Table of Contents
- 1. Why Stretch Calves?
- 2. Calf Muscle – Function
- 3. The Anatomy (Form) of Calf Muscles
- 4. Common Conditions of Gastrocnemius and Soleus
- 4.1. Spasm, Cramp, Strain – Are they all the same?
- 4.2. Medical Gastrocnemius Strain
- 4.3. Inflamed Muscles
- 4.4. Compartment Syndrome (Knot) in Soleus
- 5. Why Do These Conditions Develop?
- 6. Why Stretch Muscles Before Exercise?
- 7. How to Stretch Out Your Calves
- 7.1. Downward Facing Dog
- 7.2. Stretch Using a Resistance Band
- 7.3. Seated Stretch
- 7.4. Standing Stretch
- 7.5. Gastrocnemius Lunge Stretch
- 7.6. Soleus Stretch
- 7.7. Heel Drop Stretch
- 8. Benefits of Calf Stretch
- 9. Bottom line
1. Why Stretch Calves?
Healthy living blogs, self-care tips, and the “improve-your-body-image” YouTube videos are motivating more and more people to improve their lifestyles. One common thing that can be found in this self-help, motivational content is exercise. This media aims to make you move around more with greater vigor and intensity.
We all have been guilty of sitting for long hours, with no walk breaks, to finish that project because our promotion depends on it. Rushing for the elevator instead of taking the stairs because we have already arrived late for work. Driving around to run errands, even on short distances because it’s too hot, too cold or we’re too lazy. These instances are common to almost every one of us. Unless, of course, you’ve been there, done that, and decided to discipline yourself.
Now, when we consume motivational content, it tends to inspire us to hit the gym to try and lose all of those extra kilos or perform intense workouts to keep ourselves from developing nasty, cardiovascular diseases.
Don’t misunderstand! It’s great that you have finally found the desire to get fit and lessen the risk of contracting health problems. However, it is important to go about it the right way! Exercising is great, but it will cause you harm if you don’t prepare your body clad in gym wear for an intense workout. This is where stretching comes into play!
Another mistake that runners and gym enthusiasts make is that when stretching, they mostly focus on bigger muscles. Smaller muscles are often neglected. A good example of this is the quadriceps and hamstrings – upper leg muscles – are almost always stretched but the calf muscles in the lower leg are often neglected.
These neglected muscles demand attention only when they become too tight and start to complain, making you howl in pain.
Let’s discuss what your calf muscles are. Why do you need to stretch them? And how?
2. Calf Muscle – Function
In the human body, calf muscles are present in the back of the lower leg. It extends from just below the knee all the way to the ankle. Calf muscles support different forms of locomotion. They play a vital role in walking, running, jumping, flexing your feet, and standing up straight. Movement in your toes is also controlled by your calf muscles.
3. The Anatomy (Form) of Calf Muscles
The calf muscle is located behind the shin bone in your lower leg. The calf consists of two muscles. These two muscles join the calcaneal tendon or the Achilles tendon above the heel and are often considered as one large muscle with two sections instead of two different muscles. However, there is a difference of opinion among anatomists regarding this fact.
Another small muscle called the plantaris runs between the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles along the calf. Together, these three muscles are called the tricep surae.
It is an interesting fact to know that many people lack the third plantaris muscle and only have the other two – gastrocnemius and soleus.
The gastrocnemius makes up the bulk of the calf. It is called the “superficial muscle” because its outline can be easily seen through the skin. The gastrocnemius muscle is mostly involved in swift movements such as walking briskly, running, or jumping. It is hardly involved in slower movements such as standing and walking slowly. The flexion of your knee is also dependent on the gastrocnemius.
The soleus is a flat, broad muscle on the lower leg, just below the gastrocnemius muscle. Since this muscle is smaller than the gastrocnemius, it is not visible.
The soleus muscle allows the body to make powerful movements such as running and jumping. Its major contribution is helping you to maintain your posture while standing and plantar flexion (pointing and bending of the toes, plus moving the soles of your feet).
It prevents you from falling forward and helps you to maintain balance.
4. Common Conditions of Gastrocnemius and Soleus
The vigorous movement of the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles makes them more prone to spasms, cramps, strain, knots, and serious injury.
4.1. Spasm, Cramp, Strain – Are they all the same?
The terms spasm, cramp, and strain are often used synonymously but they have some fundamental differences.
A spasm is any sharp, involuntary - cannot be controlled consciously - contraction of the muscle that causes pain, but usually relaxes on its own after lasting for several minutes.
Cramps are similar to spasms because they too are involuntary and painful. However, a cramp is comparatively more forceful and lasts longer than a spasm. It is usually relieved with a massage and some rest.
A strain is an indication of muscle injury. The injury may have happened due to overuse or incorrect use. Strains may require medical attention, rest, and proper time to heal.
4.2. Medical Gastrocnemius Strain
Forcefully bending the ankle backward (dorsiflexion force) can cause grave damage to the gastrocnemius muscle. The medical jargon used in research entries by PubMed Central for this occurrence is called "Medical Gastrocnemius Strain." In common, we can say that the muscle gets “torn.” This injury can have devastating results as it can lead to disability.
4.3. Inflamed Muscles
Overuse of this muscle can cause inflammation, too. Now, it might seem that having an inflamed gastrocnemius muscle is inevitable because we often find ourselves doing some sort of strenuous movement. However, this condition is more common in people who are professional athletes or beginners starting to run and do exercise routines without warming up properly before doing an arduous activity.
4.4. Compartment Syndrome (Knot) in Soleus
The soleus is covered with thick connective tissues - fascia. Due to this fact, the soleus is more prone to compartment syndrome.
Compartment syndrome is a condition in which increased pressure on the muscle leads to the insufficient blood supply to the muscles, resulting in limited movement and knots.
5. Why Do These Conditions Develop?
Not moving around enough or sitting for long hours can cause tight muscles. Sitting tends to force muscles in a shortened position. When muscles stay in this shortened position for a long time, they not only lose their flexibility (become tight) but also pull on other ligaments and muscles, causing pain. One common condition is sharp knee pain, where tight calf muscles pull down on the muscles on the back of your knee.
Slowly but surely, tight calves can cause back pain, ankle pain, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, and shin splints.
When these tight muscles are subjected to strenuous exercise, they get overworked and then develop painful cramps, strain, and other related problems.
6. Why Stretch Muscles Before Exercise?
You can prevent calf muscles from getting strained and cramped through gentle stretching. Stretching increases the length of the shortened, tight muscle fibers and reduces pain considerably.
7. How to Stretch Out Your Calves
There are various stretches that you can perform to warm up your muscles before exercising or as a recovery mechanism for tight calves, cramps, and spasms.
7.1. Downward Facing Dog
- Keep your hands and heels pressed to the ground to fully stretch out your calves.
- Start with placing your palms on the floor. Your hands should come under your shoulders and your knees beneath your hips.
- Press your palms firmly to the ground, fingers splayed before you.
- Place your head in between your elbows, face down.
- Shift your weight back, and make an inverted V with your butt pointed towards the ceiling.
- Make sure your heels are firmly planted on the ground; this will stretch your inner calves fully.
- To stretch the smaller muscles, bend your knees now and then with your feet pressing against the ground.
- Hold this stretch for one minute straight or you can hold this stretch for 30 seconds.
- Stand back up with a straight posture, then get back in the stretching position.
7.2. Stretch Using a Resistance Band
The Achilles tendon seated stretch helps increase your range of motion using a resistance band. This stretch is great for relaxing extremely tight calf muscles. You can also use a long, stretchable piece of cloth if you don’t have a resistance band.
- Sit on the floor with your legs splayed out straight, your toes pointing upward.
- Loop the band around the balls of your feet.
- Now gently pull your toes towards your shin. This will stretch your inner calves.
- Repeat the same with the other foot or stretch both feet together.
7.3. Seated Stretch
Here is another version of the resistance band stretch, but without the band.
- Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you, your toes pointing upwards.
- Lean forward, grab your toes, and pull gently.
- Hold for one minute.
- You will feel your calf muscles stretch
- Repeat with the other foot.
7.4. Standing Stretch
- Stand with your feet apart. One foot slightly in front of the other.
- Bend your back leg at the knee, your foot firmly pressed on the ground.
- Keep your front leg straight with the heel on the ground.
- Slowly bend forward till you reach the arch of your foot.
- Grab your toes and gently pull them towards you.
- You can also perform this stretch with a strap.
- Hold this standing stretch for one minute.
- Repeat with the other foot.
7.5. Gastrocnemius Lunge Stretch
Stretch sore calves with this lunge stretch. The main focus of this stretch is the gastrocnemius muscle.
- Stand a couple of feet away from the wall, then face towards it.
- Put your hands on the wall and place one foot back, so that your leg becomes straight.
- Bend the front leg.
- Your back knee should be straight. Don’t bend it.
- Increase the distance between your feet to deepen the stretch. For this, lean closer to the wall with the heel of your back foot pressed firmly on the floor.
- Hold this stretch for some time. At least one minute preferably.
- While you hold this position, move your back foot at different angles to stretch your calf better.
7.6. Soleus Stretch
- You can put your hands on the wall or the back of a chair for support.
- Put one foot back, heels on the ground, and toes pointing ahead.
- Bend your front knee. Then, bend your back knee.
- As you bend your back knee, it might become difficult for you to keep your heel on the ground. But for a proper stretch, make sure the heel is positioned properly.
- Keep your feet at a shorter distance.
- Hold this stretch for 30 seconds. Repeat 2 -3 times and alternate.
7.7. Heel Drop Stretch
Stretch a pulled calf muscle using a heel drop technique.
You will need a small step or a box at a low height. You can also perform this stretch on the last step of a staircase.
- Stand with the balls of your feet on the step. Your heels should be in the air, not touching the step/box.
- Lift yourself on your toes one foot at a time with your heels lowered towards the ground.
8. Benefits of Calf Stretch
The Stanford University Publications claim that stretching has many benefits other than alleviating the risk of calf muscle damage and strain. These include:
- Improved blood flow: When calf muscles become too tight, they don’t receive enough oxygen. Stretching increases blood flow to the muscles and joints, ensuring a continuous and sufficient oxygen supply.
- Relief from pain: As discussed above, tight calf muscles can pull at other muscles they are connected to, adding to your body’s discomfort. Stretching also helps with relieving pain in other parts of your body.
- Stress release: Stretching stimulates neuroreceptors to decrease the production of stress hormones. As a result, mental exhaustion is reduced, enhancing brain function.
- Flexibility: Stretching gradually strengthens calf muscles and improves flexibility, allowing you to have a longer range of motion. When you start stretching, after some time you’ll realize that your movements have become more fluid and agile.
- Reduces Risk of Surgery: Light stretching before exercise can warm up the calf muscles and reduces the risk of tearing and injury. If we look at this from a clinical perspective, stretching greatly decreases the risk of surgical intervention.
9. Bottom line
From the above discussion, it is evident that stretching is crucial to muscle health. So next time you hit the gym, don’t forget to stretch out for as little as 5 minutes during warm-up and cool-down sessions.
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