Alveolar recruitment is one of the primary goals of respiratory care for acute lung injury. It is aimed at improving pulmonary gas exchange and, even more important, at protecting the lungs from ventilator-induced trauma. This review addresses the concept of alveolar recruitment for lung protection in acute lung injury. It provides reasons for why atelectasis and atelectrauma should be avoided; it analyses current and future approaches on how to achieve and preserve alveolar recruitment; and it discusses the possibilities of detecting alveolar recruitment and derecruitment. The latter is of particular clinical relevance because interventions aimed at lung recruitment are often undertaken without simultaneous verification of their effectiveness.