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?
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.
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.
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.