In each muscle study, we’ll take a look at a muscle group, and examine what its purpose is in the body. Then using that information, we’ll take a look at a few ways to exercise the muscle and close with a sample workout that should effectively work the muscle. There may be some biological / technical jargon in this, but I’ll do my best to explain in plain English the terminology we’re throwing around as we go along!
The calf muscle, is the name of the large muscles that make up the lower leg, just below the back of the knee. This group consists of three total muscles: the gastrocnemius and soleus (composing the triceps surae muscle) and the tibialis posterior.
The gastrocnemius is the most visible muscle of the calves. It is similar to the triceps muscle of the upper arm in that it has one insertion point, but two origin points. The origin points of the muscle is the back of the femur (thighbone) and the patella (kneecap) and the insertion point is the top of the Achilles tendon that connects to the heel.
The soleus lies beneath the gastrocnemius. This muscle’s origin point is the Rear of the fibular head (one of the two bones making up the lower leg and shares the insertion point of the gastrocnemius – the achilles tendon.
The tibialis posterior
The tibialis posterior is a small muscle that sits deepest of the three. It’s origin point is the inner rear borders of the tibia and fibula, and the insertion point is the posterior tibial tendon which ultimately inserts into the tuberosity of the navicular and the plantar surface of the medial cuneiform (one of the bones on the top of your foot.
So What Do These Muscles Do?
Simply put, the calves give power to the feet. They are responsible for flexion of the foot at the ankle joint, allowing you to point and retract the foot/toes. because of your calves, you’re able to slow yourself down easier when running, they also help you to jump higher, allowing you to use your toes in the kinetic chain of a jumping movement. Additionally, the calves help to stabilize the knee, which can help to avoid some pretty serious injuries.
So How Do We Best Work This Muscle Group?
Since the calves affect flexion of the feet, we can logically determine that anything that involves the pointing of the toes will help to place resistant stress on these muscles, allowing you to exercise them effectively. Due to the fairly specific role that the calves play, it’s difficult to find a wide variety of exercises that work this muscle group out. However, there are two primary ways to exercise the calves, which we’ll cover below in place of our typical look at three specific exercises.
Before we jump into the exercises, it’s also important to note that the primary muscle we’re interested in is the gastrocnemius. This is the visible muscle of the calf and has two heads to it – the medial head of the gastrocnemius is the inside of the calf, and the lateral head of the gastrocnemius is the outside of the calf.
So what we can do to target the muscles fully? Let’s take a look
Calf raises are a pretty straightforward idea. Standing flat footed with your feet about shoulder width apart, flex the feet to stand on your toes, raising your heels off the ground. If you’re following along at home, congratulations, you just performed a calf raise. This movement relies on the calves to support the body weight, and the act of raising the body puts resistant stress on those muscles. Who knew exercising the calves was something you’ve done your whole life right?
You can make this exercise more targeted and effective a few different ways:
- The first and most obvious way is by holding additional weight. The nice thing is, this can be any weight that you’re comfortable holding. Whether it’s a dumbbell, or a weight plate, a bucket of water, a few phone books or your kid brother. Because this movement is lifting the entire body, the location of the weight isn’t that important either, which makes calf raises a great exercise if you’re nursing an injury.
- You can increase the range of motion of calf raises – and thereby the effectiveness by placing the toes and the balls of the feet on a raised surface – like a 2 by four. This lets the heels come to a rest below the toes of the feet which increases the stretch on the calves allowing for a deeper and more effective exercise.
- You can also change the position of your feet to target different parts of the calf. If the feet are parallel to one another, then you’re focusing on the entire gastrocnemius. If your toes are pointed outward slightly, then you’ll be targeting the the medial (inner) gastrocnemius. If your toes are pointed inward (pigeon-toed) then your focusing on your lateral (outer) gastrocnemius.
Important tip: As with most of the exercises we outline in the muscle studies, it’s important to pause and flex the muscle at the point where the muscle is doing the most work – in this case, at the top of the movement. So when you’re standing at the tallest part of the exercise, take a breath and give that muscle a good squeeze. Flex it and hold for that breath before lowering yourself back down.
The second way to work the calves is a little more explosive than the calf raise. Instead of slowly moving through an exercise, you’re going to use the toes and feet to push off and jump into the air. In fact, any jump that pushes of with the toes will add a calf component into the movement – in essence, you’re adding a quick calf raise prior to the jump. Most commonly, you’ll see this as a more advanced move added to split lunges and squat jumps. The idea is instead of returning to a standing position after a squat (for example) you “explode” out of the squat, pushing off of the ground with the toes in a jump before again landing on the toes and absorbing the return to the squatting position with the calves and legs.
This does add the calves into the exercise, but it’s not my favorite way to work the calves as they become the secondary focus over the rest of the legs. So while this is a great way to create a compound exercise targeting multiple muscle groups, if you’re targeting the calves specifically, you’re probably better served with one of the calf raise variations above. Additionally, this adds an aerobic / cardio element to the exercise, and as a result, you’re likely to hit your cardio – or the rest off your legs – limits before you’ve really worked your calves to their full potential.
Running and cycling are also effective ways to train the calves, but I place them into this category as well since their primary goal is not focusing on the calves, but I do want to recognize these as valuable tools to add to your workouts to make sure that you’re maximizing your opportunities to work this muscle.
Stretch That Thing!
Strengthening the muscle isn’t good enough. You want a functional, strong, lean muscle that not only looks good, but that you can rely on. If you don’t stretch your muscles, you’ll begin developing range of motion issues that you don’t want. My rule of thumb – any time you work a muscle, you should also stretch the muscle. A few stretches you could perform after a calf workout might be:
Both are similar movements, but each isolates the calves a little bit differently / more intensely.
There are many reasons to exercise this muscle group, ranging from functionality to simply aesthetic reasons. Hopefully this article sheds some light on the complexity of this muscle group, and increases your knowledge of how it’s used by your body. I’d love to hear your thoughts on ideas how you might be able to train it to work even harder.
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