Whether you like it or not, stretching is part of the body’s necessary maintenance routine. It alleviates stress, keeps our muscles and surrounding tissues healthy, prevents avoidable injuries, and allows us to move every day, even in our older years. Tight muscles are a problem, and today we want to focus on the calves stretch. These rear-facing lower leg muscles are both key performance and postural muscles that take a lot of abuse. Or not, for the average couch potato. Doesn’t matter, both are good candidates for regular stretching.
This guide demonstrates the very best calf stretches to improve your range of motion, alleviate and prevent common foot problems, and stop injuries due to high-intensity activities.
Muscles Involved During Calves Stretch
Let’s talk about what makes up these smaller leg muscles, and how they work.
Slapped on the posterior lower leg and threaded through the knee and ankle joints, the calf muscle fibers are divided into two heads – gastrocnemius, and soleus. The former is the larger, more visible, and also the stronger calf, while the soleus is a longer, and flatter muscle underneath the gastrocnemius.
The gastrocnemius and soleus fuse together at the lower leg to form what’s known as the achilles tendon, which connects the calves to the heel.
What do the calves do for us?
When you flex a muscle, it’s performing the function in which it was designed. For the calves, that is plantarflexion of the foot and ankle. We do this when pressing the gas pedal in a car, or when standing on our tiptoes to reach something above us.
Consequently, calves are heavily involved in physical performance, contributing to explosive movements like running and jumping. Calves, especially the soleus, is important for helping us to stand upright.
And because the calves are so active, we need to give them adequate stretching to keep them mobile, flexible, and strong enough to endure what we put them through.
How To Do The Calves Stretch
A calf stretch done wrong can be less forgiving than stretches for other muscle groups. That’s because the ankle and foot area, while strong, can easily be overstressed. So we’re going to show you a basic calf stretch from a step, but also consider the variations offered too.
Before stretching any muscle, it’s best to warm up with light intensity technique to drive blood in the area, and make it more pliable. Otherwise, stretching a cold muscle could cause harm. A few minutes of running in place, or a brisk walk are sufficient, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
Note: We only recommend this stretch for people with healthy ankles, and feet, and good balance, and coordination. Jumping straight into a deep calf stretch using your body weight, with incorrect form, can stress everything from the achilles tendon, to the ankle, and even the fascia tissue in your feet.
Also, make sure to use a stable, safe object to do calves stretches, like a staircase, doorstep, cement platform, bench, etc.
- Step up on a raised platform with both legs. You can hold onto an object for balance, and to have better control over the stretch and prevent injuries.
- Now slide either foot back until the heel is hanging off the edge of the step, and keep the other, non-working foot where it is, flat on the platform.
- Keeping the rear leg straight, slowly drop the heel down a few inches, while bending the front leg. You should feel a nice stretch in the calf of the back leg.
- Hold for about 10-20 seconds, reset, and do it again a few more times.
Here’s a quick video example of the calves stretch from a platform.
- Don’t lean your full weight onto the calf being stretched. The goal is to drop the heel, and use your body to control the resistance, only applying enough force to stretch the calves without feeling strain in the joints and foot.
- You can use a thick book or yoga block, which will allow your heel to touch the floor, and reduce the force applied to your ankles and feet.
- As you can see from the video example, keeping the non-working foot on the platform, rather stretching both calves at the same time allows you more control over how much force is applied to the stretch. Reducing your body weight load, and preventing overstressing the ankles and feet.
- Target Muscle Group: Gastrocnemius, soleus
- Type: Stretch
- Mechanics: Isolation
- Equipment: Step
- Difficulty: Beginner
Benefits of Calves Stretch
Stretching is something we should all be doing, and while the calves may be ignored compared to other muscles, they’re just as, if not more important because they bear our weight. Let’s discuss the benefits of stretching your calves frequently.
As explained in the muscles involved during calves stretch section, your calves are performance muscles. Sprinting, running long distances, and lifting heavy on your feet punishes the calves too. But calves also assist in the gait or walking cycle, and support standing posture. So keeping them healthy, functional, and able to fully contract is key to longevity, and staving off injuries because physical performance is very demanding on the lower body.
Speaking of injuries…
Tight calf muscles are most commonly caused by overuse or lots of physical activity. Although underuse, improper warmup, and other causes exist. But overuse without proper maintenance can run you into injuries from tightness that affects lower body function. So if you’re someone who runs and plays sports you should be stretching the calves regularly.
Not to mention, you may benefit from increased blood flow to a muscle, which could reduce muscle soreness. But it could also be what helps improve certain foot conditions…
Possibly improve common foot and lower leg issues
When you stretch the calves, you’re also stretching the foot. This is said to be one thing you can do to improve common foot conditions such as plantar fasciitis (affects the thick tissue connecting heel bone to toes causing pain and discomfort).
Another common stiff area in need of being stretched is the achilles tendon, especially when someone develops achilles tendinitis. This tendon is formed by the two calf muscles and helps connect to the heel bone. It’s also the largest tendon in the human body. Recruited during walking, running, jumping, etc, achilles tendon experiences a lot of wear. Tight calves can also affect the achilles tendon.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends calf stretches to help alleviate minor achilles tendon issues.
Common Mistakes When Performing Calves Stretch
Bad calves stretch technique is dangerous and it can sideline you for a while, or cause ongoing issues in the ankle and foot. Follow these tips to help keep those problems in the rearview mirror.
Placing all your weight into the stretch
Unlike a calf raise exercise, you don’t actually want all your weight on the foot and ankle. In fact, this will force the calf muscles to contract in order to resist your body weight load. And it’s a lot of stress on the ankles and feet. It’s better to stretch one calf at a time, so you can use the stationary, non-working foot to help control the depth of stretch in the working calf. This is a much safer, and healthier way to stretch the calves.
Rushing the stretch
Due to the nature of a calves stretch, it’s not one you want to rush through, although the variation can make a big difference too. But we’re talking about the variation from a step or platform where the heel hangs off the edge and your weight is on the ankles, creating unequal force distribution.
Many people notice the same discomfort and pain when they do weighted calf raises too heavy, and too quickly. Drop the ankle, feel a little stretch, and don’t overdo it.
You don’t want to be unstable while doing calf stretches as the lack of control can be dangerous for the joints. It’s better to hold onto something for support if you cannot maintain balance without it.
Variations of The Calves Stretch
All calves stretch variations can be useful, and you may prefer one over the other. But we also included the following calves stretches that are unique in their own way, and, are top notch!
Commonly called the runner’s stretch for obvious reasons, it’s a good technique for most people. It offers a solid, stable stretch with equal weight balance, and you can have more control, pushing as little or hard during the stretch.
- Find a wall or similar, and place your palms against it, spaced roughly shoulder width apart, and elbows slightly bent. Stand with your feet far enough back, about 12 inches or so from the wall.
- Now slide one foot back about 6-12 inches behind the other in a split stance, and keep both feet flat on the ground. Keep your toes pointed straight forward towards the wall.
- Now push into the wall, and feel the stretch on the calf of the rear foot. Keep the front leg bent and the rear leg mostly extended.
- Hold for 10-20 seconds, rest a few seconds, and do it two more times.
- Switch your foot position, bringing the rear foot forward, and sliding the other one back. Repeat.
Pro tip: Bend both knees together to emphasize the stretch in your soleus calf muscle, which also benefits the achilles tendon.
Calf stretch on a slant board
A good choice for those with plantar fascitis, and other common foot issues, stretching the calf on a slant board creates equal weight distribution, it’s more stable, and allows you to better control the intensity of the stretch.
- Step your heel at the base of the slant board and lie your foot flat against it with the toes pointing forward.
- Move the other foot forward to increase the stretch in your calf.
- Hold for 10-20 seconds, relax, and repeat a few more times, then switch legs.
Calf stretch sitting down with legs extended
If you want to stretch your calves with less resistance, in a more relaxed position, you can sit on the floor with legs extended, and use a belt, leash, or resistance band to pull against your toes, and stretch the calves.
Make sure to relax your ankle, and pull for a few seconds at a time. Lean into the stretch to include your hamstrings too.
Calf foam rolls
One way that you probably didn’t expect to loosen up the calves is using a foam roller. You’ll create healthier fascia, and calf muscles.
- Sit on the floor and lay a foam roller where your legs will be. Extend both legs and rest your calves on the foam roller.
- Now place your hands on the floor, and use your arms to lift your butt off the ground.
- Use your arms to move your body forward and back, rolling the roller up and down your calves.
- Roll for about a minute, rest, and do it again for another minute.
Pro tip: For a more intense calf massage, cross one leg over the other and repeat steps above.
How many sets should I do?
There’s no sure answer to this. It really depends on how much time you have, how many times per day you stretch a muscle, how long you’ve been stretching, and the length of each set or number of seconds you hold a stretch.
If stretching once a day, two-three sets x 20-30 second stretches should be plenty.
But you could also do more sets and shorter stretch durations. Find what works best for you, but try not to overdo it.
What is the most convenient calf stretch?
Out of the many variations, we’d say the runner’s stretch is the simplest and most convenient. You don’t need any aids or tools, and it is safe on the joints and more supported with the feet flat on the ground, not stressing the ankles and feet.
It’s as simple as that. Warm up with a brisk walk, then get to stretching, or stretch your calves after your physical activities. You’ll ensure that your calves, ankles and feet stay up to health. Plus, calves stretching requires a very small time commitment, and no equipment (for some variations).
Just be sure to go slow, don’t force anything, and be consistent. These are key to effective stretching, and avoiding worse problems due to bad technique.
This guide is a detailed resource that explains and demonstrates proper calves stretching, with tips that you don’t want to skip over.