Calf stretches everyone: how to do it correctly?

The importance of flexible calves

Your calf muscles are pretty important when it comes to moving. Think of them as the springs and shocks of your lower body. They help you move forward as you walk, allowing you to run, jump and change direction. At the same time, they cushion every step and protect your knees, hips and even your back by reducing the pounding force of your weight on your joints.

So it should come as no surprise that tight calves are incredibly common. But that doesn’t mean you have to live with tightness or pain. Read on to learn how to manage (and stretch) your calves.

Your calf muscles explained

Before you can understand why your calves are so tight — or how to fix them — you need to know a little about the muscles. The two muscles that make up the calves (the gastrocnemius and the soleus) join at the heel to form the Achilles tendon, which crosses the ankle joint. The gastrocnemius also crosses the knee joint.

Any tightness, limited range of motion or imbalance between the muscles can pull and push on the vital joints of the ankle and knee. And because every step you take requires calf engagement, a little tightness can turn into bigger problems if not caught and addressed.

(Here’s how to stretch your ankles so you can move more easily.)

Common Calf Tightness Problems

“I like to think of the calves as the first line of defense against upstream posture problems in the hips and spine,” says David Rosales, co-owner of Roman Fitness Systems and a personal trainer certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

A tight feeling in your calves changes the mechanics of your body slightly, shifting your weight slightly forward, as if your heels were always slightly higher. “This forward shift puts more pressure on your quads and hip flexors, which then pull on the spine and cause excessive lower back arch,” he says. “It’s a cascading effect on your major joints from your knees down through the torso.”

Sara Mikulsky, a physical therapist and owner of Wellness Physical Therapy in New York City, agrees. She points out that limited range of motion in the muscles of the calves can also lead to problems in the foot, including tendonitis, plantar fasciitis and stress fractures. You may also develop knee problems, such as patellofemoral pain syndrome, or hip problems such as bursitis.

“When the calf muscles tighten, the heel bone can be pulled in,” says Mikulsky. “This alignment places the foot bones and joints in incorrect positions, ultimately leading to injury.”

The point is, even if you’re not aware of it, a tightness in your calves can be the cause of pain in your lower body, hips, or spine.

Calf stretches to reduce tightness

A little stretching can go a long way in easing calf tightness while also reducing the risk of injury. Let’s say your tight calves pull your body forward slightly. To correct the problem, focus on the opposite movement: pulling your feet up toward your shins. This move (the technical term is dorsiflexion) lengthens the back of your calves.

“You want to train or stretch the pattern of dorsiflexion,” Rosales says. “Most people have sub-optimal dorsiflexion, especially those who often wear heels or other elevated shoes. The solution is simple: Do stretches that place your ankle in dorsiflexion and work to slowly improve that range of motion.

Incorporate some of the following stretches into your regular exercise routine to improve the dorsiflexion of your foot while extending your calves.

(Find out if you need compression stockings.)

Walking the dog

Downward dog is an excellent yoga stretch that encourages you to press your heels toward the floor. The move lengthens the back of your calves, hamstrings, and even your glutes. The dog walking starts with a downward dog position, after which you “kick” each leg, deepening the stretch in your calves.

Courtesy of Laura Williams Bustos, MSEd., ACSM EP-C

How do you do that

Start in a high plank position: palms under your shoulders, body extended, weight supported on the balls of your feet and your palms. Exhale and press your hips up toward the ceiling as you press back through your palms and extend your shoulders. Your body should form an inverted “V”.

Take a deep breath and focus on pushing your heels further toward the floor (they don’t have to touch). You feel a stretch in your calves. From here bend your right knee and shift your weight slightly to the left. Press your left heel deeper into the stretch. Hold for three to five breaths, then switch sides. Continue this “pedaling motion” in a slow and steady fashion, taking a deep breath and relaxing into the stretch for a total of 60 seconds.

Release, relax, and then repeat one more time.

Lunging calf stretch

The lunge exercise focuses entirely on your calf muscles. The goal here is to keep your back foot in full contact with the ground (your heel doesn’t lift) as you perform this leg extension.

dropout stretch

Courtesy of Laura Williams Bustos, MSEd., ACSM EP-C

How do you do that

Stand up straight, with your feet hip-distance apart and your knees slightly bent. Take a big step forward with your left foot. Both feet should be in full contact with the ground.

From here, bend your left knee to enter a lunge and fully extend your right leg. Keep your right heel in contact with the ground. You should feel a good stretch through your heel and calves. Hold the position for 20 seconds, relax into it to deepen the stretch without pushing to a point of pain.

Release and relax, then repeat two more times before switching sides.

(Don’t forget to stretch your quads.)

Very drop on a step

The heel drop on a step (or other raised surface) puts your foot into more extreme dorsiflexion, really stretching the back of your calves. Make sure to stop at the end of your comfortable range of motion – you will feel a slight stretch. Don’t let gravity or the weight of your body push you to a point of pain or discomfort.

Very drop on a step

Courtesy of Laura Williams Bustos, MSEd., ACSM EP-C

How do you do that

Stand on a step with your feet hip-distance apart. Place the balls of your feet toward the edge of the step so that your heels don’t come into contact with the surface. Place your hands lightly on a wall or sturdy piece of furniture to aid in balance and control.

Lower your heels to the floor from here. Stop when you feel a stretch, then hold the position for 20 seconds and relax into the stretch. Step forward so that your whole foot is on the step and rest for a moment.

Repeat the stretch two more times.

(These are the dynamic stretches to do before your workout.)

Seated stretch with towel

The seated calf stretch uses a towel, strong resistance band, or yoga belt to target each calf individually.

Seated stretch with towel

Courtesy of Laura Williams Bustos, MSEd., ACSM EP-C

How do you do that

Sit up straight on a mat, your legs stretched out in front of you. Wrap a rolled towel, strong resistance band, or yoga belt (or even a belt) around the ball of your right foot, holding the ends of the item with both hands. Take a deep breath. As you exhale, pull the strap toward you. This will pull the balls of your foot and your toes closer to you. Stop when you feel a stretch.

Hold the position and inhale deeply, relaxing into the stretch for 20 seconds. Let go, relax and rest for a while. Repeat two more times on the right side before switching legs.

Then learn how to do your warm-up exercises correctly.

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