How to Stretch Calf Muscles (and the BIG mistake to avoid)

The Popular Way to Stretch Your Calves Impairs Their Primary Function

By Coach E

Your calves provide power to your game – don’t slow them down with static stretching. Instead, learn how to stretch calf muscles while keeping them powerful.

Anatomy of the Calves

Although you probably think of your calf muscle as one beast, there are actually two muscles that make up this group – the gastrocnemius and the soleus.

Your gastrocnemius is the big bulgy muscle that makes up the bulk of your calf and your soleus is a thinner muscle that lies beneath it [1].

Your soleus runs from the tibia bone of your lower leg to the calcaneus (heel bone) via the Achilles tendon [2]. The muscle works to plantar flex your foot, i.e., pointing your toes.

how to stretch calf muscles - anatomy

While your soleus crosses just your ankle, your gastrocnemius is actually a two-joint muscle, crossing both your ankle and knee. This muscle originates on your femur and meets up with the soleus at your Achilles tendon.

Not only does your gastrocnemius plantarflex at the ankle (point the toe), it also aids the hamstrings in knee flexion [3].

Because of this two-joint architecture, your gastrocnemius is fully lengthened only when your knee is fully extended (straightened) and your ankle is fully dorsiflexed (bringing toes up towards shins).

The muscle is fully shortened when your knee is flexed and your ankle plantarflexed (toes pointed).

Real World Calf Function

Your calves play a huge role in your sports performance.

That’s because these muscles are responsible for providing elastic energy to make your movements more efficient and powerful.

how to stretch calf muscles - fitness exercises

Your calves provide this power via the stretch-shortening cycle. This is where a muscle makes an eccentric contraction (or active stretch) followed immediately by a concentric contraction (or shortening) [4].

You calf muscles also have a large amount of fast twitch muscle fibers – built to help you with speed, explosiveness, and power [5].

Walking, sprinting, jumping, dancing (not the slow Grade 8 dance style), boxing… all of these activities require agility and speed that benefit from the powerful calves.

Your calves obviously get plenty of work in just about every sport and activity. And to target the muscles specifically, many people use exercises like standing or seated calf raises.

What Types of Injuries Happen to the Calves?

Unfortunately, a couple of calf injuries are fairly common – muscle strains and Achilles tendonitis.

As a two-joint muscle, your gastrocnemius is at a higher risk of strains [6]. The gastroc, like other bi-articular muscles, has to deal with a large amount of force and quick length changes as you perform activities like sprinting or jumping.

Strains can happen if the muscle gets over-stretched while it is activated – or simply if it is overstretched at all.

Achilles tendonitis, an irritation and inflammation of the tendon, is a common overuse injury.

This issue can occur if you ramp up your running program too quickly or dive headfirst into an exercise program after taking a long time off from the gym.

Achilles tendonitis can be more likely to develop if your calf muscles are tight – so learning how to stretch calf muscles – but stretch them correctly – is critical [7].

How Do You Stretch Your Calves?

Because the calves are so relied upon in running, jumping and just about every sport, the muscles tend to be chronically tight in a lot of athletes.

In the face of this tightness, the tendency is for folks to do static calf stretches. This is probably all most people learn about how to stretch calf muscles.

There are 2 typical calf stretches – the wall stretch and the hanging stretch.

For the wall stretch, you stand in front of a wall and bring your toes up toward your shin. You place your toes on the wall and lean into the stretch.

how to stretch calf muscles - foot on wall

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For the hanging stretch, you stand on a raised surface like a bench or a step with your toes and simply let your heels release down off the surface.

how to stretch calf muscles - shin pain

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Both stretches serve to lengthen the calves by going into ankle dorsiflexion.

The downside is that when we statically stretch any muscle, it tends to decrease reaction time and the ability to generate power [8].

Remember that the calf muscles function explicitly to generate power and explosiveness.

So when we stretch these muscles in this way, we are impairing the exact functions that the calves serve in our body.

Plus, if you stretch in this way right before exercise, it can increase the risk of injuries like muscle strains.

How to Stretch Calf Muscles the Right Way

Both exercises are based on the classic, static stretch, but with a few important tweaks that make them much more effective.

#1: Calf Stretch Cycles

This first exercise is a highly effective and functional move that provides both a good gastrocnemius stretch and a soleus stretch. Plus, it’s safer than the traditional stretch.

As you perform this movement, make sure that your knees stay extended the whole time – this will ensure that you’re getting full lengthening of your gastrocnemius.
Calf Stretch Cycles - How to Stretch Calf Muscles (and the BIG mistake to avoid)

  • Stand on a bench or a step with your heels hanging off the surface
  • Slowly lower your heels down eccentrically through your full range of motion
  • Pause for 2 seconds at the end of your range
  • Raise your heels up concentrically, coming up on to your toes at the end
  • Pause at the top for 2 seconds
  • Complete 5-10 reps

#2: Explosive Calf Stretch

For the second stretch, we are going to really take the calves function as explosive powerhouses into account.

By implementing more ballistic movements while also achieving a stretch, we not only find length but fine-tune muscular performance by moving quickly from eccentric to concentric contractions.

This drill is a great one to use as a warm-up before a run or a martial arts session.

Instead of putting you at risk for injury, it helps retain and even build that springiness you’re your calves are built for.
Explosive Calf Stretches- How to Stretch Calf Muscles (and the BIG mistake to avoid)

  • Come into the same starting position on a raised surface, with heels hanging off the edge
  • Slowly lower your heels down eccentrically, dropping them toward the floor
  • Quickly, pop back up explosively, moving concentrically to lift your heels and come up on your toes
  • Repeat for 6-10 reps, lowering down slowly before popping up quickly

THIS is how to stretch calf muscles effectively and safely.

Not only will these techniques help prevent muscle strains from overstretching, they will help reduce tightness that can contribute to issues like Achilles tendonitis.

Plus, by avoiding the static stretch, you’ll help keep your calf muscles at the peak of their explosive performance.

So try these techniques out for mobile calves while maintaining that “spring” in your step.

About the Author

Eric Wong (aka Coach E) is the founder of Precision Movement and has a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. He's been a coach since 2005 and spent his early career training combat athletes including multiple UFC fighters and professional boxers. He now dedicates himself to helping active people eliminate pain and improve mobility. He lives in Toronto (Go Leafs Go!) with his wife and two kids and drinks black coffee at work and IPAs at play. Click here to learn more about Eric.