Stretching is considered one of the best things to do for the wellbeing of your body.
Why? Most likely because it feels nice but it has many other claimed benefits such as reducing pain, improving recovery and also making you more flexible.
Another great reason for stretching is to improve and maintain joint health. When stretching is mentioned we typically relate it to the muscles but moving your joint through its full range of motion helps it to remain in good health. Our modern day routines can often limit the amount of movement and joints which do not move fully can develop pain.
There is a lot of research and debate around what stretching actually does but one thing is for certain that it feels good!
This seems to be the main reason why people stretch in a morning, before and after exercise and during their work days – as it makes them feel better.
Stretching has for a long time been part of the tools that healthcare practitioners such as physiotherapists and doctors advise for people to perform when they have pain as a way of reducing symptoms and improving function.
Hobbies such as yoga and Pilates both promote forms of stretching which have been practiced for many years by people all over the world.
So there’s obviously something to this stretching thing!
A really common stretch that people perform regularly is calf stretching, especially those involved within running and other sports. Calves can develop tightness and also can fall victim to things such as cramp.
Stretching of the calf helps to alleviate those immediate symptoms and help improve function immediately. Our article today is going to explain a little more about the calf so that you gain a further understanding of what you are stretching and why.
When stretching the calf, what are we actually stretching?
Let’s take a look at the main muscles and tendons of the calf. The calf consists of 2 main muscles and one main tendon.
The calf sits on the back of the lower leg, beneath the knee. It attaches in to the back of the knee on to the femur and its secondary function is to assist with knee flexion. Its primary function is to plantar flex the foot, which means pointing it in to a downward position.
There are 2 main muscles within the calf and they are:
- Gastrocnemius – this is the 2 headed muscle which you can visibly see on the calf. It works to plantar flex the foot when the leg is in a straight position.
- Soleus – is a band like muscle that runs underneath the gastrocnemius and helps to plantar flex the foot and also assist with knee flexion when the knee is in a bent position.
The main tendon of the calf is the achilles tendon and this is a thick tendon which helps to generate force for jumping and running but also absorbs loads when landing.
There is a smaller tendon which connects on to the arch of the foot and runs on the inside of the shin up towards the calf called the tibialis posterior. Its job is to assist the calf and helps to plantar flex the foot and invert the foot.
Top 7 Best Calf Stretches
- Standing Calf Stretch – this is the most common calf stretch you will have likely seen before. It’s a classic for runners and for people who are either beginning or starting exercise.
Stand near a wall or railing – place one foot behind you, push your hands on to the rail/wall and force your heel in to the ground to stretch the calf. Hold for a time that suits you and repeat for an amount you are happy with.
- Kneeling Calf Stretch – this stretch can help to target the soleus more than the gastroc as the knee is in a flexed position.
Kneel down on one leg, near a wall and place your hands on top of your knee – gently rock your knee forwards and hold the stretch.
- Dynamic Wall Calf Stretch – this is a great stretch for all the runners out there. Dynamic stretching simply means stretching whilst moving.
Lean on a wall and ensure your body is leaning ion to the wall at about a 45* angle.
Place both feet behind you and place your hands on the wall, gently press your heels in to the floor then raise one heel up and then the next and repeat over for around 30 seconds like you are running in to the wall.
- Down Dog Position – this is one of the most common yoga positions.
It does stretch the whole posterior chain which encompasses the hamstrings, glute and back.
In a standing position, fall forward so that your hands touch the floor, you will now be positioned in an upside down V position, with soft knees, gently lift your heels up and down so that you stretch your calves. You can settle in a comfortable position when your body feels like it.
- Towel Calf Stretch – this stretch can be performed in sitting or lying.
Simple loop a towel around the bottom of your foot and pull your foot towards you. This will stretch the calf muscles without placing all of your bodyweight through.
This is a good stretch for when a calf or ankle may be injured and standing may not be the best option.
- Calf Raises – this is an exercise which will strengthen the calf. Stretching is good for the calf but strengthening can help to support its function and performance.
Stand near a wall or rail for support and gently raise up through your forefoot so that your heels rise off the floor.
Repeat this until tired. You can progress this by performing single leg movements or by adding weight. In the gym there are usually machines which you can do weighted calf exercises. Kettlebells or dumbbells can help you to add weight.
- Plantar / Dorsiflexion Movement Stretching – this is the simplest exercise to do and ensures that you move the ankle and calf fully upwards and downwards.
In a long sitting position, point your foot all the way down and hold for a few seconds, then pull your foot all the way up and hold for a few seconds.
This is a great stretch for first thing in a morning if your foot and ankles are a little stiff or immobile. It also gently moves the calf.
Why do we stretch the calf?
There’s no single answer to this question but here are collection of reasons why the calf gets stretched:
As part of structured recovery from injury or surgery, stretching may be recommended. This can be for 2 reasons such as improving the range of motion in the joint but also to help with muscular recovery and pain. Following an injury or surgery, there is typically a period when the body part may not be doing much and stretching can help it to return to its former function by placing it under mild stress to make it move and function better. Stretching can also just help to temporarily relax certain tissues which will allow further movement.
This is a practice which originated in India and is taught all over the world. It is mainly comprised of stretching and static holds which are combined together to create movements and flows which help to improve your flexibility, stamina and strength in your full body. A lot of the stances and movements in yoga stretch the calf region.
This is a topic where there is some debate. Stretching can change the length of a muscle but it has to be done in the right way and usually takes a very long time. Adequate time to help lengthen a muscle is 30 seconds of stretching but this has to be completed over a very long time period.
This is the big reason why we stretch and the one which has the most evidence to back it up. When we stretch it gives our brain the feedback via the stretch receptors, if we feel the sensation of a stretch in a painful area then this can reduce the feeling of pain, temporarily to that region.
Following any type of exercise we can develop tightness in the fascia and muscles from the work we have done and any micro trauma that has occurred. Stretching after an activity/exercise can help tissues to relax and promote more movement rather than stiffening and restriction of movement.
Stretching has been for a long time in place before exercise. A recent change in the evidence recommends we do not static stretch when warming up as this can relax the muscles and ‘switch them off’. Instead, we should be aiming for dynamic movements that open up joints rather than stretch the muscle belly. In addition to this we should add in light muscle activation work to help prepare the muscles.
In regard to the calf, a good example of a warm up would be ankle circles that promote movement ion the calf and ankles, followed by small bouncing movements similar to skipping or small jumps to help activate the calf muscles. This helps to switch the muscles on and prepare them for what they are about to do.
What else can we do to help the calf?
Stretching ultimately feels nice but adding strength work and plyometrics to the calf muscles will help them to be more resilient to injury and also help them to perform better in day to day life and in sport.
As we mentioned before – static stretching of the calf may not be the best thing to do before exercise but strengthening the calf is highly recommended.
Plyometrics such as skipping and jumping help to increase the capability of muscles which make them perform better and get injured less.
Compression garments can help recovery of the calf muscles. You may have seen runners using these to run which helps to support the calf. If you have a calf injury, compressing the calf can help to reduce swelling and improve circulation.
Heat treatments like heat compression or heat wraps/creams are great for driving blood in to the calf and helping them to recover also.
Finally, massage of the calf muscles is a great way to help them recover and relax. Mobilisation of the muscles helps to increase circulation, reduce tension and also get rid of pain.
That concludes our guide to the best calf stretches. We hope that you have found this article helpful, if you have please share it with someone you know. Please take a look at our other articles on best compression sleeves which can help with your calf recovery. Thanks for reading.