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November 15, 2022 11 min read

Tight calf muscles could be caused by both over- and underuse. The calf comprises two muscles called the gastrocnemius and the soleus.

Your calf muscles are activated whenever your knees and ankles work, whether you stand, walk, run, or participate in strenuous exercise.

If you spend hours sitting at a desk each day, your ankles and knees are mostly in one position, leaving your calves inactive for extended periods. If you wear high heels every day, the range of motion of the calf muscle group is restricted. These are examples of tight calf muscles caused by inactivity.

The opposite is also true. If you are very active, your calves can easily become tight due to the sheer amount of work they do.

Daily calf stretches can reduce the risk of injury or even delayed onset muscle soreness.

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a familiar experience for strength trainers or athletes. Symptoms can range from muscle tenderness to severely debilitating pain.

The functions of calf muscles include pushing you off the ground to propel you forward by flexing and extending your feet. They also help absorb some impact as you land. Other prime movers are your glutes, hamstrings, and quads, which typically receive the necessary TLC with warm-up and cool-down stretches, while tightness in the calf muscles is often ignored.

Frequent calf stretches help keep your limb movement and alignment in check, easing knee pain from running, and lower back pain, and decreasing your risk of developing osteoporosis. Stretching your calves will keep them supple for painless walking, hiking, cycling, strength training, and any other kind of exercise you do.

What muscles make up the calves?

Your calves are lower leg muscles located at the back of your legs. They comprise two different muscles, the gastrocnemius, and the soleus.

Lower leg  Muscles – Image from Shutterstock

Your calf muscles are responsible for multiple everyday movements. These include plantar flexion used for pointing your toes, standing up on tiptoes and basic movements like pressing down on your car’s gas pedal.

When you sprint or jump, your calf muscles develop explosive power. The same applies to strength training and compound exercises that need explosive power like squats and deadlifts.

The gastrocnemius

Gastrocnemius muscle – Image from Shutterstock

This is the larger muscle of the two, and therefore also the one we can see at the back of our lower legs. The gastrocnemius has an inside and outside head, which are the two visible bulges when you do calf raises.

The top end of the muscle is at the femur, where it is responsible for knee flexion, and it stretches down the rear of your leg to the Achilles tendon where it facilitates plantar flexion of the ankle.

The gastrocnemius muscle is made up of fast-twitch muscle fibers, necessary for providing the power you require for sprinting and jumping, and when you need a quick change of direction, this is the muscle that will be there for you.

The soleus

Gastrocnemius muscle – Image from Shutterstock

The soleus muscle is smaller, flatter, and located deeper than the gastrocnemius, and therefore not visible. This is the muscle that connects the tibia and the fibula bones in the lower leg.

The soleus connects your tibia and fibula, the bones in your lower leg. The soleus muscle assists with the plantar flexion of the ankle, and it stabilizes the tibia. It is an endurance muscle, which helps with avoiding fatigue.

The soleus and the gastrocnemius merge at their base. Connective tissue links them to the Achilles tendon just above the heel.

What are the benefits of Calf Stretches?

When done properly, calf stretching before and after workouts can benefit all, from beginners to experienced gym goers and elite athletes.

Calf muscles in action – Image from Shutterstock

1. Activate the calf muscles

The best calf stretches stimulate your muscles to increase blood flow to the area, which reduces calf pain or muscle tightness. A good warm-up stretch session can prepare your calf muscles for a run, a brisk walk, a yoga session, or a strenuous workout session. The best warm-up exercises are dynamic.

2. Increase long-term flexibility

Frequent stretching of your calf muscles can increase long-term flexibility, which allows you to perform deeper stretches and hold them longer.

3. Increase range of motion

Proper calf stretching increases the short-term range of motion. It allows the performance of deeper stretches to fully activate the targeted muscles. Before a leg workout, calf stretches can help you to perform through the full range of motion with supple calf muscles, and they can help prevent injuries.

4. Relieve muscle soreness

Painful calf muscles – Image from Shutterstock

Post-workout stretching, aka maintenance stretching or cool-down stretching, is as important as warm-up stretching. They assist in removing lactic acid from the calf muscles, reducing soreness. Lactic acid is created when the body turns glucose into energy.

Cool-down stretches are typically static movements. Many personal trainers believe it’s all in the mind, and argue that calf stretching has no significant effect on sore muscles or pain relief.

What are the negatives of not stretching before and after workouts?

When they don’t have their normal flexibility, your calf muscles may affect the distribution of your weight and the pressure you apply to other bodily areas as you move about. This can prevent your knees, ankles, and feet from functioning efficiently, increasing the chances of experiencing tightness, pain, and even injury. It might even keep you from participating in your favorite activities.

Flexible calf muscles – Image from Shutterstock

The mobility in your calves may be compromised if you don’t stretch them and participate in calf exercises or events, or proceed with workouts with tense muscles. Neglecting to stretch your muscles before such activities could cause Achilles tendonitis, calf strains, shin splints, hip problems, hamstring injuries, and plantar fasciitis, all of which are common among gym goers and runners.

If stretching and rest don’t ease your muscular discomfort, a consultation with your physician for medical advice might be a good idea. The condition could be more serious.

There is a growing body of published and anecdotal literature  detailing reports of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and/or pulmonary embolism (PE) after prolonged, strenuous endurance exercise in otherwise healthy athletes.

What are the symptoms of tight calf muscles?

The cause of tight calf muscles could cause varied symptoms.

Cramped calf muscles can cause anything from severe pain to no more than slight discomfort. The muscle may twitch under your skin and feel hard to the touch. Muscle cramps can be brief and last just a few seconds, but they can also last 20 minutes or longer. Cramps can develop over several hours, but they can overwhelm you even during or immediately after physical activity.

Other symptoms of tight calf muscles could include the following:

  • Sudden pain behind the knee or in your calf

  • Bruising, pain, or swelling

  • Discomfort when standing on your tiptoes

  • Pain when the muscles meet resistance

Getting optimal results from calf stretches

Before we discuss the best calf stretches, let’s explore how to get the best results. Although these stretches are not complicated, you might optimize the benefits if you follow the guidelines below.

  1. Hold each stretch for longer: According to studies, holding cool-down calf stretches for about 30 seconds is the most effective way to ensure the muscle fibers have adequate time to relax. Anything less than 30 seconds will bring about only minimal changes in muscle length.

  2. Repetitions: Doing at least 3 reps of each stretch exercise yields the best results. Doing fewer than three reps will have minimal effect, and doing a lot more than three will not significantly increase the benefits.

  3. Stretching is effective but not pleasant: For calf stretches to be effective you must feel them in the targeted muscles, and what you feel should cause discomfort but not pain. However, any pain or discomfort that persists after you’ve stopped stretching should take you to see your physician.

  4. Stay Safe after injuries:Avoid stretching your calf muscles too soon after an injury like a calf rear or strain. Prematurely stretching those muscles could exacerbate the damage. Here’s how to test it — push down through your toes against moderate resistance. If you experience discomfort or pain, you’re not ready to work your calf muscles. Once you feel no pain, check with your doctor to make sure you’re ready to return to your workout routine.

The best calf stretches for before and after workouts

Below you will find the stretches done while standing first, followed by the seated routines.

1. Double-wall calf stretch

Starting position:

Stand about two feet away from a wall, facing it. Place your feet together.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Lean forward and with straight arms, press your palms into the wall.

  2. Keep your legs straight and ensure you keep your heels flat on the floor as you lean forward through flexed ankles.

  3. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds

Benefits:

This exercise stretches both calf muscles, the gastrocnemius, and the soleus in both.

You need no more than a flat surface to do the double-wall calf stretch, so it can be done anywhere.

For more intensity

You can move further away from the wall, and lean forward with your heels still planted on the floor.

Another option is keeping your heels flat on the ground, and bending your knees slightly to feel more stretch in your calf muscles.

2. Wall lunge calf stretch

Starting position:

Take a split stance near a wall, with your right foot in front of your left foot and with your right leg slightly bent and your back leg straight, its heel on the floor.

Wall Lunge Calf Stretch – Image from Shutterstock

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Lean toward the wall and press your palms into the wall with your arms straight.

  2. Hold for 30 seconds.

  3. Now, without lifting your back heel, bend the front knee slightly, and hold that position for 30 seconds. You have now done one rep.

  4. Do three reps before you switch legs and do the same stretch with the left foot in front this time.

Benefits:

The medial and lateral parts of the gastrocnemius of the leg held straight at the back are the targeted muscles in the first part of the stretch.

The second part with the back knee slightly bent targets the soleus muscle.

For more intensity

To make this stretch more intense, Increase the distance between your feet and the wall to exaggerate the lean of your upper body.

3. Toes on Wall Calf Stretch

Starting position:

Take a staggered stance facing a wall with your right foot’s toes almost touching the wall and your left foot behind it.

Toes on Wall Calf Stretch – Image from Shutterstock

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Lean forward and place your palms on the wall.

  2. Dig the heel of your right foot into the floor and lift that foot’s toes up against the wall. (You need a really good grip against the wall with your foot, and you might want to wear sneakers for this stretch).

  3. Lean all your body weight onto your right foot where it pushes against the wall so that you can feel the stretch in your lower right leg.

  4. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds.

  5. Do three reps before switching legs to repeat the stretch with your left foot’s toes up against the wall.

For more intensity

You can intensify the toes on-wall stretch by rising up on the toes of your back foot and bringing your chest closer to the wall.

4. Downward-Facing Dog

This yoga pose is a classic, and by pressing your heels to the floor, you can adapt it to the perfect calf stretch.

Downward Facing Dog Calf Stretch – Image from Shutterstock

Starting position:

Set yourself up in a high plank position with your shoulders directly above your hands.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Press through your fingers and palms on the floor to shift your weight back and lift your butt toward the ceiling. Your body is now in an inverted V shape.

  2. Press your heels toward the ground as far as you can. The intensity of the calf stretch depends on how close to the floor you can push your heels.

  3. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds before proceeding with the next repetition.

Additional options:

Bend both your left and right knee slightly to stretch the lower parts of your calves but keep on pushing your heels down.

If you want to focus on each calf separately, you can lift one foot off the ground and rest it on the back of the other calf.

Remember to pay the same amount of attention to each calf to avoid muscle imbalances.

5 Heel Drop Stretch

This stretch uses gravity, and you’ll need a step, a box, the edge of a treadmill, or even a curb if you’re out running.

Heel Drop Calf Stretch – Image from Shutterstock

Starting position:

Stand with the balls of your feet on the edge of your chosen step.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Drop your left heel toward the floor, flex your right knee slightly, but put most of your weight on your left foot.

  2. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and repeat it three times.

  3. Do the same number of reps with your right foot bearing your weight.

Dynamic variant:

If you want to change this from a static stretch to a dynamic stretch, you can alternate lowering your left and right heels without holding the stretch, or you can drop and lift both heels together.

The following are seated calf stretch options.

6. Towel Calf Stretch

You will need a hand towel for this stretch.

Starting position:

Sit on the floor with both legs straight out in front of you, with your back straight throughout.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Loop the hand towel around the ball of your right foot, holding both ends of the towel.

  2. Keep your legs straight and pull the towel toward your body.

  3. Hold the position for 30 seconds, and then relax for a further 30 seconds.

  4. Repeat the stretch three times

  5. Loop the towel over your left foot and repeat the same number of reps.

For more intensity

You can increase the intensity of the towel calf stretch by pulling harder on the towel.

Each stretch can help strengthen the calf muscles, providing better support for the lower leg, foot, and ankle. Strengthening these muscles can also help prevent injuries.

7. Dorsiflexion Stretch

You will need a resistance band for this stretch.

Dorsiflex stretch – Image from Shutterstock

Starting Position:

Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Anchor the resistance band securely around the foot of a heavy piece of furniture.

  2. Hook the other end over your right foot.

  3. Pull the toes of your right foot toward your body.

  4. Slowly relax that foot and return to the starting position.

  5. Repeat that movement 10 times.

  6. Switch the resistance band to your left foot and repeat the dorsiflex calf stretch

Benefits:

Each stretch strengthens your calf muscles, providing better lower leg, ankle, and foot support. Strengthening these muscles can also reduce injury risks.

For more intensity

Using a stronger resistance band will intensify this stretch, or increase the distance between the anchor and your foot.

Plantar flexion stretch

You will need a resistance band for this stretch.

Starting position:

Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Wrap one end of the resistance band around your right foot, and grab the opposite end.

  2. Gently point your toes forward.

  3. Slowly relax the right foot and return to the starting position.

  4. Repeat that movement 10 times.

  5. Switch the resistance band to your left foot and repeat the plantar flexion calf stretch

Benefits:

Each stretch strengthens your calf muscles, providing better lower leg, ankle, and foot support. Strengthening these muscles can also reduce injury risks.

For more intensity

Using a stronger resistance band will intensify this stretch, or increase the distance between the anchor and your foot.

To conclude

It is never a good thing to ignore tight muscles, regardless of whether it is your hamstrings, lats, or calf muscles. You can be sure they’re trying to tell you something.

You may need to take it slow for a day or two, and if they remain tight, a visit to your doctor could be the way to go, even if it is only to rule out more serious conditions. slow down for a while or make a doctor’s appointment to rule out a more serious condition like DVT.

Reaching your goals will ultimately depend on your ability to recover after workouts.

A fitness program that incorporates proper warm-up and cool-down stretches, sufficient rest, and nutrition is your best chance of building the body strength you desire.

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