The Forgotten Muscles: The Calves
As we’ve shifted to a more “functional training” mind set - we often leave out “isolated” work to muscles. While I do believe you will hit most muscles during your major movements (squat, lunge, carry, push, pull, plyometrics, etc), I do find it advantageous to work on some muscles directly. The calves are one of these groups.
The calves - also known as the gastrocsoleus complex - are made up of two muscles - the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is the one most people think off since it is easy to see. This muscle starts on the femur (crosses the knee) and attaches via the Achilles tendon to the calcaneus (heel bone). The soleus is deeper to the gastroc and thicker and broader. It is a bit more active when your knee is bent (as it does not cross the knee joint). Both of these muscles are important for function and while you can never isolate out a muscle with training - you can favor positions that increase activity in one over the other.
Together, the calves are important for absorbing and releasing energy in the lower leg - sometimes we refer to them as our “springs”. This becomes important for jumping and running. Without efficient or strong “springs” we may translate force to other areas of our body (knees, hips, back) and maybe cause some unnecessary strain in these areas.
Checking the strength of these muscles is quite easy. First, do a standing heel raise (raise your heels off the ground as high as you can) - you can use your arms for support on a table or wall, but not for help lifting. See how high you can go. Next - test one leg at a time - see if you can hit the same height with one leg as you do with two. If you cannot achieve the same height - that is a sign of weakness of these muscles. If you do achieve the same height - then see how many you can do in a row - through that full height. While norms vary based on age/gender most people should be at least between 20-30 reps IN A ROW on each leg.
You can then test this same position with your knee slightly bent which may give you a little more information about your soleus. The soles is a forgotten muscle in training these days. Strength of the soleus is a hot topic following knee injuries such as ACL reconstructions - noting it often does not fully recover its strength.
Here are some ways to strength the calf muscle group. Remember - you do not need to do ALL of these - but if you find weakness in a specific movement or are looking for some variation it is a great place to start.
Heel raises with the knee straight
Heel raises with the knee bent
Heel raises off a step
Heel raises at different angels (toes in, toes out, leaning forward at the wall)
Single leg heel raises with the knee straight/bent
If it is challenging to make this transition from 2 to 1 leg - start by going all the way up on 2, then down on 1
Heel raises in a squat position
Heel raises in a lunge position
Pogo Jumps (2-legged, 1-legged)
Sled pushes with heel raise
Check out Suarez Sports and Orthopedic Physical Therapy on Instagram to learn more about these movements!