Leg Stretches: The Calf Stretch

Personal Trainer Malta the calf muscleWhat are the calf muscles?

The calf muscles are situated at the back of your legs below the knees. Scientifically the main portion of the calf muscle and the muscle usually considered as the calf is called the Gastrocnemius. It has two sections that run alongside each other originating from just above the knee and ending at the heel. The lesser known muscle that makes up the rest of the calf muscle sits under the Gastrocnemius and is known as the Soleus. The Soleus originates from just below the knee and joins into the same section of the heel as the Gastrocnemius. They both join on to the heel via a very well known and well injured tendon known as the Achilles tendon.

What do we use them for?

That is the boring scientific bit out of the way so now let’s see what the muscles actually do. To start with, the Gastrocnemius helps to bend the leg at the knee joint as it crosses that particular joint. This means that it works very closely with the Hamstrings in that movement. Its other main job is to plantar flex the foot or basically to point the foot down at the ankle joint. The Soleus does not help the leg bend at the knee as it does not cross this joint, but it does help with the plantar flexion of the foot and comes into its own when the knee is bent. When this occurs the Gastrocnemius is slack and has insufficient strength to plantar flex the foot, so the Soleus is able to take over and work hard. We use both muscles a lot in walking, running, jumping, balance and all sporting activities.

Is stretching them important?

Very much so, they are one of the most important stretches that we need to do. Failure to stretch them can lead to bad posture, back problems, Achilles tendon problems and the very worse being a complete rupture or separation from the heel. It is one of the most painful muscle tendon injuries that can happen and it literally happens with a bang (or loud snap…ouch! – .). It takes months to heal and you will never be able to achieve peak performance again.

What causes tight calf muscles?

The causes can vary, however it tends to be a lot of use followed by prolonged bouts of sitting. Everything we do when we are upright uses the calf muscle and a used muscle has a natural tendency to shorten. Add to that a lot of sitting and this leaves the main calf muscle (the Gastrocnemius – .) in a shortened state and you are creating the perfect situation to create a short, tight muscle and an injury waiting to happen. Now a little warning to the ladies: the wearing of high heals can exasperate the situation as it puts the foot in a permanent downward position which keeps the calf muscle shortened whether you are standing or sitting. To learn more about this click here.

What can you do?

Stretch, stretch and more stretches of course but there are some extra day-to-day tasks you can do to reduce the shortening effect:

Don’t sit for long periods
Don’t sit with your legs tucked underneath you
Make sure you have more than 90 degrees at your knee joint when sitting
Get up and walk around at regular intervals
Remove your high heels as often as you can
Diagram showing the standing calf stretch exerciseThe Wall Stretch

This is an easy stretch for the calf and all you need is a strong wall and yourself. Make sure when you do this stretch you are barefoot or have flat shoes on. Also make sure that the floor is not slippery as it just won’t work.

In a standing position facing the wall place both hands on the wall so that your arms are straight. This means you should be exactly arms distance away. Now take your left leg and place it behind you by quite a large stride (the larger the stride the stronger the stretch – .). The important bit is that your left heel is on the ground and to do this you will have to bend your right leg at the knee and push slightly with your arms to get the heel down. You should feel the stretch in the middle of the calf and it should feel like a strong pull and not be painful. If you don’t feel anything you will need to take a longer stride and if it is painful you will need to take a shorter stride. See fig.1 for the end position.

Once you are feeling the stretch you will need to hold it for at least 20 seconds, the longer the better. Make sure you hold it in the one position; do not try bouncing up and down to force a stretch as this could lead to an injury. When you have completed the left leg repeat it but for the right leg (we don’t want you walking in circles – .).

The Step Stretch

If you have no walls to hand but you have some steps, then you can use these to help stretch your calf muscles. It is advisable that you use the lowest step and not the highest step when doing this stretch. A flight of stairs can be a long way to fall!

Personal Trainer Malta the calf stretch using a stepStand on the bottom step looking up the staircase, holding onto a rail. Shuffle backwards so that your heels and the majority of your foot are off the step; you should now be just balancing on the ball and toes of your foot. Slowly lower your heels so that they drop below the height of your toes (fig. 2), you should begin to feel a stretch within the calf muscle. Stop descending when the stretch in the calf muscle feels like a strong pull and avoid a descent that causes real pain. If you do get to this stage by mistake immediately get off the step. My advice is to move slowly and not to drop into the stretch. If you cannot feel a stretch at all doing this and your heel is barely dropping, you may find that your calf muscles are very tight. You can get round this by doing one foot at a time. Keep the foot that you are not stretching on the step for balance and control. As with the standing stretch hold it for at least 20 seconds and avoid bouncing to increase the stretch.

How much to stretch?

To measure if you are stretching the right amount use the PRE (Perceived Rate of Exertion) Scale.1 is you can’t feel it at all and 10 is painful, therefore we need you to be taking it to a 6 or 7 so that it is a strong pull but not painful. Make sure that you hold the stretch in one position and don’t bounce up and down to increase the stretch on the muscle. This can cause an injury to your muscle.

Stretching your muscle “cold” (before you have warmed them up) can result in injury. My advice is to take it slowly and never just presume you can jump to the same point you could stretch to the time before. Always move slowly and in a controlled manner. Remember to breathe as holding your breath won’t allow your muscles to truly relax.