A pair of impressive calves is testimony to a healthy physique, plus adds an aesthetic value. We never get tired of drooling over the robust calf muscles of our favourite sports stars. But good as they look, a lot of hard work goes into their appearance. The strength of the body banks on strong calf muscles, as they pull the entire body’s weight and go through a lot of wear and tear because of daily activities.
We often train in the gym working on other body parts like arms, waist and hips, but we ignore our calves. Calf muscles act as a buffer for athletic activities like sprinting, running, jumping and doing heavy weights. Our calves work to lift the heel when we run, walk and jump.
Basketball and volleyball players, for example, can easily stimulate the calf muscles while jumping. Runners, walkers and those who play team sports benefit from strong leg muscles. The calf muscle, on the back of the lower leg, is actually made up of two muscles:
- The gastrocnemius- It is the larger protruded part visible underneath the skin. The gastrocnemius has two parts which together create its heart shape.
- The soleus is a smaller, flat muscle that lies underneath the gastrocnemius muscle.
The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles taper and merge at the base to fuse with the Achilles tendon and help in plantar flexion. Plantar flexion is the extending of calf muscles while standing on your toes, walking or jumping. During walking, running, or jumping, the calf muscle pulls the heel up to allow forward movement.
Why are Calf Muscles known as the Second Heart?
We all know that the heart pumps blood and oxygen to different parts of the body through a network of veins. Similarly, blood from different regions of the body need to return to the heart. In this case, the calf muscles play the lead as the second heart. The contraction and relaxation of calf muscles help pump back the blood from the lower body to the heart. This is the sole reason why calf muscles are known as the second heart.
One should always stick to regular exercise and movement for stretching calf muscles, so that they get proper blood circulation. If you keep your calf muscles static or tightened for too long, it might lead to formation of varicose veins on the legs due to blood clots and eventually lead to a cardiac arrest. Try to involve lot of climbing, running, walking or cycling to maintain healthy calf muscles.
How Do Calf muscles Work?
When the calf muscles gastrocnemius and soleus contract, they flex and allow you to plant your feet.
So whenever you walk, run or squat down to sit or perform exercises, the calf muscles stretch to allow your foot to flatten and your shin to come forward.
Your calf muscles need to relax as they are constantly worked up due to frequent activities. Excessively tight calf muscles are prone to tearing. Wearing heels, inadequate stretching or movement of calf muscles may result in tearing of the Achilles tendon. So we need to do proper stretches for our calf muscles to function properly.
Activities like running, cycling, climbing and squatting use a spring action to propel the body forward. For this reason, athletes in aerobic sports aim to develop strong calf muscles.
In order to understand in detail how calf muscles work, it’s very important to understand their anatomy-
The calf muscle is made up of seven muscles arranged into superficial and deep groups. The superficial group includes the gastrocnemius, plantaris and soleus. The gastrocnemius is the most significant of all, and gives the calf muscle a definite shape. The deep group muscles include the popliteus, flexor digitorum longus, flexor hallucis longis and the tibialis posterior.
Contracting of these muscles help you plantarflex your ankle, curl your toes, bend your knee, and keep your blood moving through your circulatory system. Let us consider how these muscles flex in coordination with each other to produce a movement.
When you move your foot and toes downward while you lift your heel up, it is called plantarflexion. This movement is important for walking, running and biking because you need to push the ball of your foot off the ground for each step. This movement is mainly performed with the help of gastrocnemius and soleus.
Curling Your Toes:
Two of the deep calf muscles perform the curling of your toes. The flexor hallucis longus flexes your big toe, while the flexor digitorum longus flexes your other four toes. Flexing the toes causes them to curl under, which helps your feet push off the ground when you walk or run. These two muscles also play an important role in gymnastics and dance moves.
Bending Your Knee:
While bending the knee, the gastrocnemius and plantaris of the superficial group work as knee flexors to help bend the knee, which is necessary for movements such as walking, running and squatting.
Returning Blood to the Heart:
The calf muscle performs the important task of pumping blood back to the heart. Veins from this region collect the blood and run across the thighs and legs, before they merge into the major vein that connects the heart. Blood flow from the feet and legs often has to work against gravity, so contractions of the calf muscles help build pressure that moves the blood through the veins.
The Best Calf Building Workout:
Building calf muscles usually doesn’t involve exhausting workouts. Simple standing motions that raise your body up with toes will work the gastrocnemius; seated calf raises will work your soleus and reverse calf raises will work your tibialis anterior.
Different Types of Calf Exercises
Though we don’t really need to work on our calf muscles if we are always on our toes every day, but to be on the safer side it’s always better to do some moderate exercise to strengthen your calf muscles. Here are some exercises to improve calf muscles.
Seated Calf Raise
Sit on a box or bench with your feet flat on the floor in front of you. Flex your calves as high as possible, before returning to the original position. Be sure to squeeze the calves to the maximum to feel the stretch. Perform the movement with a slow pace. Repeat this 3 times.
Standing Calf Raise
Stand with a shoulder width distance between your feet, with your toes hanging flat on the edge of a box or step with your heels and mid-foot hanging off the edge. Use the wall or a rail as a support to stay balanced. This is your starting position. Push your toes into the box so your heels raise up, pause, and then lower yourself back to the original position. Make sure to drop the heel as far as possible to achieve the greatest stretch. Repeat this 3 times.
Donkey Calf Raise
Stand on a small bench or platform, letting your heels to hang off the edge. Bend over, and hold on to something stable for support so that your torso is parallel with the ground. Flex your calves, raising yourself up as high as possible before returning to the starting position where your calves are stretched, heels hanging off the edge. Make sure to keep your legs straight throughout the movement. Repeat this three times.
Squats have a great effect on your calves if performed with a good intensity. Bend your knees at 90 degrees and your hips out behind you, then jump up as you straighten your body to do the squat. Lift your arms high into the air for a more cardiovascular effect. Once you become skilled at this, try this on single leg. Repeat this 3 times.
Jumping rope isn’t just for kids – believe it or not! It does excellent work for toning your calves and giving you an aerobic workout in the process. Try it the grown-up way, with your hands on both sides making small circles to spin the rope. Keep the movements fast and small. Jump about an inch off the ground, staying on your toes while you propel yourself up and balance on your landing. Start with one set to begin with then increase up to three sets.
This is a very simple calf muscle exercise to get the muscle working and to help improve circulation. Lie on the bed with your legs out straight.
Point your toes down away from you and then pull your foot up towards you, both as far as you can. Repeat up and down with a rhythmical pumping action. You can also do this exercise when sitting, keeping your foot raised slightly off the floor.
Stand on the balls of your feet and your toes in front of a box or steps. Jump onto the box or step and land on your toes and the balls of your feet. Jump back down to the floor and repeat for 8 to 10 reps. Avoid using dumbbells or other held weights during this exercise, as you may trip while jumping.
Calf stretches are an important part of flaunting healthy calf muscles. Tightening of the calf muscles might lead to instability in stance, pain in the knee and cramps, and problems like Achilles Tendonitis and Plantar Fasciitis. In order to ensure relaxed and flexible calf muscles with proper blood circulation, try these few exercises for tight calf muscles.
Lying Calf Stretch
Sit on the floor with the leg to be stretched straight out in front of you. Place a towel or belt around the ball of your foot and hold the ends. Draw your toes and foot up towards you, and pull through the towel to increase the flexion at your ankle, until you feel a strong stretch in the back of your calf. Repeat this 3 times.
Seated Calf Stretch
Sit in a chair with the leg to be stretched straight out in front of you. Place a towel or belt around the ball of your foot and hold the ends. Sit straight. Pull your toes and ankle up towards you and pull through the towel, till you feel the stretch in your calves. Repeat 3 times.
Outer Calf Stretch
Stand leaning on a wall with the leg to be stretched back behind you. Turn your toes inwards and then lean forwards until you feel a stretch in the back of your calf, mainly on the outer side. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times. Ensure your knee is straight and you keep your upper body upright. Repeat 3 times.
Inner Calf Stretch
Stand leaning on a wall with the leg to be stretched back behind you.
Externally rotate the leg at the hip and then lean forwards until you feel a stretch in the back of your calf, mainly on the inner side. Repeat 3 times.
In order to build healthy calves, one must consume a surplus of calories to build muscle. This surplus, however, refers to eating only healthy calories. Eating a surplus of junk food will only cause you to gain fat, not muscle. The proportion of healthy calories should comprise of about 40% protein, 40% carbohydrates, and 20% essential fatty acids of your daily intake. Check out the list of nutrients to boost your calf muscles.
- Protein shakes
- Lean meat
Healthy sources of carbohydrates would be whole grain products. These include:
- Wheat bread
- Brown rice
- Wheat pasta
It is important to stay away from white carbohydrates such as regular pasta, white rice, and white bread. These sources of carbs will spike your blood sugar, causing a spike in insulin, which ultimately leads to greater fat gain.
Fats, while having a name that shuns away most, should not be neglected in a diet. Essential fatty acids play a role in maintaining your skin, hair, and vitamin digestion. Good sources of essential fatty acids are:
- Olive oil
If you add these ways to your exercise routine then perfect calf muscles won’t be a far cry. While working on increasing muscle mass in the lower legs, remember that it’s important to take in the proper amount of nutrients and protein to sustain your exercises. Never push yourself beyond your daily limits. Give your body the appropriate time to rest and recovery time needed at intervals. A well-developed calf muscle is the key to a healthy heart and reduces the chance of cardiovascular diseases to help you to be a fit as a fiddle!