During the recovery and rehabilitation period following ACL reconstructions, athletes often engage in bicycle exercise in order to maintain fitness and sustain leg-muscle strength. A potential additional advantage of cycling exercise is that it is believed to place little stress on the recovering knee joint, compared to activities that involve impact forces to the legs, such as running and walking. However, some researchers have contended that it may actually be better for many athletes recovering from ACL reconstruction to place a greater emphasis on weight-bearing exercise, since such exercise is more functional than cycling for individuals who walk or run in their sports.
To compare the benefits of cycling and weight-bearing exercise for individuals recovering from ACL reconstructions, researchers at the Human Performance Research Center at the Department of Sports and Exercise Sciences of West Texas A&M University recently compared stair climbing and cycling in a population of 46 athletes (32 males, 14 females; average age 25.5 years). Several times a week, the athletes either carried out cycling or stair climbing workouts which were matched according to metabolic equivalents (METS) and heart rate (“Efficacy of Stair climber Versus Cycle Ergometry in Postoperative Anterior Cruciate Ligament Rehabilitation,” Clin J Sport Medicine, Vol. 12(2), pp. 85-94, 2002. Isokinetic testing was carried out at four and 12 weeks postoperatively on the uninjured knees to safely determine mean and peak concentric-quadriceps, eccentric-quadriceps, concentric-hamstring, and eccentric-hamstring peak torques. Pre- and post-study-period leg girths were also measured bilaterally.
As it turned out, there was no difference in strength gains between the bicycle and stair climbing groups in mean-concentric quadriceps, peak-concentric quadriceps, mean-eccentric quadriceps, peak-eccentric quadriceps, mean-concentric hamstring, peak-concentric hamstring, mean-eccentric hamstring, or peak-eccentric hamstring responses, although – interestingly enough – there was a trend for the gains in eccentric strength to be greater in the stair climbing group. Stair climbing did hold one statistically significant advantage over cycling: gastrocnemius (calf-muscle) girth was greater in both the injured and non-injured legs of the stair climbers, compared with the cyclists.
The Texas researchers rightly concluded that the results of the study suggest no deleterious effect of stair climbing on knee isokinetic performance or limb girth measurements following ACL reconstruction. The investigation also confirms the use of stair climbing as a viable adjunct or alternative to cycle ergometry in ACL-injured athletes.