Oh our little calves. They seem to always take the back seat to other bigger and more sexy muscle groups like our glutes. But – they are such an important part of our body and may hold one of the keys to increased circulation and mobility.
Did you know that your body has a second blood pump? It’s your calf muscles! With each and every step you take, the calf muscles pump venous blood back toward your heart. Our heart can pump blood to our lower extremities in seconds, but, since the blood is flowing against gravity, sending it back towards the heart will take more than a single pump from the heart. Because of this, the body uses the calf muscles to pump blood from your lower legs back to the heart.
Here is how it works:
The veins in your calf act like a reservoir for blood your body does not need in circulation at any given time. These reservoir veins are called muscle venous sinuses. When the calf muscle contracts, blood is squeezed out of the veins and pushed along the venous system. One-way valves in the leg veins keep the blood flowing in the correct direction toward the heart. The valves keep the blood flowing in the right direction and prevents gravity from pulling the blood right back down.
When you walk, your foot plays a role in the pumping mechanism as well. The foot also has a (smaller) venous reservoir. During the early motion of taking a step, as you put weight on your foot, the foot venous reservoir blood is squeezed out and ‘primes’ the calf reservoir. Then, in the later stages of a step, the calf muscle contracts and pumps the blood up the leg, against gravity.
When you are immobile for long periods of time, like on an airplane seat or sitting at a desk for hours, your calf muscles are not contracting much and blood can pool in your lower extremities. That’s why walking is so good for the circulation in your legs. And it’s not just walking though,…the best way to improve circulation is to get moving in general! Whether that is walking, running, swimming or participating in a Flostate live or on demand class.
Abnormally tight calf muscles cause issues up and down the kinetic chain. You can think of your kinetic chain as interrelated groups of body segments, connecting joints and muscles that work together to perform movements. This helps explain how the movement of one joint can affect the movement of another joint within the kinetic link. In a nutshell – everything in the body is connected. The good news is we can use this information to help us figure out what is happening in the body.
Calves can become tight for a variety of reasons. Maybe you’re a basketball player or a runner, wear high heels or even sit for extended periods of time. Let’s take one of these as an example. Wearing high heels puts the ankle in an excessive plantarflexion (“toe point”) position. This can lead to tightness in your gastrocnemius and soleus – the main muscles of your calves – causing your imbalances like overpronation or the flattening of the arch of the foot. This causes the knee to move inward and the hips to be misaligned – further altering movement patterns. This can lead to plantar fasciitis, shin splints, knee pain and lower back pain. That’s quite the chain reaction – all starting from our calf function.
To get things back in balance, a few things need to happen. First, we need to release the tight muscles via inhibitory techniques such as foam rolling (Self-Myofascial Release). Then, lengthen the muscles by stretching. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, when self-myofascial release is applied in conjunction with stretching techniques, it was shown to significantly increase range of motion.
Next we “activate” underused muscles with targeted strengthening exercises, and finally “integrate” via dynamic strength exercises.
Step 1: Foam Roll
Sit on the floor, sporting your body with your hands. Place the foam roller underneath your calf muscles, possibly stacking one leg over the other for added weight. Roll your calf muscle across the roller – down, up and side to side – pausing the rolling action over painful areas until a “release” is felt in the area or the pain sensation dissipates a bit. Hold tender spots for 30-90 seconds depending on the intensity of application.
Step 2: Stretch
Place your hands against a wall with arms relatively straight. Bend one knee, and lean into the wall. Straighten the other leg behind you (careful not to lock or hyperextend the knee), working the heel of the back foot down to the floor. Lean forward a bit to accentuate the stretch through the back calf muscle. Hold the stretch 20-30 seconds or 60 seconds for exercisers over 65 years of age. Do 1-4 repetitions.
Step 3: Isolated Strength
Let’s do some strength work.
Calf Raises: Stand on a step or platform with just the balls of your feet (widest part of your foot should be on the edge). Lower your heels down and lift heels up so you are standing on your “tip toes”. Squeeze the calf muscle at the top.
Anterior Tibialis Pull: Take a loop band (any size) and wrap it around a bench leg, banister – something to anchor it. Put the top of your foot in the band. Point and flex the foot back towards your body to work the anterior tibialis – the muscles located in the front of your calf. Do 1-2 sets of 10-15 reps. Take 4 counts to release back to a pointed or neutral position with the foot and hold 2 counts at the contracted position when the foot is flexed.
Step 4: Dynamic/Integrated Strength
Wall Ball Squat or Squat: Place a stability ball against the wall and stand with the ball positioned across your mid & low back. Squat down – lowering your body until thighs are positioned parallel to the floor. Squeeze your glutes and thigh muscles and stand back up to your starting position. If you don’t have a stability ball, just do a normal squat.
Do 1-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions.
NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise