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Best Exercises to Strengthen Calf Muscles

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT October 30, 2020 0 Comments

Calf muscle strain, stiffness, and soreness is common with everyday activities or sports, and can progress to more serious muscle tears and loss of normal function. Check out the video above from physical therapist, Dr. David Lee and try these calf exercises at home to prevent imbalances and injury.

Beginner Calf Exercises

Before doing any calf specific exercises, it may be helpful to stretch and warm up the leg muscles. Options for warm-up include walking, ankle rolls, or sitting at a pedal exerciser. Beginner exercises are the best place to start for severe symptoms or when just getting started with an exercise program and your coordination and strength are limited.

Stretches to Warm Up the Calf Muscles

All of these exercises will use a resistance band to address all of the ankle muscles with the goal of restoring balance and reducing calf pain. Complete 3 sets of 15 repetitions for each.

1. Resisted Plantarflexion

Place a resistance band around the ball of the foot and securely hold each end with your hands so that there is a moderate amount of resistance to push against. Then, point your toes as you bring the bottom of your foot closer to the ground. Move slow and controlled in both directions. Keep the heel on the ground the entire time and increase resistance as tolerated.

2. Resisted Ankle Eversion

With the band still around the foot, now place both ends of the band in the hand opposite of this foot and wrap the band around the outside of the opposite foot to create a backward “L.” This will create tension against the outside edge of the looped foot. Push the toes away from the center of your body so that you feel the muscles working on the outside edge of your lower leg.

3. Resisted Ankle Inversion

For this last one, keep the band looped around the foot and now hold the ends in the same hand. Cross the banded foot over top the other foot as you hold the band out to the side as far as possible with your hand. Then, bring the foot down and inward across the body in a circular motion- basically the opposite motion of the exercise listed above.

Intermediate Calf Exercises

When you’re ready to take your calf exercises up a notch and continue building ankle coordination, it’s now time to transition to standing strength training. You should be able to complete these with good control and without an increase in calf pain.

The next two exercises focus on calf and ankle coordination.

4. Double Standing Calf Raises

Stand near a table, wall or chair for balance support. Have your feet hip-width apart as you lift your heels up off the ground and shift your weight forward onto the balls of your feet. Go as high as you can go on the toes while keeping good form, with your entire body staying upright (no leaning). Hold for a second or two before returning the heels back to the floor. The most important part of this move is the return motion- focus on keeping it slow and controlled to build muscle strength more efficiently.

Do 10-20 repetitions depending on whether you can keep good form without pain. Repeat for 2-3 sets.

5. Single-Leg Stance

This is a great exercise to address all of the lower body muscles at once. Start with a lot of support to minimize ankle wobbling by holding onto a chair or wall. Simply shift your weight into one leg and hold your balance. Gradually decrease the level of assistance you need for your balance until you can do it without any hand-hold at all. From there, you can further progress the exercise by standing on a wobble board or balance pad when you’re ready.

Hold for 30-60 seconds for 2-3 sets on each side. Progress as tolerated.

Advanced Calf Exercises

In the last stage of recovery, you are now working on full-body coordination and strength with your own body weight. Another great way to boost overall lower body strength is by adding ankle weights or plyometrics to your routine (jumping jacks, jump squats, etc.). This will help you get back to normal daily activities and sport with less risk of aggravation and future injury.

6. Squat with a Heel Raise

Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Squat down while keeping the weight evenly through your feet (not just in the toes), the knees behind the toes, and your butt back. Go as deep as is comfortable for you (up to 90 degrees of knee flexion range of motion). Then, as you come back up to return to your starting position, you will lift your heels off the ground as high as you can go comfortably to complete a heel raise. Keep the motion fluid and minimize wobbling to prevent pain.

Complete 5-10 repetitions for 2-3 sets on each leg.

7. Toe Lunges

For this last exercise, you will be completing a lunge pulse while on your toes. Get into a standard lunge position with one heel back, the forward knee bent (behind the toes), and your weight shifted low toward the ground. Make sure your lower back stays flat with the abs tight throughout this move. Then, lift both of your heels off the ground. While holding this position, complete a small pulse motion moving closer to the ground and then back up.

Repeat 5-10 times on each leg for 2-3 sets.

To progress, you can add movement to the lunge, such as walking forward or backwards.

Why Strengthen Your Calf?

The calf muscles, called the gastrocnemius and soleus, are continually used throughout the day every time we stand, walk, balance and change position. Weakness or poor coordination can both result in injury and/or pain. Strength exercises are best when also paired with a calf stretching routine. Here are some of the benefits of a regular calf strengthening routine:

  • Restore muscle strength balance and coordination to the lower leg- especially the ankle
  • Increase blood flow to calves, glutes, and quads for injury prevention or management
  • Reduce calf pain with walking and running
  • Decreased pain and swelling associated with injury
  • Improved tolerance for everyday activities
  • A great adjunct to other treatment options for optimal calf injury recovery

Exercise Tips

While a calf strengthening program is pretty straightforward, here are some quick tips to maximize your recovery.

  • Always use your symptoms as a guide for what you should be doing. Push yourself without aggravating your calf injury.
  • Pair your strengthening program with a calf stretch program and at-home pain management, such as foam rolling the calves, to minimize pain and swelling.
  • Ankle coordination plays a big role in calf recovery- if you can’t control a motion, notice you are limping, or have a lot of ankle wobbling- modify the exercise.
  • Having balance tools is a great way to expedite your ankle control and recovery for this muscle group.
  • If you’re not sure where to start, consider trying physical therapy for personalized recommendations.

Best Exercises for a Safe Calf Workout

Strengthening the calf is all about knowing which stage to start in. It’s always best to start easy and progress as your muscles allow. The ultimate goal is to restore coordination and strength to the lower leg so that you can return uninhibited to daily activities. If you aren’t noticing a change in symptoms after a week or two or symptoms become severe, get in touch with your doctor immediately for further medical advice.

Sources:

https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/strengthening-calf-muscles#:~:text=Calf%20raises%20are%20the%20classic,alignment%20to%20protect%20your%20joints.

https://sportandspinalphysio.com.au/the-importance-of-calf-strength-and-the-best-calf-strength-exercises/

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Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.



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