- Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Bend down and grasp the bar with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Position the bar close to your shins. Fully extend your elbows, stick your chest out, and look straight ahead. (C)

- Simultaneously extend your hips and knees to stand up. Keep your back straight and the bar close to your body. Squeeze your glutes to complete the movement. (D)

- Repeat the sequence in reverse to lower the bar to the ground.

- Perform 3 sets of 12 reps. Rest 30 seconds between sets.

Foot Quickness

Single-Leg Lateral Line Hop

This exercise is a high-neural plyometric, meaning it decreases foot-ground contact time and increases step-turnover ratio. You’ll also strengthen the hips, knees, and ankles while improving overall conditioning and balance. On the ACL side it teaches force absorption and trains the athlete to keep knee over ankle and ankle over the center of the foot. High neural plyometrics also develop tonic leg strength (an increase of muscle tone in the lower extremities), making the knee more stable even when the leg muscles are not flexed.

- Stand on your right foot next to a line on the floor (or a broomstick). Lift your left leg in front of your body with your left knee at a 90-degree angle and your foot flexed. (E)

- Keeping your core tight, stand on the ball of your right foot and jump over the line and back without letting your left foot touch the ground. (F)

- Perform as many reps as you can in 30 seconds, then switch feet and repeat.

- Perform 5 sets of 30 seconds on each leg. Rest for 30 seconds between sets.

- Other variations of this drill include forward to backward movement, a two-footed lateral hop, and a front to back switch step (one leg in front of the line and one behind, switching back and forth).

Lateral Movement

Lateral Step Separation

Lateral drills develop proper side-to-side movement patterns, strengthen the glutes and outer hips, stabilizing the knee from the hip down while developing proper lines of force and protecting the ACL.

The lateral step separation exercise teaches lateral push, knee separation, and recovery back to a proper platform.

- Place a light band around both legs just below the knees. Set your core before going into motion; this facilitates a stronger transfer of energy. Maintain an athletic platform. Stand on the balls of your feet with your knees soft and separated and your feet parallel. (G)

- Begin the movement with a tightening of the glutes and a push into the ground through the trail foot. Then extend your trail leg and push your body in the desired direction, stepping laterally with your lead leg. The trail leg follows lead leg with a step back into an athletic platform. (H)

- Perform 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps per leg.

Lateral Squat Push

This exercise strengthens lateral movement by training the trail leg to push off. It also develops proper posture in a lateral-lunge position.

- Set your feet hip-width apart and separate your knees. Point your toes straight ahead and press through the balls of your feet. Set your core and drop into a squat position. (I)

- Push off and extend your trail leg. Focus the force on the outside edge of your trail foot. As your body moves laterally, step with your lead leg and lower it into a lateral-lunge position. Pause briefly at bottom position with your trail leg straightened. (J)

- Step the trail leg in to return to the original squat position and repeat.

- Perform 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps per leg.

- Once form is great and strength is improved, you can add resistance to this exercise with a partner and a large resistance band.

Originally published in October 2014

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