Your calves are made up of two muscles: The gastrocnemius, which is the large part most people think of as their calf muscle, and the soleus, which lies underneath it. These muscles connect up at the knee and at the bottom of the heel.
Your calves get tight over time when you don’t move them through a regular range of motion. For example, if you sit at a desk all day without walking around or you sleep with your toes pointing under your blanket all night, your ankle joints pretty much stay in one position. In addition to this your shoes can also play a role. For example, a shoe with a higher heel can restrict the full range of motion in your ankle or if you have a running shoe that has a really stiff bottom, that can also restrict movement. When this range of motion is restricted, your muscle fibers get used to staying in a shortened position.
In understanding why muscles get tight, you should know that in the deepest part of the muscle fiber, there are units called sarcomeres, which are composed of little bands or threads that line up and move past each other as your muscles contract and relax. A way to imagine this is thinking about interlocking your fingers together—the closer your hands get to each other, the tighter the weave of your fingers. That’s how these bands line up.
When a joint doesn’t go through a full range of motion, what happens is the sarcomeres in your muscles get tighter and tighter, so they overlap more and more. In addition to this if you consistently restrict movement, your neuromuscular system isn’t as efficient and essentially, your brain sends a signal to your muscles to say it’s not safe to move through a very big range of motion, which inhibits ROM even more, and the cycle continues.
So, why should you care? Well, calf tightness can cause aches and pains, and can also affect your form in your squat.
Things like, achilles tendonitis, shin splints, knee pain, plantar fasciitis are all things that can originate from tight calf muscles. This is because these shortened muscle fibers pull on other ligaments and joints. For example, in the case of knee pain, tight calves can pull down on the ligaments on the back of your knee. With plantar fasciitis, tight calves can pull up on the connective tissue on the bottom of your feet.
As it pertains to your squat form, I find typically, when people can’t get into a deep squat, they think it’s because their hips are too tight or maybe that they aren’t strong enough, but an alternative problem could actually be tight calves.
The reason for this is if you have tightness in the calves, you can’t dorsiflex into a full range of motion. Dorsiflexion is when your toes get closer to your shin (the opposite of pointing your toes). This causes your heels to lift off the floor as you get deeper into a squat, so you lose stability and can’t go further down without leaning.
So, if you squat and you find this heel lift happens, or even if you can’t squat with your toes pointing forward, you’ve disrupted the kinetic chain from the bottom up, and you’re in a weaker position because you’re not using your glutes and hamstrings to their full potential. A good short-term fix for this as you work on reducing calf tightness, is to place your heels on a weight plate for stability when squatting.
To avoid or reduce calf tightness in your squat (or just in general), performing static stretches in your warm up before you lift can make a big difference. I would recommend holding a static stretch for 15 to 30 seconds and repeating three to five times on each side of the body prior to a leg workout or through the day. Although, to be honest there’s no need to overthink the timing, the important thing is to hold it until the stretch feels deep! Just make sure you get in a little movement first, like a 3 to 5-minute walk on the treadmill, or around the house depending on where you are, to increase the blood flow to the muscles. This will allow you to get deeper into the stretch and help avoid injury.
Below are five great calf stretches to throw into your warmup!
- Downward Dog
- Start in a high plank with your hands directly under your shoulders.
- Pressing through your fingers and palms, shift your weight back to bring your butt to the ceiling, so your body’s in an upside-down V shape.
- Press your heels toward the ground—the closer they get to the floor, the deeper the calf stretch will be.
- To stretch the lower part of your calves, bend your knees slightly while you continue to press your heels toward the ground.
- Seated Calf Stretch with a Resistance Band
- Sit on the floor with your legs extended.
- Loop a resistance band (or whatever tool you’re using) around one foot, holding both sides of it with your hands.
- Gently pull your toes toward your shin until you feel the stretch in your calf.
- Lunging Calf Stretch
- Stand facing a couple of feet away from a wall. If you’re not near a wall, you can also just do this with your hands on your hips (pictured above).
- Place your hands on the wall for support and step one foot back into a mini lunge, bending your front leg and keeping your back leg straight.
- Lean into the wall and press your back heel down so it’s flat on the ground. The further apart your feet are, the deeper the stretch will be.
- Once you’ve held this stretch, change the angle of your foot positioning, you’ll probably find that different parts of your calf feel tighter than others, depending on your movement patterns, the shoes you wear, and your lifestyle.
- Heel Drop Stretch
- Stand with the balls of your feet on the edge of your step.
- Drop one heel toward the floor. Bend your other leg and try not to put much weight into it.
- To make this a dynamic stretch, you can slowly pedal your heels back and forth, or drop both heels toward the ground and raise them up and down.
- Standing Bent-Over Calf Stretch
- Stand with your feet staggered.
- Bend your back knee and keep your front knee straight as you fold forward and grab onto your front foot underneath your toes.
- Pull up gently on your toes, feeling the stretch in your calf.
Written By: Ashley Dunwell, MS, NASM-CPT