Posted by: thehungryrunner | June 28, 2010

How do calf stretches work?

This article is cross-posted to my other blog,

Lately, it seems my work at The Flexibility Coach is centering more and more on helping people relieve their tight calf muscles; it’s by far the most frequently asked question I receive.  And one of the more recent variants of that concern has been, “How do calf stretches work?”  Good question.  After all, if you know how the stretches work — both in the general sense and regarding specific stretches, you’ll be more apt to apply those stretches in a way that yields the desired results.  So here’s a basic explanation:

Calf stretches work several ways.  The first is the most direct:  Calf stretches, that is, stretches that are specifically targeted for the CALF muscles, offer relief for the tightness you feel upon awakening in the morning, following a workout, after a long day spent on your feet, etc.  When we stand, walk, run, stand on “tiptoe,” wear shoes with any kind of heel, climb a hill or stairs, jump…we are using our calf muscles.  In fact, most of us OVERuse our calves (more on that in a moment), which only exacerbates the chronic shortening of this muscle.  By taking the time to stretch — my recommendation is daily, we begin to reverse the cumulative effect of this high demand on the muscle.  How?  By helping our muscles recover from constantly being called upon, allowing them to relax and establish comfortable (yes, comfortable!) mobility.  Holding a stretch also helps to direct more blood flow to the muscle, and re-educate the muscle on its full range (most of us are actually much more flexible than we think, we just haven’t given our muscles the means of safely moving to their full length).  Altogether, these effects of stretching help to change in the way we walk and workout.  This is significant, because when we walk and move differently, we further alleviate the imbalanced load placed on overworked muscles, which means we’re helping to prevent the development of muscle tightness in the first place!

The kind of stretching that accomplishes the above is typically performed slowly, with long holds (at least 30-40 seconds), and a specific focus on trying to relax the muscle.

But calf stretches are not, as it turns out, limited to stretches aimed directly at the calf muscle itself.  To truly improve the flexibility of this area of the body, you need to stretch other muscles, such as the hamstrings and the hips (glutes).  This is because calf tightness rarely occurs in isolation.  In fact, it’s not unusal for calf tightness to be BOTH a problem in itself AND a symptom of a bigger problem, that of overall leg tightness.  Ever watch the way an elderly person hobbles along?  Ever wonder how they arrived at that point?  Guess what, much of that immobilization began with leg muscles that gradually became tighter.  And — fortunately and unfortunately – the body is incredibly adaptable; it can take an increase in muscle tightness and accommodate it simply by moving differently.  Problem solved!  Except….that altered movement in itself will tend to cause additional tightness elsewhere, while the original tightness grows worse by the day.  See how it can happen?  The answer to breaking that cycle lies in being vigilant in keeping the legs (and the rest of the body) supple.  And that means responding to tight calves with the seriousness it deserves, in the form of regular, quality stretching for the calves, hamstrings and hips.  And in so doing, you’ll release tight leg muscles AND lighten the load placed on your calves throughout your day, which once again will help you reduce the occurrence of calf tightness to begin with.

The other way that well-chosen, properly executed calf stretches work, is to activate and strengthen weak muscles — the very muscles that lend support to the calf, ankle, and rest of the leg.  For example, if you stand upright, then lift the ball of your right foot while leaving your right heel on the floor, you may very well feel a stretch on your calf.  But you will also be activating the muscles in front of your shin.  This is important, because the muscles in front of the shin (namely, the tibialis anterior) tend to be weak, due to the overdominance of the calf muscle (yes, the same calf that’s all cranky and tight in the first place).  But it doesn’t stop there; calf tightness is often also accompanied by a weak low back, weak core muscles, and — ironically — weak calf muscles! 

Weak calf muscles, you say?  How can that be?  The truth is, although we put our calves through a great deal each day, the movements themselves are by and large the same small, repetitive, limited-range movements.  So, although the calf may have OK function and endurance for our daily activities, the ankle and lower leg are often ill-prepared to handle anything else.  To see what I’m talking about, stand on one leg, and swing your “free” leg (the one in the air) forward and back, in a gentle pendulum motion.  How long can you do this before you start to waiver and bobble, never mind before your supporting leg starts to feel fatigued?

Thus, by including calf exercises, core work, low back exercises, and various forms of balance training in your calf stretch strategy, you’ll be giving your body a more comprehensive strength and agility, which translates to reduced burden on the calves and a much easier time stretching those muscles effectively.

Obviously, there are many other ways that calf stretches work — I have not even touched on how stretching the calves will help improve your sports performance, such as the ability to jump and land.  And I have not addressed the fact that there are actually TWO main calf muscles, and that it’s often the smaller, lesser-known of the two that causes our greatest problems, and that stretches for this muscle in particular can therefore be, all by itself, an effective tool to thwart tight calves.  But at least this gives you the basics of what you should be experiencing upon implementing a calf stretch program for yourself.

For more information on calf tightness — including articles of mine and information on my calf stretch and other stretch workouts, please visit the following link:  Additional articles on calf stretches.  If you’re pressed for time and just want a pre-designed workout that’s ready to go, including both the printable workout sheet and accompanying audio, please consider becoming a member of The Flexibility Coach, where you’ll find a wide variety of stretch workouts, yoga videos, and downloadable MP3 files at your instant disposal.



  1. […] 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?. […]

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