8 Simple Calf Exercises to Minimize Injury, Pain and Muscle Imbalance

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he muscles located at the posterior portion of your lower leg that enables you to stand, walk, run and jump are known as the calf muscles. A weakening of this major group of muscles and impaired function limit mobility. Hence, strengthening the calves is an important goal in any fitness regimen. Enhancing the strength of the muscle is not only the vital component of the workout regimen of athletes and sportspersons for whom attaining strong well-build calves are pertinent for boosting performance. Every individual regardless of age need strong calves to minimize the risk of injuries that occur owing to an imbalance in the calf muscles that affect the quality of life.

The calf muscles are composed of two sets of muscles, gastrocnemius, and soleus. The gastrocnemius is the primary muscle in the calf area. This large muscle that forms the bulge beneath the skin in the calf area is made up of two parts, also referred to as heads that jointly give the muscle its diamond-like shape. Underneath the gastrocnemius muscle is located a small flat muscle known as the soleus. Both the calf muscles taper at the base of the calf where they are attached to the heel through the Achilles tendon. By pulling the heel upwards, the calf muscles support forward movement of the leg. [1]

The calf muscles are major muscles involved in the plantar flexion of the foot. In addition, the gastrocnemius muscle acts as the flexor of the knee. The gastrocnemius muscle plays a major role during fast forward movements such as running and jumping. The soleus muscle plays a more important role than the gastrocnemius in maintaining the standing posture. It is a powerful anti-gravity muscle. The constant pull of the soleus muscles in both the legs enable us to stand on our feet, otherwise, we would have tumbled down propelled by the earth’s gravitational force. To maintain balance in the standing posture, soleus contracts alternately with the extensor muscles. Though it is an extremely strong muscle it works as a slow plantar flexor for the ankle joint. To win a race an athlete depends on the rapid contraction ability of the gastrocnemius, whereas for a leisurely stroll, the slow plantar flexion of the ankles supported by the soleus is sufficient for supporting the movement. [2]


Causes of Calf Muscle Pain and Injury

Injury to the calf muscle occurs following a forceful contraction of the gastrocnemius or soleus muscle. A forceful contraction that occurs when the muscle stretches, known as eccentric contraction, is a common cause of muscle injury. Eccentric contraction usually occurs when landing on the ground from a jump. People whose calf muscles are not strong enough to cope with eccentric contraction due to the overall weakness of the muscles or muscle fatigue owing to repeated movement are vulnerable to calf muscle injury. Improper foot position during an activity is another possible cause of calf muscle injury. [3]

Injury to the calf muscle could lead to muscle strain, pulled muscle, a muscle tear or muscle rupture. Stretching the calf muscle beyond its normal length could tear the muscle fibers leading to calf muscle strain. The severity of the muscle strain depends upon the extent of muscle tear. A calf muscle strain is known to be mild when a few fibers are damaged. Mild calf muscle strain is also known as pulled calf muscle. A severe muscle strain is associated with a complete tear of the calf muscle or muscle rupture that causes severe pain and impairs the ability to walk.

Calf muscle pain, especially in the mid-calf, along with swelling and bruising is the common symptom of calf muscle strain. Individuals with calf muscle injury experience pain while bending the knee or standing on tiptoes. Muscle rupture causes pain that is disabling. Calf muscle strains need immediate medical attention to minimize the risk of complications. An untreated injury that makes you limp or changes your gait increases the risk of injury to other areas of your lower body that further worsens your problem.

Apart from injuries, calf muscle pain and inability to walk can occur due to certain rare muscle conditions such as calf muscle myositis, rhabdomyolysis, and calf muscle cancer. Calf muscle inflammation usually associated with an infection or autoimmune disorder causes calf muscle myositis. Breakdown of the calf muscles is known as rhabdomyolysis. It is associated with side effects of certain drugs, a severe medical condition or application of pressure to the calf muscle for a prolonged period. Usually, in addition to the calf muscle, other body muscles are affected by this condition. Cancer originating in the calf muscle is rare. Cancer that had originated in another part of the body may spread to the calf muscles leading to pain and other cancer-related complications. [3][4]


How to Reduce Pain and Injury with Exercises

Injury to the calf muscles can be averted by practicing calf muscle strengthening exercise. Exercises that target the gastrocnemius and soleus muscle help in strengthening the calves. Standing calf raises as well as the other calf raises that require the exerciser to keep the knee fairly straight while exercising primarily targets the gastrocnemius muscle. Seated calf raises and other calf exercises in which the knee is bent at about 90 degrees angle during the exercise are most effective in strengthening the soleus muscle. To boost the overall strength of the calves add one to two exercises that target the gastrocnemius and one exercise that primarily works the soleus to your exercise regimen.

In your exercise routine, thigh exercises should precede calf exercises for best result. The calf muscles, especially the soleus because of the higher amount of slow-twitch muscle fibers, have a faster post-workout recovery rate than the fast-twitch muscles. As a result, two to three workouts involving the calf muscles are preferred by a number of fitness experts. The faster recovery rates of the calf muscles support higher number of repetitions as high as 20 to 30 reps per set of calf exercise. [5]

Here is a list of exercises known to be the best for working the calf muscles that can be easily practiced at home without any specialized gym equipment.

1. Standing Calf Raises

This is the basic exercise for strengthening the primary calf muscle. Stand flat on an even surface. Raise yourself to stand on tiptoes. Feel the tension on the calves while standing on the toes. Now lower yourself and return to the starting position. Repeat. Beginners can start with three sets of standing calf raises with 12 to 15 reps per set. Advanced exercisers can do up to 30 reps per set. [6][7]

2. One-Leg Standing Calf Raise

To add some resistance to the basic standing calf raises and to make them slightly more challenging hold dumbbells during the workout and perform the exercise with one leg at a time. The one-leg standing calf raise helps in working the primary calf muscle of each leg at a time that enhances muscle balance by ensuring that the calves develop in proportion to each other. Stand with one foot placed on a block and bend the knee of the other leg that is to be trained. Your body weight will be supported by the leg that you are not training. Hold a dumbbell with the hand on the same side of the leg you are training. Slowly raise and lower the heel. Repeat 10 to 12 times. Repeat the exercise with the other leg. Perform two sets of the exercise with each leg. [8]

3. Seated Calf Raises

While the standing calf raises target primarily the gastrocnemius, the seated calf raises work both the calf muscles effectively. In the gym, the seated calf raise is usually performed on a calf exercise machine. However, you can easily do this exercise at home by sitting on a sturdy chair. Sit straight with your feet flat on the floor. Make sure that your knees are bent at 90 degrees ankle and your toes are pointing straight ahead. Place your hands on the thighs pressing down near the knees to create resistance. Alternatively, you can hold dumbbells in each hand and press them on the thighs near the knees. Now slowly raise your heels and then lower them. You can do three sets of seated calf raises of 15 to 20 reps. [8][9]

4. Seated One-Leg Calf Raise

Sit on a bench and place the foot of the leg you will not train on the floor and the foot you will train on a block located approximately 12 inches from the bench. To make the calf raise slightly more challenging hold a dumbbell on the thigh of the leg that you will train. With the ball on the block raise the toes of the foot as high as possible. Feel the calf muscle contracting and hold the maximum contraction for a second and then lower your heel. After completing one set of one-leg seated calf raise, train the other leg in the same manner. [10]

5. Jumping Jack

Stand straight with the hands by your sides and your feet together. This is your starting position. Jump to extend your legs and simultaneously raise your arms overhead and clap. Your feet should be preferably shoulder-length apart. Jump to return to the starting position with your arms flat against your thighs and feet together. Depending upon your fitness level, you can keep jumping up and down at least ten times. [11][12]

6. Standing Calf Stretch

Stand facing a wall. Slightly lean forward and place your palms on the wall. Step one leg forward, a little away from the wall, and bend the knee. The back leg should remain straight. The foot of both the legs should be firmly placed on the floor. Now slowly push the hips towards the wall by bending the knee of the front leg. Keep the back leg straight. Feel the stretch in the calf muscles for a few seconds. Return to the starting position and repeat. After completing the recommended number of repetitions, change the position of the legs, and repeat the exercise. [13]

7. Seated Calf Stretch

Sit comfortably on the floor with the legs stretched forward with the heels touching the floor and the toes pointing upwards. Bend forward at the hips to grab the toes. When you start feeling the calves and the back of the heels stretching, don’t stretch further. Hold this position for 15 to 20 seconds and then return to the starting position. Repeat the seated calf stretch three to four times. If you cannot do the calf stretch with the legs stretched, you can bend the knees as necessary. [14]

8. Calf Strengthening Sports

In addition to the aforementioned exercises that target the calf muscles, walking, running, hiking, swimming and participating in running sports such as tennis, basketball and soccer can help boost the strength and improve the tone of the calves. For beginners, swimming is known to be the safest physical activity for building the calves. It is safe even for individuals recovering from a calf muscle injury. [15]


Guidelines for Calf Exercises

Strengthening the calves is not only crucial for athletes and individuals involved in running sporting activities. You cannot overlook the importance of working the calf muscles even if you are leading a sedentary life. Studies have revealed that weak calves are primarily responsible for tripping related falls. Since the risk of falls increases with age, calf exercises should be a prominent feature of the exercise regimen. Even women who are otherwise uninterested in developing their calves cannot ignore the calf stretches especially if they wear shoes with high heels most of the time. The calf muscles are known to become stiff and short by wearing high-heeled shoes. Standing calf raises are ideal for toning the gastrocnemius, and therefore, they are best suited for building shapely legs.

While training the lower body, exercises that target the glute, quadriceps, and hamstring should precede the calf exercises. Training the calves before working the other lower-body muscles causes muscle imbalance and weakens the thigh muscles. After working the other leg muscles that also help in warming up, it is advisable to start the calf training with one to two light sets of calf raises that warms up the Achilles tendon and eases the performance of the more advanced workouts. [16]