Last week we talked about common calf strains and injuries. We mentioned that stretches and exercises are vital to keep the calves healthy and flexible.
Calf stretches are a vital part of rehabilitation for a whole range of foot and ankle problems. Tightness in the calf can affect the position of the foot, the way it moves and the balance. It is a common cause of both foot pain and knee pain.

The calf is formed by two muscles that work together to pull the toes down. Their main function is lifting the foot during the push-off phase of walking and running so calf problems are parts help to reduce pain, tightness and instability. They also help to reduce the risk of injury oricularly prevalent in athletes and sportsmen.

Stretche conditions such as Achilles Tendonitis, Plantar Fasciitis and Cramp.
Here, we will start by looking at the two calf muscles, gastrocnemius and soleus and how they work.  We will then look at how to stretch each of them effectively and how to get the best results from stretching exercises with the minimum effort.

How Do the Calf Muscles Work?

The calf is comprised of two muscles, gastrocnemius and soleus.  They start at the knee, travel down the back of the calf where they join together to form the Achilles tendon which attaches to the back of the heel.

Gastrocnemius comes from just above the knee whereas soleus starts just below the knee.  As a result, we have to stretch them both in slightly different ways to be effective.
The calf muscle works to pull the foot downwards (plantarflexion) and stabilise the ankle.  As we walk, run and jump, the calf muscle pulls the heel up to give us power we need to push up off the ground.

How To Get The Best Results
Calf stretches are simple, but in order to be effective, there are a few guidelines to follow:

1)  Hold For Longer: Studies have shown the most effective way to stretch is to hold calf
stretches for thirty seconds. This gives the muscle fibers adequate time to relax. Any less than 30 seconds and there will be minimal changes in muscle length

2)  Repetitions: You get the best results if you repeat calf stretches at least three times. Any less and stretches will have minimal effect. Also, doing more than three repetitions will give minimal extra benefit

3)  Take The Pain:  Stretches should be uncomfortable, but not painful.  Any discomfort felt should stop as soon as you stop stretching.  Effective stretching is not particularly pleasant!

4)  Stay Safe:  Stretching should not be done immediately following an injury e.g. calf tear as it can cause further damage.  You should be able to push down through your toes against moderate resistance without pain before you commence calf stretches.  Always consult your doctor before commencing an exercise programme after injury.

5)  Correct Position:  Due to the anatomy of the calf muscles you have to stretch each muscle separately. Gastrocnemius stretches tend to feel stronger than Soleus stretches.
a) Soleus: this calf muscle starts just below the knee so is stretched with the knee bent
b) Gastrocnemius: this calf muscle starts above the knee so the knee needs to be straight when stretching it.  The top of the muscle comes from two different places, known as the medial (inner) and lateral (outer) heads.  Gastrocnemius calf stretches can be done as a whole unit, or can be performed to bias the two different heads

Top Calf Stretches
Here you will find seven different ways to stretch the calf muscles.  You don’t need to do them all, pick your favourite two or three calf stretches and do those.

1) Lying Calf Stretch

Starting Position: Sit on the floor with the leg to be stretched straight out in front of you.  Place a towel or belt around the ball of your foot and hold the ends
Action: Draw your toes and foot up towards you, and pull through the towel to increase the flexion at your ankle until you feel a strong stretch in the back of your calf
Repetition: Hold for 30 seconds, repeat 3 times
Variations: To stretch your gastrocnemius muscle, keep your knee straight as you do this exercise.  To stretch Soleus, bend your knee slightly

2) Seated Calf Stretch

Starting Position: Sit in a chair with the leg to be stretched straight out in front of you.  Place a towel or belt around the ball of your foot and hold the ends. Sit up tall

Action: Pull your toes and ankle up towards you and pull through the towel to increase the stretch in the back of your calf
Repetition: Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times
NB:
1) To stretch your gastrocnemius muscle, keep your knee straight as you do this exercise.
2) To stretch Soleus, bend your knee slightly (about 20 degrees)
3) Make sure you are sitting up tall as you do this exercise – not slumped forwards

3) Standing Gastrocnemius Stretch

Starting Position: Stand facing a wall and step the leg to be stretched back behind you.  Make sure your toes are pointing straight forwards.
Action: Keeping up tall and your back knee straight, lunge forwards onto your front leg until you feel a stretch in your calf muscle on the back leg.
Repetition: Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times

NB:
1) Ensure you keep your back up straight and tall rather than bending forwards
2) Keep your back knee straight and your heel on the floor
3) Check your toes are pointing directly forwards, not out to the side – often it feels like they are but when you look they are actually turned out slightly

4) Standing Soleus Stretch
Starting Position: Stand facing a wall and step the leg to be stretched back behind you.  Make sure your toes are pointing straight forwards

Action: Bend the back knee slightly and, keeping up tall, lean into the wall until you feel a stretch in your calf muscle on the back leg.
Repetition: Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times

NB:
1) Ensure you keep your back up straight and tall rather than bending forwards
2) Keep your back knee slightly bent and your heel on the floor
3) Again, check your toes are pointing directly forwards, not out to the side

5) Calf Stretch On A Step
Starting Position: Stand on a step with the heel of the leg to be stretch resting off the back of the step.

Action: Drop the heel down by slightly bending the other knee until you feel a stretch in your calf
Repetition: Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times

NB:
1) To stretch gastrocnemius, keep the knee straight throughout
2) To stretch soleus, bend the back knee slightly during these calf stretches
3) If you are doing the exercises on the stairs, you may find you get more of a stretch if you have your other foot on a higher step

6) Outer Calf Stretch

Purpose: Stretches the lateral head of gastrocnemius (the outer side)
Starting Position: Stand leaning on a wall with the leg to be stretched back behind you
Action: Turn your toes inwards and then lean forwards until you feel a stretch in the back of your calf, mainly on the outer side
Repetition: Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times
NB: Ensure your knee is straight and you are keeping your upper body upright

7) Inner Calf Stretch

Purpose: Stretches the medial head of gastrocnemius (the inner side)

Starting Position: Stand leaning on a wall with the leg to be stretched back behind you

Action: Externally rotate the leg (turn it outwards) at the hip and then lean forwards until you feel a stretch in the back of your calf, mainly on the inner side

Repetition: Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times

NB: Ensure your knee is straight and you are standing up tall

Calf Exercises
Calf exercises look to work both of the calf muscles, gastrocnemius and soleus.  Strengthening the calf will help to support the ankle, foot and knee and can help to reduce the risk of problems developing.
1) Single Standing Calf Raises
Purpose: Calf strengthening in isolation

Starting Position: Standing holding onto a chair or the wall for balance and lift one foot off the floor.
Action: Push up onto your tiptoes as high as you can.  Hold for 3-5 seconds and then slowly lower back down to the floor.
Repetition: Aim for 3 sets of 10 repetitions
NB: Get maximum benefit from calf exercises by not taking any weight through your hands – let your legs do the work.  Your hands are just there for balance if needed

2) Step Standing Calf Raises
Purpose: Works the calf muscle through a great range to further increase strength.

Starting Position: Stand with your heels hanging off a step, holding onto something for balance e.g. wall or banister
Action: Let your heels drop down as far as feels comfortable and then push up onto your tip toes.  Hold for 3 seconds and then drop back down as low as you can
Repetition: Repeat 10-25 times
NB: Make sure you are taking your weight evenly through both feet.  You may feel a stretch in your calf as you let your heels drop down – that is fine.  You are just having a bit of a stretch as well as strengthening the muscles
3) Toe Pointing Against Resistance
Purpose: Strengthen the calf using resistance but without having to stand and bear weight on the leg

Starting Position: Either lying on the bed or sitting in a chair with your legs out straight. Wrap a resistance band such as theraband around the ball of your foot and hold onto the end.  Take up the slack in the band

Action: Push your foot downwards against the band so you are pointing your toes as far down as you can.  Hold for 3 seconds and slowly let your foot come back up
Repetition: Repeat 10-20 times

Variations:
You can vary the resistance in 2 ways
1) The more tightly you pull the band to increase the tension, the harder the calf muscles will have to work
2) You can choose from a range of bands at different resistances.  The higher the resistance, the harder the calf workout will be

4) Jumping
Purpose: It sounds simple but this is a great calf workout.  Jumps are very functional strengthening calf exercises and are a good cardiovascular exercise too

Starting Position: Stand with both feet flat on the floor
Action: Jump up and down on the spot.  You should be pushing up through your toes on the way up, and landing on your toes first as you land.
Repetition: Repeat 10-50 times either in one go or in 3 sets of 15
Variations:
1) If you want to make things more interesting, rather than just jumping up and down, jump in different directions (as shown in the picture), or jump up onto a step or box and then jump back down.
2) To work harder, hold weights as you do this exercise e.g. dumb bells or bottles of water
3) To work even harder, start in a squat position and then jump up and down

5) Hopping
Purpose: It sounds simple but hopping is a great calf workout.  Not only does it work the calf muscles, it also helps to strengthen your core, improves balance and is a good cardiovascular workout

Starting Position: Stand on 1 leg
Action: Hop up and down
Repetition: Repeat 10-50 times on each leg either in 1 go or in 3 sets of 15

Make the above routine, and say goodbye to calf problems.
References:

  •  Chloe Wilson, BSc(Hons) Physiotherapy
  • www.knee-pain-explained.com/

Compiled By:
Nellie Nthiga,
Chiropractic & Physiotherapy Health Centre

Calf Stretches

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