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Simple Lower Leg Exercises for Strength

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT April 05, 2022 0 Comments

If you’re experiencing pain in your lower leg, exercises that work to strengthen muscles can help improve your discomfort. Often, leg muscles can get overused, weak, or out of balance with injury, repetitive motion, or any other type of lower body strain. With the right home workout exercises, you can experience relief and better quality of life. Keep reading to learn more about lower leg strengthening exercises for reducing pain.

Lower Leg Exercises

The following exercises focus on building lower leg muscles along with, ankle, and foot stability to reduce the effects of imbalance and strain. Additionally, these exercises promote blood circulation for appropriate healing and swelling/pain management.

1. Single Leg Stance

Standing on one leg is an excellent exercise for addressing core and leg strength all at once. Plus, the challenge it provides to your balance makes it a great functional move as well. The first step is to pick a surface to stand on that appropriately challenges your balance. For some, simply standing on a hard surface may be enough. Otherwise, consider standing on a softer surface like a foam balance pad, balance disc, or even a wobble board.

  • Stand near a chair, wall, or counter to keep your balance and stay safe
  • Place the foot you will be balancing on in the center of your balance surface of choice
  • Lift the other foot off the ground to balance
  • Keep your core tight and use a focal point to help your balance
  • If needed, use your hand or fingers for minimal balance support- just ensure you are still challenging yourself
  • Try to hold for 30-60 seconds for 2-3 sets on each leg
  • You will notice your lower leg muscles working hard- adjust the difficulty of your balance surface if you are experiencing pain in the lower leg, foot or ankle

2. Heel Raises

This classic calf strengthening exercise, also known as calf raises, is a must for any lower leg strengthening routine. It targets both calf muscles: the gastrocnemius and soleus. The level of difficulty with this exercise is determined by the range of motion you can complete. Additionally, you can start with double heel raises and progress to single leg heels raises. From there, you can further challenge your calves by standing on a softer surface just like the balance exercises above.

  • Stand near a chair or wall for balance with your feet hip width apart (or you can even have the feet shoulder-width apart)
  • Shift your weight into the balls of your feet as you start to lift both heels off the ground
  • Push through your midfoot, avoiding curling the toes, to lift your entire body straight up toward the ceiling (not leaning)
  • Go as high as is comfortable for you and hold for 1-2 seconds
  • Return slow to the starting position and repeat
  • Continue for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets total

Alternative calf exercises include placing your midfoot on an elevated surface like a step to give your ankle more range of motion to work through. This is particularly excellent when you are dealing with achilles tendon pain and swelling. You can also progress this exercise by adding dumbbells or a kettlebell to your bodyweight to boost your strength training.

3. Terminal Knee Extension

This simple exercise is great for restoring balance to the lower leg. It focuses on building knee stability for reducing strain on the lower leg muscles, particularly the calves.

  • Grab a resistance band- either looped or tied in a knot to make a loop
  • Secure the band around a sturdy surface, such as a table, at knee height
  • Stand facing the band loop and place your leg inside the band so that it rests on the back of the knee
  • Stand far enough away from the anchor so that you feel resistance from the band pulling your knee forward into flexion- start with lighter tension and progress as tolerated
  • Allow the band to bend the knee and lift the heel off the ground with control (don’t let it “snap” forward)
  • Then, start to push back against the resistance as you straighten the knee, tighten the quad, and place the heel on the ground 
  • Continue slowly and with control for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets on each leg
  • Increase the resistance level of the band as tolerated

4. 3-Way Ankle Resistance Exercises

This band exercise is great for full ankle strengthening. Each of the three exercises is designed to build strength in practically every muscle in the ankle. All you need is a resistance band to get started.

  • Start by long sitting on the floor
  • For the first exercise, place the band around the bottom of the midfoot and secure both ends with your hands
  • While holding the band ends with an appropriate level of resistance, point the toes into plantarflexion as far as possible
  • Slowly return to the starting position and repeat for 10-15 repetitions 
  • For the second exercise, cross the leg with the band on your foot on top of the other
  • Hold both band ends in the same hand and hold it as far away as possible from your body as possible (diagonally from the ankle you are working)
  • Move the toes inward as you push against the resistance of the band while keeping the ankle in neutral 
  • Continue moving the ankle slowly inward and outward for 10-15 repetitions
  • For the third exercise, uncross the feet and wrap both band under the opposite foot to create an anchor
  • Hold both band ends with the hand opposite of the anke you are working
  • Move the toes/foot outward as you push against the resistance, again keeping the ankle in neutral 
  • Move slowly and with control for another 10-15 repetitions
  • Do each exercise 2-3 times on each foot, progressing the level of resistance as tolerated

The one ankle motion that is missing from this sequence is dorsiflexion. This is because it requires the help of another person or some creativity in the band set up from below the foot.

5. Toe Towel Scrunches

 

Strengthening the foot can play a pivotal role in alleviating lower leg pain too, particularly with issues like plantar fasciitis and shin splints. This is because the muscles in the foot help provide full leg stability for weight bearing activities.

  • Sit in a chair with a hand towel flat on the floor below you
  • Place one foot in the center of the towel 
  • Scrunch the toes to be attempt to bring the end of the towel closer to your heel
  • Continue scrunching the toes for 10-15 repetitions or until the the towel is all the way beneath your foot
  • Repeat for 2-3 sets on each foot

Additionally, there are plenty of other options for strengthening the feet, such as drawing the alphabet with your toes or picking up items like marbles.

6. Bonus Dynamic Exercises

Once you have mastered the basics of lower leg and foot strengthening, it’s time to progress to more dynamic lower body workout exercises. Incorporating exercises that require full leg coordination of the lower back/core and leg muscles (such as the quads, hamstrings, and glutes) will help you get back to your sport or daily activities with more confidence and less risk of future injury. Exercises you might try include:

  • Dynamic Balance

    Single leg standing with reaching, head turns, ball throwing, upper-body exercises, etc.

  • Lunges

    One leg at a time or alternating.

  • Squats

    Focusing on form, you can add weight, make the range of motion deeper, or even jump.

  • Jumping Exercises

    Jump rope, high knees, running in place, skaters, jump squats, jump lunges, etc.

Tips for Exercising Lower Legs

With lower leg exercise, there are a few tips to keep in mind that will maximize your recovery.

  • Start slowly and use your symptoms as a gauge to decide when to progress (or modify)

  • Always keep good form with exercise, such as running- keeping good ankle, knee, hip, and even spine alignment to optimize mechanics and reduce risk of aggravation

  • When you aren’t moving, still think about your posture with sitting and sleeping

  • Stretch your lower leg muscles first as needed to reduce stiffness and pain, such as a calf stretch

  • Manage any pain with home treatment modalities like ice, heat, and electrical stimulation

  • Rest from higher impact activities as needed, like running and jumping, until you are ready to return with minimal pain and good mechanics

  • Consult a physical therapist as needed- physical therapy can help you recover quicker when you aren’t sure where to start or how to progress appropriately

Strengthening Weak Legs

Whether your lower leg pain is a result of lower leg weakness, imbalances, or poor coordination, having a well designed exercise program can make a world of difference. Stay consistent with your leg workouts and you should start to notice the benefits almost immediately, with symptoms improving over the next 6 weeks as you make further strength gains.

If you experience a sudden change in symptoms or they are severe, make sure to get in touch with a trusted medical professional for further medical advice as soon as possible.

Sources:

https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/strengthening-calf-muscles

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/ankle-strengthening-exercises

https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/muscle-bone-and-joints/exercises/exercises-for-calf-and-ankle-problems

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



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