Secondary forests now make up more than one-half of all tropical forests, and constraints on their biomass accumulation will influence the strength of the terrestrial carbon (C) sink in the coming decades. However the variance in secondary tropical forest biomass for a given stand age and climate is high and our understanding of why is limited. We constructed a model of terrestrial C, nitrogen (N), and phosphorus (P) cycling to examine the influence of disturbance and management practices on nutrient limitation and biomass recovery in secondary tropical forests. The model predicted that N limited the rate of forest recovery in the first few decades following harvest, but that this limitation switched to P approximately 30-40 yr after abandonment, consistent with field data on N and P cycling from secondary tropical forest chronosequences. Simulated biomass recovery agreed well with field data of biomass accumulation following harvest (R2 = 0.80). Model results showed that if all biomass remained on site following a severe disturbance such as blowdown, regrowth approached pre-disturbance biomass in 80-90 yr, and recovery was faster following smaller disturbances such as selective logging. Field data from regrowth on abandoned pastures were consistent with simulated losses of nutrients in soil organic matter, particularly P. Following any forest disturbance that involved the removal of nutrients (i.e., except blowdown), forest regrowth produced reduced biomass relative to the initial state as a result of nutrient loss through harvest, leaching and/or sequestration by secondary minerals. Differences in nutrient availability accounted for 49-94% of the variance in secondary forest biomass C at a given stand age. Management lessons from this study are the importance of strategies that help retain nutrients on site, recognizing the role of coarse woody debris in immobilization and subsequent release of nutrients, and the potential for nutrient additions to enhance biomass growth and recovery in secondary tropical forests.