As a runner the calf muscles are your friend or your foe. When healthy and strong the calf muscles can propel you forward with great power and when weak or tight they can make you cringe with every step.
The latter is what I experienced last week. Having gone too hard with a stair climbing workout, my calves took over a week and a half to recover. Since the calf muscles are connected to the foot and knee, a weak or sore calf can cause issues such as Achilles’ tendon inflammation or plantar fasciitis problems. Be wise and stretch thoroughly when working your calves!
Basic Anatomy and Function
Located at the back of the lower leg, there are primarily two large muscles that form the calf: Gastrocnemius and Soleus. These muscles work together to flex the foot and ankle, and the gastrocnemius is also responsible for flexing the leg at the knee. These muscles help the body move forward when pushing off with the foot so they are essential in walking, running, jumping and hiking.
The Gastrocnemius muscle is the largest of the two muscles, which itself is split into two parts consisting of a side (lateral) head and more central (medial) head. Both of these heads start at the femur and attach to the Achilles’ tendon that extends into the heel of the foot.
The Soleus is the smaller flat muscle that lies underneath the gastrocnemius, which inserts at the tibia and fibula. It extends down the back of the leg right to the heel through the Achilles’ tendon.
Conditioning Calf Muscles
More than other muscles, the calf muscles are prone to becoming tight because they are used lots throughout the day as we walk and go about our daily activities. To keep the calf muscles functioning effectively, focus on both strengthening and stretching.
Note that when doing calf exercises such as calf raises, the effect on the gastrocnemius or soleus muscles will depend on whether your knees are flexed or fully extended. Flexed knees will place more force on the soleus, while extended knees will work the gastrocnemius muscles a little harder.
The following are a selection of exercises for strengthening and for stretching the calf muscles.
Calf raises are the most common exercises used to strengthen calves. Below are a couple of versions of calf raises along with other exercises for curving your calves:
Calf Raise on Step
Seated Calf Raise – Machine
If you don’t have access to a machine, use a chair. While seated, plant feet on the ground, place a weight (plate preferably) on your quads. Perform the raises while seated.
Spider Crawl with FSSH Squat Harness
Want people talking about you at the gym? Try this one!
Combine cardio with strengthening your calves. Find stairs close to home or in your house.
Deep Calf Stretch
Instep – Calf
Strap Calf Stretch – Seated
Purposeful inclusion of calf exercises and stretches into your fitness routine will keep your legs healthy and looking good!
Resources and References:
- Hatfield, Frederick C., Fitness: The Complete Guide, Official Text for ISSA’s Certified Fitness Trainer Course, Edition 8.6.6, ISSA: Carpinteria, CA, p 288.