While these skinny muscles in our lower legs don’t get all the attention that the more powerful quadriceps and glutes seem to receive in the gym, don’t be fooled: your calves are crucial to your everyday movements and sports performance.
The Calves are composed of two separate major muscles. The larger of the two, the gastrocnemius is located beneath the knee and creates that double-sided bulge most people associate with the calf muscle. The smaller soleus is located further down towards the ankle. Both the gastrocnemius and the soleus muscles fuse together at the base of your back leg to form the Achilles tendon.
Their main job is to point the foot downwards. Imagine pressing your foot down on the gas pedal of your car. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see all the practical applications and uses your calf muscles have in your daily life. Indeed, it’s because your calves are so active during the day that they often look skinnier than other muscles in your legs- they’re literally doing a lot of the heavy moving of your bodyweight.
It’s your calves that provide the movement that actually propels your body forward whenever you take the first step to walk, sprint or jump. Conversely, your calves are also what slow your motion down once you need to stop walking or skid to a halt on the basketball court. In essence, your calves are the accelerator and brakes on your body’s motion. Strong, conditioned calves will provide us with the mechanics for better speed, acceleration, and balance.
It’s for this reason that we need to warm our calves up and get them flexible before engaging in any type of sports activity. By performing proper stretching before working out, we not only improve athletic performance, but contribute to injury prevention if we ever overexert ourselves.
But on the flip side, calves that are weakened by a lack of activity and stretching can also be the source of a wide array of foot and ankle ailments. Overly tight calf muscles can lead to all sorts of problems related to our arches, posture, and alignment. Care must also be taken to wear the proper footwear. Badly fitted, cheap shoes, as well as high heels, can all lead to poor walking patterns, further destabilizing the calves and their surrounding muscles.
Some of the most common (and painful) maladies related to tight calves are Achilles tendonitis, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis. All of these physical ailments can be alleviated by performing the proper stretching and strengthening exercises on a regular basis.
However, we have at our disposal all sorts of simple remedies for calf and foot problems that can be performed at home on a mat or against a wall or simply using a towel. There's not a lot of fancy equipment involved. In combination with low impact exercises such as biking and swimming, targeted stretching will improve flexibility and strength in your ankles, legs, feet.
Check out some of the stretches below. If you’re feeling tightness in your calves for whatever reason, start out by performing some of these flexibility and mobility movements at least 2-3 times per week.
Joel is the founder of IMPOSSIBLE and the founder of MoveWell. Joel founded MoveWell after sustaining an injury while running an ultra marathon on every continent. Joel is writes about mobility, pain management and health and wellness overall.