Monday 17 September 2018

Calf Raises

The calf raise. A staple of those who seek to enlarge the back of their lower legs. It is also probably one of the simplest and easiest exercises than can be performed, however has variations that can make it incredibly hard.

This exercise is rarely at the forefront of most people's routines, with quite a few not doing them at all. Indeed calf raises are not the only way to target your calves. Any balance, stability and plyometric training targets them good and more functionally. Squats and deadlifts both recruit the calves in their movements. You wouldn't believe just how hard your calf muscles work to maintain your balance whilst doing eyes-closed one legged stands. Skipping also hits them pretty hard.

So why perform calf raises at all then? Well they do have there place:

  • For those seeking to build bigger lower legs, doing them as auxiliary work after squats and deadlifts helps fatigue them more.
  • For those who wish to specifically increase the strength of their calves.
  • They act to stabilise and strengthen the ankle joint, which helps stabilise the knee and hip joints. This allows for improvement in gait, posture, and performance.

Table of contents

Classification and muscles used

  • Type: Bodyweight
  • Action: Plantar flexes foot, flexes knee
  • Joint motion: Ankle extension
  • Plane: Sagittal

Whilst the exact variation of calf raise dictates what muscles get more focus, in general the following muscles targeted are:

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Primary (greens)
  • Gastrocnemius (larger calf muscle)
  • Soleus (smaller calf muscle)
Secondary (blues)
  • Flexor Digitorum Longus
  • Flexor Hallucis Longus
  • Peroneus Fibularis Brevis
  • Peroneus Fibularis Longus
  • Plantaris
  • Tibialis Posterior
Antagonist (pink)
  • Tibialis Anterior (front of shin)

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How to perform

The following is the most basic variation of the calf raise. See further on below for progressions, regressions, and variations of this exercise.

  1. Assume a standing position on the floor with your feet hip-width apart and facing straight ahead.
  2. Maintain a straight posture from head to toe with a neutral pelvis and your core braced.
  3. Whilst pressing the balls of your feet and toes into the ground raise your heels and thus body upwards until you reach your end range of motion or balance becomes an issue.
  4. Exhale as you press up.
  5. Still maintaining a straight posture, lower yourself back to the ground.
  6. Inhale as you lower down.
  7. Repeat for desired repetitions and keep your breathing rhythmic.

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Common mistakes

With such a simple and easy exercise the only real biomechanical mistake would be poor posture, especially if doing one of the harder variations. Any other mistakes would focus on what acute variables you are using compared to what your goals are, which is a programming issue not biomechanical.

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Progression and regression

Progressions to make this exercise more difficult include:

  • Feet side by side: makes the exercise less stable.
  • One footed: really targets your stabilisation and proprioception.
  • Raised platform: allows for full range of motion by going below parallel.
  • Half foam-roller: targets your stabilisation.
  • Standing on other stability and proprioceptive challenging platforms.
  • Weighted: holding dumbbells or similar at your side allowing for greater resistance and loads to be used.
  • Performing with eyes closed. This is quite possible the hardest version, even harder than doing them weighted as eyes closed really hits your proprioception and stability like nothing else.

Regressions to make this exercise easier include:

  • Performing in front of a wall so you can use your fingers or hands to maintain balance if you start to wobble.
  • Keeping a hand or finger on the wall throughout the exercise to maintain balance and posture.

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Most versions of the calf raise target the gastrocnemius more than the soleus. If you wish to target the soleus more then rather than keeping your straight leg, perform them with a bent knee. This helps place the focus on the soleus as it attaches below the knee joint.

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Whenever you have finished performing the calf raises or indeed any time you work out your calf muscles, you should perform calf stretches to ensure that you keep the muscles flexible. As the antagonist muscle, the tibialis anterior, is rarely worked out by people, not stretching after calf workouts does over time cause your calf muscles to shorten.

As your calf muscles shorten your tibialis anterior lengthens altering the agonist-antagonist relationship of your muscles. This adversely affects your knee and hip mobility and degrades your ability to squat properly amongst other things.

The following three stretches are good for stretching the calf muscles:

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Closing thoughts

Whilst the calf muscles do not need to be directly worked out in isolation, and depending on your routine it may well be a waste of time, it can help address muscular imbalances and deficiencies. It can also aid, especially for beginners, in preparing and strengthening the ankle and lower leg muscles for more demanding movements that hit the region such as squats, deadlifts, and any balance related work.

Lyle Richardson,
Gym Pal - Your Friend In Fitness


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