The calf muscle is scientifically called triceps surae (from the Latin words caput and sura for “three-headed calf muscle”). The calf muscle is comprised of a pair of muscles—the gastrocnemius and soleus. Exercises for the calves are designed to strengthen these muscles. In all cases, calf exercises increase strength within the legs, along with helping to tone and shape the calf area. Such exercises add to the health and fitness of an individual.
The lower leg contains two major muscles whose primary purposes are together to point and press the front part of the foot (the ball and toes) downwards and to lift the heel. These activities are called plantar flexion. The movement that extends the right angle from the front part of the foot upwards to the shin (the front of the lower leg) when standing, is called dorsiflexion. The range of motion for plantar flexion is usually between 30–50°. Plantar flexion is performed when walking, running, jumping, or for such activities as pressing down on the accelerator pedal of a motorized vehicle or the pedals of a bicycle. As another example, a person can simply exercise the calf muscles by standing on one's “tippy-toes.”
Exercising the calf muscle helps when standing, walking, running, and jumping. Strong calf muscles also act like shock absorbers when people place their feet onto the ground during everyday activities. Maintaining strong and flexible calf muscles is important for performing in athletic events and other such physical activities.
The exercise of calf muscles is necessary for everyone, regardless of age. However, some people may need to exercise these muscles more than others. For instance, tight calf muscles can be caused by various reasons such as genetics (heredity), constant walking during the day regularly performed physical leg movements, running and other strenuous leg activities, or even the wearing of high-heeled shoes. Strong calf muscles are a necessity for keeping the feet, knees, hips, back, and even the shoulders healthy.
The smaller calf muscle is the soleus muscle, which is concealed between the gastrocnemius muscle and the bone in the lower leg. Although smaller than the gastrocnemius muscle, it is slightly wider than the gastrocnemius. The soleus provides width to the back of the lower leg.
The two-headed (gastrocnemius and soleus) calf muscle is primarily used for standing and walking, while the gastrocnemius is also used for running and jumping. There are different types of exercises that benefit the calf muscle. Some of them include:
Many other exercises are available for the calf muscles. All exercises should be performed correctly to avoid injuries. Pain should not be present while doing exercises.
A medical professional should be consulted before starting any new exercise routine. Personal trainers can also be consulted as to the correct type of individualized program for calf exercises. Many videos and instructional manuals are available to help in the learning process. Instructions provide the correct form and technique that individuals should use with specific calf exercises.
Stretching exercises should be performed to help to warm (limber) up the calf muscles before more strenuous exercises. Hold a stretch for 20–30 seconds while breathing naturally and letting the muscle relax as much as possible. Repeat the stretch two or three times. Most stretching should be performed after an exercise workout. Regular stretching of the calf muscles will leave them elastic and flexible and help to soften the impact made in the feet and ankles.
A stretching exercise for the gastrocnemius muscle includes sitting with both legs straight. Loop a rope around the ball of one foot and hold both ends of the rope. Then, flex the foot back toward the ankle, with the toes pointing to the knee. Repeat with the other foot. An exercise that concentrates on the soleus muscle involves sitting with one leg straight and the other one bent. Hold the bottom of the foot on the bent leg. While keeping the heel on the floor, pull the foot toward the body as far as possible. Then repeat with the other foot.
A risk of injury to the Achilles tendon or calf muscles is possible if they are inflexible; that is, if they have not been exercised for a long time or an individual is sedentary. Tight calf muscles increase the risk for ankle injuries, shin splints, and problems with the feet. Plantar fasciitis results from inflammation on the bottom of the foot.
Pain can occur in the calf muscle when it is pulled or torn from being stretched beyond its ability. Small microtears to the muscle can occur, resulting in an injury to the calf. A calf muscle strain is the most common cause of acute calf pain, one that suddenly occurs. It usually occurs during sports or exercise activities. Cramps in the lower leg muscles are also common. A complete rupture of the muscle is a serious injury. When a calf muscle injury occurs, a sharp pain in the back of the lower leg can be felt. Swelling and bruising may become present later. Injured calf muscles make it difficult to place weight on the leg and nearly impossible to stand on one's toes.
Treatment for a minor injury to the calf usually calls for a therapeutic strategy called RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation). Wrap the injured calf so blood does not collect at the injury site. Keep the leg elevated for the first 24 hours after the injury so the calf does not swell. Anti-inflammatory medication may reduce the pain. Stay off the leg as much as possible. Seek medical help if the injury causes an inability to walk comfortably, the pain remains after a few days, the calf or ankle swells, or symptoms of fever and/or localized redness occur.
Risks from calf exercises can be minimized by making sure the body is ready for calf exercises and gradually building up an exercise routine. If the exercise feels comfortable for the calves, then it is appropriate for one's level. Avoid overexertion, which increases the risk of injuring the muscles in the calves. Mild discomfort is natural when doing exercises, especially when the muscle is being stretched, but an exercise should not be continued if it causes pain.
To avoid injuries:
Regularly exercising the calves will keep lower leg muscles toned and the joints above and below these muscles limber and flexible. Calf exercises, coupled with a total body resistance training workout and sufficient aerobic exercise, will also help to maintain a proper body weight. In addition, strong calf muscles allow people to perform better in sports and in the accomplishment of everyday activities.
Regular physical activity plays beneficial roles in preventing disease and improving overall health status. Numerous medical studies have been performed to scientifically show that exercise is beneficial for overall health and fitness.
See also Exercise ; Muscle strain ; Stretching .
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William A. Atkins, BB, BS, MBA