Do you experience pain and feelings of tightness in your calves? Did you also know that calf tightness can be the culprit for difficulty with normal everyday activities such as walking and running? Research supports a thorough assessment of muscular tightness when a person is experiencing pain in their calves with activity (1), and addressing these issues can lead to less overall discomfort and more ease with functional activity. In this article, we briefly discuss the anatomy of your calf, why tightness can occur, and the best tight calf exercises you can implement into your routine to make sure that tightness does not turn into a more serious issue!
WHAT MUSCLES MAKE UP THE CALF?
Did you know that there are actually TWO muscles that make up the calf? That’s right! The calf, anatomically referred to as the triceps surae (not to be confused with the tricep in your arm!), is actually made up of the gastrocnemius (gastroc) and the soleus muscles. The gastroc is the larger, more visible muscle and is comprised of two large “heads” that split off from the body of the muscle. It crosses both your ankle and knee joints, and therefore works to plantarflex the ankle (bend the toes toward the floor) and flex and stabilize at the knee.
The soleus is the smaller muscle of the complex and is located underneath the gastroc. The soleus only crosses the ankle joint and helps to stabilize in standing posture, as well as assists with gastroc with plantarflexion.
Don’t Let Your Tight Calves Turn Into A Bigger Issue
As we will discuss later in this article, tight calf muscles may lead to limitations in ankle mobility, which can lead to a myriad of issues such as achilles tendonitis, ankle sprains, knee pain, and even hip pain! This comprehensive ankle mobility program will not only improve the tightness of your calf muscles but also improve your overall ankle mobility, with step-by-step guidance during each phase of the program! Click HERE to learn more and get started today.
Simple Mnemonic To Remember The Calf Complex Muscles
A great way to remember the functions of the calf complex muscles is with a simple mnemonic: Stand on your soles. Gas explodes! (soleus used for posture, gastroc used for power!) These two muscles work with each other to power our lower legs for jumping, running, and explosive movements, as well as play a large role in our static and dynamic standing balance. These can include tasks such as standing to do the dishes, standing on one leg, and simply walking from place to place.
Why Runners Need Strong Calf Muscles
STATIC VS. DYNAMIC STRETCHING FOR CALF TIGHTNESS
It’s the age-old debate. Which is better – static or dynamic stretching for muscular tightness? The age-old answer? It depends. What goals are you looking to accomplish when you get relief from your calf tightness? If you are a regular person who is looking to simply get rid of your pain so you can walk easier, that is a very different situation than an elite athlete looking to return to high-level sport.
For the average person, a mix of both static and dynamic stretching has been shown to be effective when trying to combat calf stiffness to improve their quality of life (2). Meanwhile, for the elite athlete group, a bias toward dynamic and explosive-style drills has been shown to be most effective during rehab with the goal of performance, while static stretching alone has been shown to be detrimental to performance. (3)
For a more in-depth discussion on the effects of stretching, listen to our podcast on this topic.
WHAT EXERCISES DO I USE TO ADDRESS CALF TIGHTNESS?
Remember how we discussed the differences between the gastroc and the soleus muscles that make up the calf? Depending on which muscle is strained or tight, you may have to stretch or move differently to ensure that the correct muscle is being addressed for optimal rehab potential. Below, we discuss both static and dynamic movements that address both muscles of the calf complex.
how to stretch both calf muscles
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Exercises For Tight Calves
Implements such as foam rollers have been used effectively to decrease muscular stiffness. Research supports both traditional foam rolling and vibration foam rolling as effective ways to decrease pain and soreness in the calves (4).
Calf Foam Rolling
Other tools such as a lacrosse ball can be very effective for breaking up tight tissue in the calf.
calf soft tissue mobilization – lacrosse ball
Comprehensive Calf Mobilization
If you are looking for a great way to prep the calf and alleviate your tight calf, try this comprehensive, active mobilization!
half kneeling soleus stretch
This is a stretch specifically for the soleus muscle that was previously discussed. Remember, it’s hidden under the larger gastroc muscle, so it can be a sneaky culprit for calf tightness!
A Tight Calf May Be Limiting Your Ankle Mobility
Ankle dorsiflexion is an essential movement that we all need to have available to perform tasks such as getting up from a chair, or walking down a flight of steps. Limitations in ankle dorsiflexion, which is the ability of your knees to translate past your toes, can lead to a host of issues at the foot/ankle complex itself, the knee, or even the hip. The limitation in ankle dorsiflexion can be due either to the joint structures of the ankle, the joint capsule, or tight calves! Watch this video to learn more about ankle dorsiflexion
The Importance of Ankle Dorsiflexion
ANOTHER THOUGHT: Don’t Forget About Hydration
In addition to movement and stretching, do not forget about your water intake! Research shows that dehydration in the muscles can lead directly to muscular stiffness and soreness (5). Therefore, when trying to combat calf and other muscular discomforts, it is crucial to drink enough water! Many sources say to aim for half your body weight in ounces of water per day for optimal hydration and body cell support.
Do not let stiffness in your calves deter you from the activities that you love! With a little prehab and a positive mindset, you will be back to living your life free of calf discomfort in no time. Remember, stretch, move, drink your water, and say bye-bye to those stiff calves!
Improve Your Calf Flexibility and Ankle Mobility!
Tasks such as squatting, going up and down stairs, walking over uneven ground, and pushing up onto our toes to reach an object overhead can feel extremely difficult if you are missing ankle dorsiflexion. Even keeping balance can become difficult! If you start to lose balance one of the first ways your brain will attempt to correct and keep you upright is using an ankle strategy that utilizes ankle dorsiflexion. The efficient movement relies on ankle dorsiflexion and this program is the guide to get you there.
- Lee, J., & Chang, J. (2019, December 30). The Effect of Calf Stiffness on Gait, Foot Pressure and Balance in Adults. The Journal of Korean Physical Therapy. The Korean Society of Physical Therapy. https://doi.org/10.18857/jkpt.2019.31.6.346
- Spor Hekimliği Dergisi, 54(3): 148-157; 2019 Turkish Journal of Sports Medicine DOI: 10.5152/tjsm.2019.127
- Seçer, E., & Özer Kaya, D. (2022). Comparison of Immediate Effects of Foam Rolling and Dynamic Stretching to Only Dynamic Stretching on Flexibility, Balance, and Agility in Male Soccer Players, Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 31(1), 10-16. Retrieved Jan 5, 2022, from https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/jsr/31/1/article-p10.xml
- Nakamura M, Sato S, Kiyono R, Yoshida R, Yasaka K, Yahata K, Konrad A. Comparison Between Foam Rolling With and Without Vibration on Passive and Active Plantar Flexor Muscle Properties. J Strength Cond Res. 2021 Sep 1. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000004123. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 34474432.
- Lorenzo, I., Serra-Prat, M., & Yébenes, J. C. (2019). The Role of Water Homeostasis in Muscle Function and Frailty: A Review. Nutrients, 11(8), 1857. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11081857
About The Author
Taryn Beaumont PT, DPT, CLT, CF-L1, CNC
[P]Rehab Writer & Content Creator
Taryn was born and raised in Maine and still resides there with her boyfriend and son. Taryn received her Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Husson University in 2010, and also carries a Bachelors in Kinesiology and Human Movement Science. She is a Certified Lymphedema Therapist, a Certified Crossfit Level 1 Trainer, and a NASM Certified Nutrition Coach. Taryn has 10+ years of experience in many different realms of PT, from the young athlete to the geriatric patient. Taryn considers herself a ‘lifelong learner’. She has special interests in oncology care and breast health, dry needling, and Crossfit training. In her free time, Taryn enjoys fitness, spending time with her family, continuing education, writing and reading, and is very excited to be a part of The [P]Rehab team to educate and empower others to take control of their own health and wellness.
Disclaimer – The content here is designed for information & education purposes only and is not intended for medical advice.