Do you Calf it?

Your first question is most likely what on earth is calving it? This is basically just strengthening your calf muscles. So do you? If you do, then well done for helping out your ankle stability and foot strength. If you don't then you definitely should start incorporating some calf work into your workouts.

Firstly what are the calves? A bit of anatomy...

The calves are technically 3 muscles and for those real anatomy nerds out there you could actually call them the second triceps muscle in the body. The Triceps Surae as opposed to the Triceps Brachii in the upper arm/shoulder.

Whilst I just said they are 3 muscles, they are in reality only 2 muscles. The gastrocnemius (which has 2 heads) and the soleus muscle. So 2 heads of gastrocnemius and soleus make 3 muscles.

The gastrocnemius is the bigger of the 2 muscles and is the more superficial muscle, so this is more the muscle you see and will think of when you think of the calves. It begins at the femur just above the knee crease and runs down the back of the lower leg to become the Achilles tendon. The gastrocnemius is responsible for flexing the knee (like the hamstrings) and also plantar flexion or pressing your foot into the ground or standing on tippy toes.

The soleus muscle is different to the gastrocnemius as it doesn't cross the knee. It attaches to the fibula head and the tibia and then also becomes the achilles tendon and attaches to the heel or calcaneus bone. Its only action is to plantar flex (tippy toes).

The differences between these muscles means that when we stretch or strengthen the muscles we have to do one with the knee straight (gastrocnemius) and one with the knee bent (soleus)

Why are the calves so important?

The calves are important as they are the bridge between the upper leg and the ankle. They provide stability for the ankle and also spring like energy for walking, running and jumping. With weak tight calves you are asking for injuries.

Big Arnie knew how to calf it.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was first training to be a body builder he realised that is calves were his smallest asset. He had huge pecs, biceps and quads but his calves were tiny. He knew that to be Mr Olympia he would have to work on the calves. So he began to calf it. He embarked on a gruelling calf regime not just tacking a cheeky calf raise to the end of his workout. He would actually dedicate whole workouts to the calves just like he would any other body part. He would do standing calf raises, seated calf raises and donkey calf raises. With perseverance he went on to have 20inch monster calves and became Mr Olympia many times over.

I’m not suggesting that you enter a bodybuilding competition, but what we can learn from this is that through perseverance we can change this often overlooked body part and actually incorporate it into our workouts.

What injuries can calving it help with and prevent?

  • Plantar Fasciitis: Pain in the base of the foot usually on the inside of the heel. Can be a sharp or burning type of pain that is worse on waking in the morning or when stationary for a while. Calf raises help to strengthen the calves which will then help take some of the load from the plantar fascia.

  • Achilles Tendonitis/Tendonopathy: Achilles tendonitis is basically an inflamed achilles tendon. This can occur through overuse, bone spurs, poor gait ,change of shoes, increasing running or walking load too quickly. By strengthening your calves you will put less strain through the achilles tendon and actually help to strengthen the tendon. Calf raises will usually improve your ankle stability which may also improve your gait meaning less lateral stress on the achilles tendon.

  • Ankle sprains: Ankle sprains usually occur when the ankle is unstable or weak. Calf raises not only strengthen the calf muscles, the gastrocnemius and soleus, they also strengthen the the stabilising muscles of ankle and foot including the Tibialis Posterior, flexor digitorum longus, flexor hallucis longus, plantaris, tibias posterior, extensor digitorum longus, extensor hallucis longus, not to mention the intrinsic muscles of the foot. Wow! Has your desire to calf it increased??

  • Ankle nerve impingements: Taking the ankle through range of motion means that it is less likely to nerve entrapments around the ankle.

  • Hamstrings and calf strains: Stronger calves means they can take the load, especially in explosive activities such as sprinting or plyometrics such as jumping.

Ok, ok. I want to calf it but I don't know how. What are some calf exercises?

The great thing about the calves is that there are only a few targeted exercises so they are easy to remember. There are lots of other exercises that will incorporate the calves such as running and jumping as well as exercises where you go onto your toes.

  • Calf raises off a step - are probably the most accessible and easiest of all the calf exercises. Find a step, place the balls of your feet on the edge of the step. Raise your heels (calve it) to contract your calves, go right up on to your toes to activate the windlass mechanism of the foot that engages the plantar fascia. Then slowly lower down until your heel goes below the step. you should get a nice calf stretch here as well. By slowly lowering you are accentuating the eccentric phase of the contraction which basically means you're getting more bang for your buck with the exercise. Repeat 3x10. For more of a challenge you can try on a single leg. Warning though make sure the bannister rail is close by as you may fall over, especially in the beginning when you are just getting your balance. The single leg version is great for people with plantar fasciitis and also ankle instability. To add even more of a challenge you can use dumbbells or a barbell to increase the weight.

  • Standing Calf raise machine: You will need to have a gym that has this machine. There are a few variations of these machines. Usually you stand on a platform and 2 levers sit on your shoulders that have weights on them. You then stand with the balls of your feet on the edge of the platform, lifting your heels up, pressing up with your shoulders and then lowering your heels off the platform as in the basic calf raises.

  • Donkey calf raises: This is basically a calf raise while you are bent over at the hips. They target the upper portion of the calf muscles. There are machines to do this exercise or you could ask a friend to help out.

  • Seated calf raise: This uses a machine where you are sitting with your knees bent and the weight is on your knees. You press down with the balls of the feet (calving it). This works the Soleus more as remember the soleus doesn't cross the knee joint so will activate more when the knees are bent.

  • Seated calf machine: This is probably the easiest calf exercise. You sit on the machine, load up the weight and then basically press down with your foot into plantar flexion, then slowly release.

  • Some other calf exercises

Jump squats

Box Jumps

Sumo calf raises

So there you have it. If you're not calving it, it is about time you started. If you are not convinced about calving it then take it from Arnie.

For more information, advice or comments or for any other calf exercises you think are great please don't hesitate to get in touch with us on 02 9233 5769, info@muscletherapyaustralia or on Facebook.

Please note that this information is general and not specific to you. if you have an injury then you should definitely have this checked out before you begin any new exercise.

References and more reading:

  • http://www.running-physio.com/pf-new-research/

  • http://www.simplyshredded.com/oak-roots-how-arnold-turned-his-biggest-weakness%C2%97-his-calves-into-a-showcase-muscle.html

  • donkey calf raises - http://www.muscleandfitness.com/workouts/leg-exercises/videos/donkey-calf-raise

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