Your calf is one of the most under-trained muscles in your body and is usually neglected from a strength program. Most people don’t understand or believe the importance of keeping your calf complex strong. If this is you (or you just want to know more), then read on!

The Calf Complex..

It really isn’t complex. The calf is made up of two superficial muscles: the upper gastrocnemius; and the lower soleus. These are located at the back of your lower leg and join together to become your achilles tendon and attach onto your heel.

There are other, deeper muscles that run down the back of your lower leg but for the purpose of this article your “calf” refers to:

Gastrocnemius

The bigger, upper part of your calf. This gastroc has two heads – a lateral (outside), and medial (inside). They both come from the back of your femur (thigh bone) and form into your achilles tendon.

The gastroc is mostly made up of Type II fibres, or fast-twitched fibres. This means this muscle is important in powerful explosive movements such as sprinting, jumping and changing direction.

Soleus

This is the smaller of the two calf muscles. It sits underneath your gastrocnemius and starts from your tibia and fibula (your shin bones) rather than your femur. Then it joins with the gastrocnemius to become your achilles tendon.

Your soleus is mostly made of Type I fibres, or slow-twitch fibres. You may think this makes it less important. But it certainly isn’t. It means the soleus has better endurance, i.e. it won’t fatigue and will be there to support you. Literally! If you didn’t have your soleus you would fall forward and face-plant!

 

Calf muscle anatomy

In fact, They actually have multiple important roles. Explosive power, running, as a blood pumper, support your posture and injury prevention!

 

Preventable injuries with good calf strength

There are many injuries that can be prevented if you have decent calf strength. Some of these include:

  • Calf tears and strains
  • Sprained ankles
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome (shin splints)
  • Patellofemoral Pain
  • Tendinopathies of the ankle and foot
  • Tendinopathies of the knee
  • Stress Fractures

Achilles Tendinopathy

With a strong calf complex the injuries above are less likely to happen. Some however aren’t preventable. For example; if you step in a gutter and sprain your ankle. Despite this being out of your control, having decent calf strength as a base could decrease the severity of your injury and even speed up your recovery!

On the other hand, if you already have an injury don’t fear! Not only is calf strength important in prevention, it is also vitally important to rehabilitate many injuries!

 

Why is Calf Strength So Important?

Your calf muscles propel you forward with every single step, they absorb load with each impact and they support the rest of your lower limb and body.

By increasing your calf strength you will:

  • Become faster
  • Be able to run for longer
  • Keep a more consistent pace while running
  • Be able to jump higher

Strong calf muscles help you jump higher

 

Below I will discuss the best ways the strengthen your calf to progress you on your rehab journey…

The 4 Best Calf Strength Exercises

Always remember that the correct exercises, dose and frequency need to be individualised to each case. Going too hard too early may delay your rehab. And visa versa; going too soft in the early phases may delay your rehab. It depends on your injury and its’ severity.

At Sport and Spinal Physiotherapy we will be able to tailor your calf rehab and guide you through your progressions.

 

1. Straight Knee Calf Raises

Start with both feet on the ground near a wall or bench to hold on to. Lift your heel to go up onto your toes as high as you can. Ensure that you’re keeping your weight over all toes evenly and your knees straight. SLOWLY lower back down to the ground.

Repetitions: begin with 3 x 10

Progressions: Over time this will become easier. To increase the intensity you can

1. Increase reps and sets. For example 3 x 15 or 4 x 12

2. Do it single leg. Complete as above but with one leg at a time.

3. Add weight. If you have dumbbells available you can hold onto these or fill up a backpack with anything lying around at home.

4. Make them faster. You can increase the speed of your calf raises to make them more explosive.

 

Straight knee calf raise

Straight knee calf raise

2. Bent Knee Calf Raises

Start with both feet on the ground near a wall or bench to hold on to. Bend your knees slightly. Lift your heel to go up onto your toes as high as you can. Ensure that you’re keeping your weight over all toes evenly and your knees stay at the same angle; slightly bent. SLOWLY lower back down to the ground.

Progressions: Over time this will become easier. To increase the intensity you can progres the same as you would for straight knee calf raises:

1. Increase reps and sets. For example 3 x 15 or 4 x 12

2. Do it single leg. Complete as above but with one leg at a time.

3. Add weight. If you have dumbbells available you can hold onto these or fill up a backpack with anything lying around at home.

4. Make them faster. You can increase the speed of your calf raises to make them more explosive.

 

Bent knee calf raise

Bent knee calf raise

3. Seated Calf Raise

This can be performed on a seated calf raise at the gym. If you don’t have access to a gym you can re-create something similar at home.

Sit on a seat and place your toes on a step or stool with your heel just hanging off. Place some weight onto your knees (anything you can find at home). Slowly lower your heels down past parallel and raise back up as far as you can.

Progressions: to progress you would progress similarly to the two above. Try:

1. Increasing reps and sets

2. Doing them single leg

3. Increasing weight

4. Making them faster

Seated Calf raise

4. Hopping

Another great way to strengthen your calf is with hopping. Essentially hopping is several (or more) explosive calf raises in a row. Furthermore, it’s also more functional because it replicates tasks that usually cause calf issues such as running. Basically, running is a series of single leg hopping and calf raises over distance. To a lesser extent so is walking and to a greater extent, sprinting.

You can change your hopping from:

  • On the spot
  • Square hopping
  • Diagonal hopping
  • Lateral hopping

Additionally, these can all be progressed  to faster, higher, less contact time or with obstacles.

Hopping 1

Hopping 2

If you’re in need of a tailored calf program, come in and see us at Sport and Spinal Physiotherapy. Give us a call on 6262 4464.

 

 

About Jenna Cartwright

Jenna graduated from the University of Canberra with a Masters of Physiotherapy after completing a Bachelor of Applied Science in Human Biology. Her special interests include the rehabilitation of sporting injuries, post-operative rehabilitation, women's health and pilates. Jenna is a keen hockey player and is a current member of the ACT Academy of Sport and represents for the ACT Strikers. Outside of work and training she also enjoys reading, knitting and surrounding herself with family and friends.