There’s a good bet that most of us tend to neglect our calf muscles. We’re so busy focusing on stretching our backs or arms but forget how important our calves are for various functions.
To understand why our calves should get proper time and attention when stretching, it’s good to understand what muscles make up this area of our bodies. Our calves consist of two muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is a heart-shaped muscle that is the bulk of your calf and crosses the knee. The soleus is a fan-shaped muscle lying beneath the gastrocnemius and crosses the ankle. The ends of the gastrocnemius and soleus tendons fuse in the lower part of the leg as the Achilles tendon.
The calf is comprised of two muscles necessary to plantarflex the foot, which propels your body forward when walking, running, or when jumping. If the calf muscles are excessively tight, it can lead to a variety of musculoskeletal conditions and can pose a danger to athletes. Women, who regularly wear high-heeled shoes, run the risk of shortening their calf muscles. When they are not stretched out, these muscles will tighten, constricting the range of movement at the ankle.
Stretching out our calves daily should be a priority – we need them in good working order for daily activity. In addition, to prevent painful and disabling complications from unstretched calf muscles, here are six reasons to regularly stretch them out:
- Reduces the frequency of leg cramps
Experiencing leg cramps, especially at night while sleeping, is never pleasant. If you are someone who is very physically active but does not take the time to stretch your calves, they can become excessively tight from exercise and may lock up. When you practice stretching them, this promotes good blood flow and can reduce leg cramps. Be sure to drink at least 6-8 cups of water daily.
- Prevents Achilles tendonitis
Achilles tendonitis is directly related to tight Achilles tendons. What can help prevent this is to do dynamic stretching, which helps the calf muscle warmup and increases the range of motion around the joint – static stretching helps cool them down. Dynamic stretching involves performing low-impact, light-effort exercises like jumping rope or jogging in place. Static stretching is elongating a muscle by holding it for up to 30 seconds.
- Improves circulation to the lower extremities
Stretching out your calf muscles promotes circulation to your lower legs, which can help reduce swelling and blood clots. When there’s an increase of oxygenated blood to your feet and ankles, it can help reduce minor joint pain and aid in a quicker recovery between workouts or post-injury.
- Prevents plantar fasciitis
A condition called plantar fasciitis is the most common cause of heel pain. The plantar fascia is comprised of a flat band of tissue (ligament) that connects your heel bone to your toes and normally acts as a shock absorber supporting the arch of your foot. A strained plantar fascia caused by repeated stress can lead to small tears resulting in inflammation in the tissue, which becomes weak, swollen, irritated, or inflamed. If your calf muscles have tightened and become unflexible, this can lead to increased tension on the plantar fascia, a major underlying problem leading to plantar fasciitis.
- Prevents shin splints
Shin splints is pain caused by overuse along the shinbone, the large front bone in the lower leg. Too much stress on both the shinbone and connective tissues attached to the muscles to your bones is the cause of shin splints, making it feel inflamed and painful. There can be several causes of shin splints, such as flat feet, shoes that don’t fit well or provide good support, or working out without warmup or cooldown stretches. Another cause can be too tight of calf muscles. When your calves are unstretched and tight behind the leg, the shin muscles in front of the leg are overworked to compensate. Stretching your calf muscles is a primary way to prevent shin splints.
- To increase the range of motion
Think of your calf muscles as lever arms for your entire body. The more flexible they are, the more movement they have. Keeping your calves flexible helps make them more powerful and improves your ability to walk, bend, twist, and climb stairs.
Smart moves for stronger calves
To get your calf muscles in tip-top shape, it’s important to regularly stretch and strengthen them. Here are some exercises that will stretch and strengthen your calves to protect against lower leg injuries and add definition to them.
- Seated calf raises – Sit comfortably on a chair or bench, placing feet flat on the floor. Lift your right heel as high as possible while, at the same time, pressing your toes into the floor while flexing your calf muscles. Then, slowly lower both heels. Repeat 12 to 15 times, and then repeat with your left heel. Build to two sets of 15 reps for each leg.
- Standing calf raises – Standing behind a sturdy chair, if necessary, place your hands on the back of the chair to balance. With feet shoulder-width apart, slowly rise onto your toes while tightening your abs as you keep your back and knees straight. Hold this position for about 3 seconds, then lower your heels to the floor slowly. Perform two sets of 12 to 15 reps.
- Wall stretch for calves – Stand near a wall with one foot in front of the other, front knee slightly bent. Place hands on the wall for support. Keep your back knee straight, your heel on the ground, and lean toward the wall. Feel the stretch all along the calf of your back leg. Hold this stretch for 20-30 seconds. Switch legs, then alternate for a total of 3 repetitions.
- Advanced calf stretch – Stand on a step. Place the ball of your foot on the edge of the step with your heel hanging off of the step. Drop your heel down slowly as you carry weight through the leg. Lowering, you may hold onto something like a railing or the wall. Hold the position for up to 20-30 seconds. Then, switch legs and alternate for a total of 3 repetitions.
Dr. David Samadi is the Director of Men’s Health and Urologic Oncology at St. Francis Hospital in Long Island. He’s a renowned and highly successful board certified Urologic Oncologist Expert and Robotic Surgeon in New York City, regarded as one of the leading prostate surgeons in the U.S., with a vast expertise in prostate cancer treatment and Robotic-Assisted Laparoscopic Prostatectomy. Dr. Samadi is a medical contributor to NewsMax TV and is also the author of The Ultimate MANual, Dr. Samadi’s Guide to Men’s Health and Wellness, available online both on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Visit Dr. Samadi’s websites at robotic oncology and prostate cancer 911.