Stretch Your Calves: Why This Is So Important for Everyone

 

Calves

I'm guessing you don't think much about your calves as you go about your day-to- day activities.  There they are at the back of your lower leg, not doing much… so it seems.  They have a crucial role in your ability to stay balanced, strong and injury free and so they are worth an introduction.

Your calves are made up primarily of the Gastrocnemius and the Soleus muscles which both attach at your heel via your Achilles tendon.  This lovely strong part of your lower leg has a few important jobs to do as you go about your day-to-day life.

Responsibilities of Your Calf Musculature:

1) The muscles of the posterior lower leg (calf) act as powerful plantar flexors of the ankle joint.  Plantar flexion describes the movement of pointing/pressing the ball (front part) of your foot downwards.  You perform plantar flexion when standing on your tippy-toes, pressing the gas pedal of a car, walking, and running. While plantar flexing, the calf muscles provide the main forward propulsive force in walking and running by using the foot as a lever and raising the heel off the ground.

2) The Gastrocnemius muscle helps the bigger muscles further up the leg to bend or flex the knee.

3) These muscles help to keep you balanced and upright. They play a vital role in separating humans who stand and walk on 2 legs from other mammals that stand and walk on 4 legs.  While standing, these muscles neurologically communicate with other systems in your body to recognize when you start to sway (in any direction) and they are triggered to fire to keep you balanced and standing tall.

So why am I introducing you to your calves?

Here's why:  

In my office, every day, I see patients that have foot pain, heel pain (plantar fasciitis), achilles tendon pain and dysfunction, shin splints, calf pain, knee pain and even hip and back pain.

The thing that they have in common:  Tight Calf Musculature

In fact, even without symptoms, many people have tight musculature in this part of their bodies.  

Why does everyone have such tight calf muscles? 

It’s because almost everyone does something almost every day, for potentially many hours per day that human beings are not designed to do:

They sit in a chair.

In ancient cultures, human beings didn’t sit in a chair, they would stand or lie down or sit on the ground with their legs crossed or in front of them or squat on their haunches. 

In our current modern day culture we are rewarded as a society for sitting in a chair.  Many of us sit to work, we sit to eat, we sit to drive, we sit for entertainment in front of a television or a computer. 

All of us sit waaaayyy too much and it’s causing problems for our health.

We talked in a previous post about how all this sitting keeps us from being active and how that wreaks havoc on our health.

So what does sitting too much have to do with my calf muscles?

When you are seated at your desk or in your car, or relaxing in front of the television, your knees are bent (flexed at 90 degrees) and your feet are plantar-flexed or in a relaxed forward position.  This is especially relevant for women who wear high heels to work as their feet are automatically pointed downward in a plantar-flexed position because of the shape of their shoes.

The posture of your knees and your feet while you are seated bring your calf muscles to a shortened position making them tighter.

Therefore, since everyone sits too much, that is why pretty much every person has calf muscles that are too tight.

Ok, so how does that make me more susceptible to injury?

Well, your body is a wonderful compensator. If you have lost flexibility or strength in one area, it will find it somewhere else along the anatomy train. 

If your calves are tight and inflexible and can’t do their jobs (that we talked about above) which are all vital to the normal biomechanics of walking and running, then muscles and joints above or below your calves will have to work harder for you to do the same motions.  This can lead to all of the aches and pains that I mentioned above that can be anywhere from your toes to your low back.

Also, as you get older and you lose strength and flexibility in the musculature of your calves, your balance will get worse and you will be more likely to fall.

Do you want to know if your calves are tight and if you are susceptible to injury or are you looking for the potential cause of your back, hip or leg pain?

First:  How much do you sit?  This is a relevant question even if you exercise one or 2 hours (or even more) per day.  If you are sitting for many hours a day, you likely have tight calves.

Second: Try these 2 things:  (Disclaimer…please be careful and go slowly so as to not injure yourself and if anything feels uncomfortable or painful, stop)

1) While seated, lift your leg straight out in front of you and point your toes up towards the ceiling and pull them back toward your knee.  This action is called dorsi-flexion and you will feel a stretch in your calf muscles when you dorsi-flex.  As you pull the foot and toes back toward you, you should be able to bend your ankle 10-20 degrees past 90 degrees.  If you can't, then your calf muscles are too tight.

2) Stand with your feet hip distance apart and squat down.  As you squat down if your heels pop up off the floor, you have tight calves.  In order to have full range of motion, you should be able to bring your rear thighs in contact with your calves while your heels stay flat on the ground.  

Keep in mind, that you need good flexibility in your hips and your knees as well to do this posture.  Also keep in mind that most people are not ready to get to this level of flexibility so if you can’t do it, don’t beat yourself up, but make it a goal because it is a normal human range of motion.

So I have tight calves…what can I do about it?

1) Sit less, move more.

2) Stretch your calves at least once per day but preferably more often than that.  Once per hour is not too much, so take a break every hour and do a little stretch.

Here’s how:

Calf Stretch on the Stairs

Place your toes on the edge of a stair and drop your heel toward the floor. You’ll feel a stretch in your calf and the bottom of your foot. Hold for 10-15 seconds.

Lower Calf Stretch

As you drop your heel, bend your knee and push your knee down toward your toes.  You’ll feel this stretch lower on the calf and on the inside of the lower leg. Hold for 10-15 seconds.

You can also do each of these stretches with your heel angled in or out to get a bit more stretch on the inside or the outside of your lower leg depending on where you feel tightness. 

Who knew that those muscles back there at your lower leg could play such an important role in so many aspects of your musculoskeletal health.

Sit less, move more and stretch your calves.  It really is important for everyone.

Peggy.

 

Dr. Peggy Malone is a Chiropractor and an Athlete who helps other athletes to overcome injury and get back to their sport. She also inspires patients from all walks of life to take control of their health to be as happy and as healthy as they can be.

A former varsity Basketball and Rugby player, she has since entered the world of endurance athletics where she has completed 2 Ironman Triathlons, 3 Marathons, several Half Marathons and many other Triathlons, Road Races and Off-Road Adventure races of varying distances.

Her own athletic endeavors and injuries have given her valuable insight into working with athletes in her practice for both the care of injuries as well as for the improvement of athletic performance.

Her eBook Shin Splint Solutions has helped hundreds of athletes get past the pain of Shin Splints and get back to doing what they love.

 

 

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34 Comments
  • Lucy
    April 12, 2011

    Such an awesome article!  The pics are so beautifully descriptive.  Thank you!!

    • Dr Peggy
      April 12, 2011

      Glad you liked it Lucy. I hope that you found a tidbit that you can use in your everyday life :)

  • jeannette webb
    April 12, 2011

    Peggy,
    Great article!  When I hit 40, I started having all kinds of back issues.  My physical therapist gave me lots of stretching exercises – most of them dealing with the calves.  Totally blew me away, but you made it very clear why this was the case.  Thanks!  Love the photos!

    • Dr Peggy
      April 12, 2011

      What a great example of how tight calves can contribute to aches and pains further up the anatomy train!

  • Carla J Gardiner
    April 12, 2011

    Whoa! Do I ever need this info. While reading along I tried implementing each step…I am not flexible, my calves are so tight that there is no flexibility and I do need to get up more often and move. I've forwarded this to all of my broker, dispatcher and truck driver friends…man, we all need this. Thanks, Dr. Peggy what a chest full of gold!

    • Dr Peggy
      April 12, 2011

      Carla, I’m so glad the info was helpful and I’m so excited that you paid it forward to so many people!

  • Kulwinder
    May 13, 2011

    Hi Peggy 
    this was a great article abut calf muscles , But i have a question for u.
    My wife was into an motor vehicle accident and she had a surgery of her leg almost 11 years back at that time she had more than 50 stiches on her leg some on back side of her anckle (Achilles tendon)  and some on inner part of thigh close to knee.Since then when she walk  she always keep her knee bend and because of that now her leg muscles too tight and know if she want too keep her knee straight she cann't. We took Her leg's X-ray But everything in her bone structure is normal.
    Can u please her us and tell us the name of some excercise which she can do to Fix her.
    I ll be very thankfull to u..

    • Dr Peggy
      May 16, 2011

      Hi Kulwinder, I’m so sorry to hear about your wife’s leg. It sounds as though it has been an extremely frustrating journey.
      It’s difficult for me to give advice of this nature when I haven’t seen your wife. You may want to consult with a practitioner
      that does myofascial soft tissue work like Active Release Techniques. If you go to http://www.activerelease.com you may be able to
      find a provider in your area.
      I hope this helps.

  • Tara Geissinger
    May 20, 2011

    Thanks for pointing me to this post this weekend Dr. Peggy! It was really helpful. Not only am I going to make it a point to get up and move around more while working, I'm also going to be better about my stretching. I think my calves are okay, but I certainly want to continue to protect them from injury! 

  • Sean
    April 1, 2012

    I can't run anymore because every time I do my achilles start hurting, despite doing regular achilles/calf stretching and strengthening (as in your descriptions). So I decided to do something 'radical' and abandoned sitting in the hope that squatting full time would sort out the problem. The trouble is, a week into this my left knee starting really hurting and I was diagnosed as having osteoarthritis (am in the process of having an xray to confirm this) and hence told never to bend my knee beyond 90 degrees. And so the squats are out. This has taken me back to my original problem – what can I do about my achilles now? I just want to run :-(

  • Paco
    May 17, 2012

    This article talks about sitting all day at work, but I am wondering if standing all day can have a similar effect. I have been a hairstylist for years and more recently have noticed tight calf muscles (mainly the right leg). Could this be the cause as well? Either way I’m going to try these stretches. Thanks!

  • Ann
    July 8, 2012

    I have had numerous sprains of my right ankle (every few years) for which I was first treated in the late 60's with compression, elevation and rest.  So, now I've developed ankles that will nearly sprain (turn over severly) but I don't seem to have major sprains. However, my calf muscle seems to be complaing as is my foot arch.  The discomfort begins as I walk with stiffness, and goes from the foot arch to the calf.  Upon resting, aka sitting, I get these calf pain pulses which I don't have an explanation for as well as my feet tend to "burn" and the arch pain returns….all of which isn't 100% debilitating but is more annoying.
    What do you think I should do?  I hate to bother my primary dr. with this, as I don't want to seem to be a complainer.

    • Dr Peggy
      December 17, 2012

      Hey Ann,

      The repetitive sprains have created a situation where you have lost proprioceptive feedback from your foot/ankle to your brain. (ie, they are not communicating with each other like they did before the injury) Once the ligaments have been repetitively injured, the musculature on the posterior and lateral side of the lower/leg ankle has to work a lot harder which can lead to some of the symptoms you are describing.

      The long term solution for you (and others who have repetitively injured their ankles) will be to do some proprioceptive re-training of the lower leg/ankle (via balancing etc) as well as some stabilization/strengthening of the hips/pelvis which will help to maintain over all balance.

      Hope this helps!

      Peggy

  • Stephanie
    February 9, 2013

    Thanks so much for this article, it explains a lot!
    I was just wondering if you have any ideas to avoid the chair sitting position? I am a student so I'm having to write a lot of essays, but usually in the comfort of my home. Would sitting in a lotus like position be better, or just sitting on a pillow on the floor? Currently none of my muscles are very strong, incl my abdominal and back muscles, so slouching in a chair is a lot easier.
    Unfortunately I've been having a lot of trouble getting to sleep recently, because my calf muscles are very tense and keep twitching. Rubbing in heat rub cream tends to help to take the edge off. I do try to stretch and massage, but the gastrocnemius muscle on the inside of the leg is really quite tender and tends to twinge so I don't dare to massage it too much.

    I know I need more excercise as walking has helped, but with deadlines looming I know I will be sitting a lot and I was curious to know if I could do anything to minimise the consequences. Help would be much appreciated :)

    • Dr Peggy
      April 8, 2013

      Hi Stephanie,

      Getting up and moving often (even for a few seconds) is something that you definitely should be doing!
      You can sit cross legged which will help you sit up straight. Try for 10 min per hour.
      Then you could sit for 10 minutes per hour on an exercise ball.
      You could try working at a station where you stand up and work for 10 minutes an hour (may not be possible)
      They have something called a tread desk where you can have a desk surrounding a treadmill and walk (also may not be currently possible but such a cool idea)

      The twitching you are describing could be a nutritional deficiency as well. Make sure you are getting enough Calcium and Magnesium in your diet!

      Good luck!

      Peggy

  • David
    March 18, 2013

    I am in my late forties and last Xmas suffered a meniscus tear (posterior horn).  I now feel significant tightness behind the knee and sometimes in the calf.  Sometimes I stretch the calf (like your photos so aptly describe) as well as the hamstrings and it feels better but sometimes it feels much tighter a short time later.  Do you have any suggestions?  Keep stretching, stop stretching for a bit, stretch more lightly, only certain stretches?  Never sit? I am worried that if I keep stretching it will reinjure the meniscus and if I don't I'll get less and flexible and worsen the problem.  Your website is quite helpful and thanks in advance for your attention.

  • albert reynolds
    May 21, 2013

    Hi – your article seems to be the best describing my condition.
    About 3 years ago I ‘tore’ a muscle in my left calf – very painful but advised to let time heal. Well, 2 years later I have had extreme difficulty walking more than 100 metres on the flat, 50 metres with any incline or carrying heavy objects. It was originally only the left calf but has extended to the right as well. Physio has described it as mechanical, Docter as smoking with high cholestoral. I have been assuming it is blood related and am taking disprin + cholestoral tabs but the condition just seems to be worsening lately. The pain is like cramp and feels as if the calves fill up with lactic acid within seconds. I do drink quite a bit of wine daily. I don’t stretch but will now start as I’m pretty anxious. Thanks if you can give advice from similar problems encountered.

    • Dr Peggy
      June 19, 2013

      Hi Albert,

      It sounds like your symptoms are multi-factorial so I would definitely recommend checking in again with your medical doctor. Stretching of the calf musculature and working with a body worker that does soft tissue work like Active Release Techniques may also give you some relief.
      Good luck with it!

      Peggy

  • albert reynolds
    May 21, 2013

    Hi again – one more thing – the muscles in both calves twitch like crazy after mild walking and sometimes even when sitting at particular angles.
    Thanks

    • Dr Peggy
      June 19, 2013

      Hey Albert,

      Sometimes twitching or ongoing spasms could be related to a nutritional deficiency. Make sure you are getting balanced magnesium and calcium in your diet. Talk to a dietician or a nutritionist to see if this may apply to you!

  • Eric
    July 31, 2013

    So Peggy…..what your telling me is there still hope?? lol I wiuld laugh if I could I’m a 38 yr old male who stays pretty active, about 2 months ago Inoticed my lower back getting tight, I work out 4-5 days a week so every once in awhile that would happen. This has become a much different, recently named nightmare. As I said the pain started in my low, lower back and transferred around to my left hip. It feels like sciatica but much more of a direct sharp pain. That’s been going on for awhle now and I’ve been stretching and not sitting as much, its still there but also have aching pain goingall the way down myeg,, calves down to my feet, achillies tendon, even toes.
    I’m not sure what I should do at this point, any direction would be great. Thank you

    • Dr Peggy
      August 1, 2013

      Of course there is still hope Eric!
      Based on your symptoms, I would guess that your hip flexor muscles are involved.
      Check out this post to learn more:http://drpeggymalone.com/stretch-hip-flexor-muscles
      Get up and move more. Keep stretching your calves.
      If you are still in crisis, go see a good body worker (chiropractor, massage therapist, physiotherapist)
      Hope this helps!

  • George
    August 16, 2013

    I am flat footed. Had an arch pain 1year before after a run. I have since stopped running and now using custom orthotics but still have mild pain. What should I do to prevent it from happening on the other foot. I feel tenderness inside when I press the Achilles’ tendon area only when I point the toe out wards and sitting on the knees. But no pain while pressing the Achilles’ tendon during normal positions.

    • Dr Peggy
      September 7, 2013

      Hi George,
      To prevent a recurrence or symptoms in the other foot, I recommend keep moving, keep stretching and if you are having symptoms, work with a good body worker (chiropractor, massage therapist, physiotherapist) to help keep the soft tissues in your legs and feet loose and supple.

  • mares
    August 23, 2013

    Very helpful thank you.
    BOth my feet tingle when lying down, several physicians have tried to diagnose, no nerve damage or diabetes. I do have very tight calf muscles and have been poor at stretching. No longer jog but am very active, use steps daily, walk, individual pilates.
    Am now going to stretch at bedtime while lying down. By morning feet feel fine until I lay down to rest or go to sleep!

    • Dr Peggy
      September 7, 2013

      Hi Mares,
      I would definitely recommend that you keep stretching. I would also recommend working with a good body worker (chiropractor, massage therapist, physiotherapist) who could help to loosen up the soft tissues in your lower legs and feet which should help with the neurological symptoms that you describe.

  • Jon
    August 24, 2013

    Helpful post and pictures!

    I’ve got a dysfunctional hip (trying to put off hip resurfacing as long as possible) and most of the calf stretches I’ve tried irritate my bad hip. Is there any method you could suggest that would protect it?

    • Dr Peggy
      September 7, 2013

      Hi Jon,
      If you are standing on the stairs and letting your heel drop to stretch your calf, the stretch should be fairly isolated to the calf and shouldn’t aggravate the hip too much. If that is what you are doing and it’s causing you aggravation, I would recommend working with a good body worker (Chiropractor, Massage Therapist, Physiotherapist) to help loosen up the soft tissues and strengthen the muscles around your hip.

  • Abha
    May 20, 2014

    Dear Peggy,

    I do a sitting job and at the end of day my leg muscles are so tight and ache that i cannot walk or sit. My therapist says varicose veins but didn’t come on doppler. Please tell if these exercises will help.

    Thanks

    • Dr Peggy
      May 20, 2014

      Anything that will get you moving more will be helpful. Sitting all day is tough on the body!

  • steve
    May 27, 2014

    Dr. Peggy, I’ve been running for 10 years – only 3 miles/week max; but this April I have increased my milleage running 3 times a week to prepare for a 1/2 marathon in September. Just last Sunday, I ran my farthest at 7.5 miles, which is .5 longer than my run the previous weekend. The issue I’m having is my shins. I know what shin splints feel like, but on my right leg, it feels deeper and the muscles are very tender along the right side of the bone. I’m concerned it could be Compartment Syndrome. Could CS come on this fast? I’ve been focusing on stretching my calf muscles along iwth my shin muscles. Also, to assist with loose hip flexors, I’ve recently raised my computer so I now stand at work. Should I foam roll it? How about Accupuncture? Any wisdom you can share would be much appreciated! Thank you.

    • Dr Peggy
      June 11, 2014

      Hi Steve,

      I would say that your tight calves are creating a compensation on the front of the shin that is making the tibialis anterior muscle work harder….which is probably the discomfort you feel on the front/lateral side of your leg. Keep stretching the calves and add the ‘Toe-Ups’ exercise to strengthen the front shins. Your symptoms don’t sound like compartment syndrome but I would need to have a better history and fuller picture of what you are dealing with. If it continues to be a problem, I would suggest seeing a body worker (chiropractor, physiotherapist, massage therapist, acupuncturist) that works with athletes to get some support.
      Good luck!

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