EDITED ON 4/20/10 TO ADD: I’ve just published another article on this subject: Relieving Tight Calf Muscles — 3 Overlooked Essentials
EDITED ON 7/30/09 TO ADD: This post has quickly become the most visited entry for my entire blog; for specific stretches, please see my article at TheFlexibilityCoach.com: Article: 10 Ways to Stretch Tight Calf Muscles.
EDITED ON 6/29/10 TO ADD: Due to the ongoing high demand on this topic, I have written another article: How do calf stretches work?.
This is one of the more common questions I receive both in person (from flexibility training clients and yoga students alike) and via email from visitors of my website, www.theflexibilitycoach.com.
The truth is, there’s no one definitive answer to this question, as there are so many factors that contribute to tight calves. Without question, genetics plays a role here: some people are simply prone to tighter calves, either due to their inherited shape/length of the muscle or the manner in which their muscle (and the nerves that feed into it) behaves.
However, many causes of tight calves are ones over which we have some control. If you wear high-heeled shoes, your calves are kept in a state of perpetually shortened length. If you do a great deal of walking — either as part of your job or part of your exercise routine (or both), you’ll probably be inclined towards tight calves, as the calves, hamstrings and glutes are the primary leg muscles used for walking, especially on any uphill slope. Runners and other athletes are also prone to calf tightness, as the calf muscles are constantly firing to stabilize the ankle and both absorb each landing and push the heel back off the ground.
Interestingly, calf tightness can also be symptomatic of weakness elsewhere in the leg. If your glutes and/or hamstrings are weak, your calves will often try to make up for that weakness, which means the muscle gets overused, which in turn exacerbates calf tightness. In that same vein, calf tension is rarely experienced in isolation; rather, if there is tightness in the calf muscles, there is also a good chance you are tight in your hamstrings as well, due to the synergistic nature of the hamstrings and calves for much of our daily movements.
No matter what it is that’s causing your calves to shorten in the first place, you are almost certainly guaranteeing chronic tightness if you’re not stretching properly or regularly. Technically, we should all engage in some form of daily stretches for the various calf muscles, since they are used on a daily basis and for so many activities.
Truth be told, while some stretches are far more effective than others, if you’re not doing any form of stretching at the moment, as long as you pick one or two SAFE stretches for yourself and start doing them 1-2 times a day for at least 2 weeks, you should notice some positive changes in your calf muscle (and possibly hamstring) flexibility.
Although stretching is what I consider to be the central strategy in relieving tight calves, it’s also not a bad idea to add some exercises to strengthen the hamstrings and glutes and stabilize the pelvis and ankles, and for this I recommend less machine-based movements, more simple floor exercises — ones you can control easily and therefore perform with great form.
Finally, massages or “body rolling” techniques to the calf muscle can be used, to help break up excessively knarled/clumped connective tissue, which can often be part of the underlying problem as well.
So, while the answer to the question might not be so straightforward, the first step to relief very well can be: unless your doctor has told you to avoid such stretching, if you find the nearest stairs, stand on them, and let your heels drop off the edge (so that your heels are below the balls of your feet), you should begin to feel the very first stretch that can help you reverse your tight calves for good!