Ever notice how the calf muscle seems to get little attention? Rarely do group fitness classes dedicate blocks of time to calves like they do for ab workouts or the butt. While the calf muscle often goes unnoticed as an important muscle, but it’s more important than you think. And sure, some are born with a nice set of calf muscles, and others have to work at developing them.
But regardless of your genetics, it’s vital that we all take care of our calves. That’s because weak or tight calf muscles, left neglected, can contribute to all sorts of posture problems, pain, injuries and athletic performance problems. And who wants that?
Physiology of the Calf & Why It’s Important to Strengthen
What makes calf exercises so important to our daily functions? Let’s go a bit deeper into the physiology of the calf. You should know by now that the calf muscle, which is on the back of the lower leg, is made up of two muscles. The gastrocnemius is the larger calf muscle that forms the bulge in the upper calf area. There are two parts that form a sort of diamond shape. The soleus is much smaller and more flat lying just beneath the gastrocnemius muscle.
These two calf muscles taper, and merge together at the bottom of the calf, consisting of tough connective tissue that joins the Achilles tendon. This inserts into the heel bone. With all of these mechanics at play, you can now see how important it is to ensure all of these parts are in good working order. When we walk, run or jump, the calf muscle performs work to pull the heel up, allowing a forward movement.
Back to that gastrocnemius. That chief muscle of the calf is responsible for flexing the knee and plantarflexion of the foot. (The movement that consists of pointing your toes downward). It runs to the Achilles tendon from two heads attached to the femur above the back of the knee. (1)
The soleus is responsible for plantarflexion. When we stand, the soleus offers a lot of stability, in particular to the foot, fibula and tibia. (2)
Together, this dynamic duo provides critical stabilization for walking, hiking, running, jumping and even standing. And as we’ll talk about later, calf exercises are crucial because an underdeveloped calf area could cause some nagging injuries such as achilles tendonitis, shin splints, calf strains and plantar fasciitis. (3)
Calf Muscle Conditions
The forward action or running works the back of the leg more than the front. Did you know that for a runner, the calves lift the heel about 1,500 times per mile? All that heavy lifting can cause a lot of lower leg injuries, such as calf pulls, shin splints, stress fractures and compartment syndrome, if underdeveloped. Also, anything from not being warmed up before exercise to doing a lot of hill work to over stretching to over training can lead to calf strains. Depending on the severity of the injury, it could take some time to heal. (4, 5)
Some people complain also about tight calf muscles. This can be triggered from overuse, trauma from an injury, nerve injuries or medical problems like stroke or diabetes. One other thing I also want to point out is that there are concerns about those who store fat in the lower extremities, such as the calves. The problem is that this can cause blood clots, increasing the risk of heart disease. Additionally, fat storage in the calves can be caused by the retention of lymphatic fluid in the legs due to a weak lymphatic system. If you feel this describes you, make sure to consult your doctor. (6)
If the calf muscle is not in good working order some conditions can occur such as:
Calf Muscle Strain
A calf muscle strain is when you stretch the calf muscle past its normal position, which can cause tearing of muscle fibers. Pain levels can be mild to severe. This is sometimes referred to as a pulled calf muscle or a calf muscle tear.
Calf Muscle Rupture
A calf muscle rupture is when the calf muscle has completely torn. This will likely result in severe pain. This can cause the inability to walk and the muscle may even collapse into a lump that may be seen and felt through the skin.
Calf Muscle Myositis
Calf muscle myositis is the occurrence of inflammation of the calf muscle. Though rare, this can be caused by infections or autoimmune conditions. An autoimmune condition often attacks the tissues of the body by mistake.
Rhabdomyolysis is when the muscle breaks down because of long-term pressure, over-exercising, drug side effects or a severe medical condition, but if this happens, it is likely to affect numerous muscles in the body. The characteristic triad of complaints in rhabdomyolysis is muscle pain, weakness, and dark urine. Calf pain is one of the muscle groups often impacted when muscle pain is reported. (7)
Calf Muscle Cancer
Body Type and Our Calves
The calves are no different than general body shape when it comes to the variety of sizes. Some have skinny calves, some people have calves with more fat, some are muscular, toned or bulky — it depends on a lot of factors. Genetics can play a big role in the shape of the calves, but if you are a bodybuilder, you’re likely to have thick, muscular calves due to the work you put into building them. Endurance cyclists often have strong, well-defined calves because of the repetitive motion of pushing and pulling the pedals.
There are folks who have long, lean calves with no muscles to show, or dancers with long lean calves featuring definition. The shape of the calves is also determined by the position of the muscle in relation to the knee and ankle joints — some are simply higher and some are lower; most likely a genetic attribute.
Regardless, the shape of your calves is usually affected by what you do every day. If you exercise routinely, are a runner, cyclist, dancer or bodybuilder, you’re more likely to have shapely calves. But if you’re overweight, your calves may appear large and untoned. In any case, you don’t have to be an amazing dancer to have great calves, just simply putting calf exercises into your fitness regimen can offer surprising results. (9)
Best Approach to Getting Defined Calves
When you’re trying to cut body fat and get defined, diet is key. It’s no exception when we’re talking about the calves. The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) points out that protein (hint, hint, eat your protein foods!) is essential for every meal. When choosing carbs, the complex carbohydrates are the best, but a few simple carbs are still needed — just don’t over do it. Healthy fats are the way to go, such as avocado and coconut oil, but use in moderation. Athletes may need a few more calories to build muscles. But regardless, careful monitoring of caloric intake is important if you want to build and see the calf muscle definition develop.
Some ways to get those awesome calves are at your fingertips. You can work with a personal trainer to determine the best exercises strategies for you. Because some calf exercises may incorporate balancing on your toes, if you have stability issues, make sure to include a safe environment for exercising and work out with a partner or coach. Additionally, proprioception exercises to build balance may be a great way to prevent injury for athletes. (10)
Calf raises are most popular when it comes to strengthening and building muscle in the calves. Calf raises are great because they help improve muscular strength which, of course, will tone the area. Nice perk? They can be done almost anywhere.
Sports rehab doctors and coaches often use calf raises to help with issues that arise from Achilles tendon injuries such as an Achilles tear or tendonitis. When you have strong calf muscles, you reduce the risk of injury by reducing the stress placed in that area during activity. This, in turn, facilitates faster healing. If you often engage in activity that requires balancing on one foot, such as a yoga position, or jumping while playing basketball, strong calf muscles can offer a lot of stability. (11)
Appropriate strength training techniques to help stimulate the correct muscles in your calves can help shape the calf muscles. Improving the flexibility of the ankle joints and varying your exercise moves to include all the ranges of motion may also be beneficial. Seated and standing calf raises and leg press machines can help develop stronger calves.
Kris Gethin, editor-in-chief of Bodybuilding.com, reports that by doing calf raises every other day, you can develop muscular calves; however, activities such as running, walking, jumping rope and cycling can provide tone but may result in thinner calves. So it really depends on what you want out. (12)
Best Calf Exercises
Working the calves is easy and does not require too much time. With a consistent routine of every other day, you can have toned, shaped calves in no time.
Standing Calf Raise
Stand near a wall or chair for balance. Place your feet hip-distance apart with the ankles, knees and hips square to the front. Once you are stable, slowly lift your heels off the ground raising the body upward (not forward or backward). Tuck your butt under just a bit and tighten the abs as you raise. Hold this position for 3 to 10 seconds (you will be able to hold it longer as you get stronger). Release and repeat 10 to 20 times.
Single-Leg Calf Raise: Advanced
This is similar to the previous exercise, but requires a bit more stability. Over time you won’t need the wall or chair for support, but for now, make sure you’re able to maintain stability by standing near a wall or chair. Place your feet hip-distance apart with the ankles, knees and hips square to the front.
Once you are stable, bend your left knee so that that foot is off of the floor. (Abs are tight.) Slowly lift your right heel off the ground, raising the body upward (not forward or backward). Hold this position for 1 to 3 seconds. Release and repeat 10 to 20 times on each leg. For an even more advanced move, try this on a Bosu Ball, but be careful and work your way up to it. A nearby support to hold onto is crucial if trying this exercise.
Seated Calf Raise
This exercise can be done on the calf exercise machine at the gym by selecting the appropriate weight for your level. Make sure you don’t overdo it.
Here’s the at-home version: Start by sitting in sturdy chair and place your feet flat on the floor. Make sure the knees stay aligned directly over your feet. Lean forward while placing hands on thighs close to your knees. This is where the action is going to take place.
While raising your heels, keeping the toes and balls of the feet on the ground, simply push down on your thighs to add resistance. Then slowly lower your heels. Repeat 10 to 20 times. The harder you push, the harder it will be to lift your heels. You can place a weight on your lap for resistance if your prefer and feel that you are ready for that.
Three-Way Stair Calf Raise
Using stairs, or any sort of ledge (such as a sidewalk), is a great way to build muscle in your calves. To do it, you may want to choose a spot that has something to hold onto for stability, such as a rail. Place the toes and balls of your feet on a step at hip distance apart. Just like the the standing calf raise, keep the abs tight while slightly tucking the butt (this tightens those abs and glutes, which will help tone them, too.)
While toes are pointed forward, allow the heel to lower an inch or two below the height of the step, then raise upward on the toes and balls of the foot. Repeat 10 times. Then turn the toes inward and repeat the action. Now, turn the toes outward and repeat 10 times. Do 3 to 4 sets.
Calf Stretches & Best Practices
Calf exercises should also include calf stretching. Studies show that a common cause of stress fractures is calf tightness, which causes a premature lifting of the heel while running and transfers a significant amount of force into the forefoot. And get this: A study published in the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy found that subjects with tight calves were 4.6 times more likely to sustain a metatarsal stress fracture. (13)
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, tight calves can also contribute to postural problems like lower crossed syndrome and pronation distortion syndrome.
While most people know how to perform standard calf stretches, it’s vital that you hold each stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds. This allows the muscle to better relax and elongate to improve flexibility. Maintaining calf flexibility is vital to maintaining a healthy range of motion in your ankle.(14) (Your kinetic chain is all connected. It’s pretty amazing!)
Here’s a stretch Harvard Health Blog offers that even a couch potato can do. (Translation: No excuses.)
Couch potato calf stretch: Sit on the edge of a couch with your feet flat on the floor. With one leg, keeping your heel on the floor, lift and point the toes toward the ceiling, so that you feel a stretch in your calf muscle. Hold for 30 seconds, then do the same with the other leg, three times per leg. (15)
Also, don’t forget yoga. Releasing tight, overactive calves is just one of the many benefits of yoga.
Final Thoughts on the Best Calf Exercises
- There are lots of activities that can help define the calves.
- Thinner calves may result from more aerobic activities such as running, walking, hiking, cycling and the elliptical machine.
- Running sports that require jumping are calf builders. Some of these include basketball, soccer, tennis and rugby.
- Larger, more muscular calves may be the result of specific calf raise types of exercises, often using weights.
- Weak and/or super tight calves can contribute to pronation distortion syndrome, lower crossed syndrome, plantar fasciitis, shin splints and Achilles tendonitis, among other issues.