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The Best Ways to Stretch Lower Legs

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


Stretching with calf stretcher

Lower leg pain can be caused by a variety of underlying issues. In most cases routine lower leg stretches can help provide long-term improvement. Outside of quick and temporary relief, having a good home treatment regime can help you feel your best. This should include a mix of exercise, pain modalities, and stretching. In this article we will cover the best lower leg stretches you can add to your daily routine for pain relief. 

Calf Stretches

Basic Calf Stretch

 

When lower leg pain starts, it most often leads to stiff and sore calf muscles, also known as the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. These large muscle groups on the back of the lower leg are constantly used for daily activities like standing and walking. Even if these muscles aren’t directly affected, they will often become painful secondary to an altered gait pattern (walking). Warm up with these stretches. 

Basic Calf Stretch

 

There are many ways to achieve this stretch. You can use your hand, a wall, stretch strap or calf stretcher to target your muscles in the back of the lower leg. This will also help increase ankle range of motion.

  • Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the ground
  • Place the foot you want to stretch in the center of your stretcher on the ground
  • Ensure that your heel and toes are in line (parallel) with the stretcher 
  • While staying relaxed, simply alternate between pointing the toes and bringing them up toward the shins
  • Go as far as is possible in both directions without excessive pain
  • Move slowly and rhythmically back and forth for 10-15 repetitions
  • Repeat for 2-3 sets on each ankle

Alternatively, for a more specific calf stretch, try using the calf stretcher while standing. Using a wall or chair for upper body balance.

Standing Lunge

 

A standing lunge is a great functional move for both strength and stretching. In addition to stretching the tight calf muscles, you can also get an excellent hip flexor stretch.

  • Stand near a wall or chair if needed for balance
  • Assume a lunge position with one foot forward and one foot back- you will be stretching the calf of the back heel
  • Ensure that your spine is upright and toes are pointing straight forward
  • Keep your heels on the ground as you keep the back knee straight and bend the front knee while shiting your weight forward
  • Continue shifting until a stretch is felt is the lower back leg
  • Hold for 30+ seconds for 2-3 sets on each leg

Alternatively, you can place your toes on a step or foam roller and drop the heel toward the ground to get a calf stretch as well. 

Calf Massage

 

This one isn’t necessarily a stretch but when a muscle is sore, taking time to self-massage is always a great option to promote relaxation and relieve pain. You can grab a massage ball, foam roller, or a massage stick. 

  • Sit comfortably in a chair with your massage stick
  • Place the massage stick against your calf just below the knee
  • Hold each side of the stick with your hands so that it’s parallel with the ground
  • Provide as much pressure as you can without tensing up
  • Slowly roll up and down the calf muscle between the knee and ankle (achilles tendon)
  • If you find a particularly sore spot, you can stop and focus on that specific spot as needed
  • Continue for 1-5 minutes until you get relief

Note: If you are using a foam roller or ball you will most likely need to sit on the ground to get enough pressure from your body weight.

Stretches for the Shins

The muscles along the shin bone can also get quite sore with lower leg pain, particularly with common issues like shin splints or any type of foot issue like plantar fasciitis. These stretches are less common than your average calf stretch, but very effective for targeting these specific muscles groups. 

Standing Tibialis Anterior Stretch

 

The tibialis anterior is the meaty muscle that you can feel on the outside of your shin bone. It can get sore for a lot of reasons, like suddenly increasing your activity level or participating in high impact activities.

  • Stand near a wall, chair, or counter for balance with the feet hip width apart
  • Lift the foot of the leg you want to stretch up off the ground
  • Place the top of your foot on the ground
  • Keeping your toes in line with your shin bone- point your toes as far as possible so that the top of your foot is touching as much of the ground as possible
  • You should feel a stretch along your shin
  • Hold for 30+ seconds for 2-3 sets on each leg

Standing Tibialis Posterior

 

The tibialis posterior is an important muscle deep on the back of your shin muscle. It plays a primary role in foot and ankle stability. Most often it gets sore with an increase in activity level or poor shoewear and foot mechanics.

  • Stand near a wall or chair for balance
  • Step into a lunge position as you did above for stretching the calf (reference those stretch instructions above if needed for proper set up)
  • With the toes pointing straight forward and a gentle stretch felt in the calf, let the knee rotate inward
  • Rotate until you feel a stretch deep in the lower leg
  • Do not do this stretch if it hurts your knee
  • Hold for 30+ seconds for 2-3 seconds on each leg

Shins Massage

 

With simple massage techniques you can target the tibialis anterior, tibialis posterior, and even calf muscles to help relieve lower leg pain.

  • For the tibialis anterior, get on the floor on your knees with a massage ball in front of you
  • Place the massage ball on the muscle of your shin (not the bone itself)
  • Use your arms to lift your legs off the ground and roll up and down
  • If you notice a sore spot, stop and hold the ball in place with maximum pressure (as long as you aren’t tensed up) while you pump the ankle up and down
  • Play with the position of your legs for optimal comfort (butt near the heels vs not)
  • Continue for up to 5 minutes as needed

For the posterior tibialis, try this different technique.

  • Sit on your side on the floor with the leg you want to target closer to the ceiling
  • Place the massage ball on the inside of your lower leg as close to your shin bone as possible without touching it (just behind it)
  • Use your lower leg and arms to lift your butt and roll up and down the inside of the leg- being careful to avoid bone
  • Once again, stop and pump the ankle if you find any particularly sore areas
  • Continue for up to 5 minutes as needed

Helpful Stretching Aids

Having a few tools to help with your leg pain recovery can make the process more enjoyable and easy. Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Stretching Straps

    Having a stretching strap is a great way to get a deeper stretch, especially if you are inflexible and struggle with getting into recommended stretching positions. This versatile tool can be used for the lower leg in addition to the rest of the leg muscles and arms. Some primary areas of focus tend to be the hamstrings, iliotibial band, and glutes.

  • Resistance Bands

    While resistance bands are usually more practical for strengthening exercises, a strong band can be utilized as a stretching strap as well. Additionally, a light band can be utilized to promote circulation and healing of any injured muscles with gentle resisted ankle motions.

  • Foot Stretchers

    The rounded bottom of this tool makes for a smooth easy stretch. There are a variety of ways to utilize the calf stretcher in sitting or standing. Plus, you can decide if you want a single or dual option depending on your balance, preferences, and whether you want to stretch one or both calves at once.

  • Night Splints

    If you have tight ankles or frequently experience calf cramps and pain while sleeping, you might consider a night splint or sock stretcher. These simple devices hold your ankle in a bent, or dorsiflexed, position to promote both stretching of the ankle and prevent the toes from pointing while sleeping (often a trigger for a charlie horse at night). With this type of tool, you may want to talk to your doctor first if you have diabetic peripheral neuropathy or any other type of circulatory or sensory issues.

    Lower Leg Pain at Night

The Benefits of Stretching Lower Leg Muscles

The muscles in the lower leg, or shank, are used continually with daily activity. Thus, they are a common spot for injury or pain and will benefit immensely from a regular stretching program. Here are just a few of the great benefits:

  • Pain relief
  • A good warm up prior to your lower leg exercises

    Find Lower Leg Exercises Here

  • Increased blood flow to promote healing and reduce any local swelling

  • The possibility of improved mechanics with walking, running, etc. (if ankle stiffness is an issue)

    How to Reduce Lower Leg Pain When Running

  • Reduced strain to the lower leg, ankle, and foot with activities of daily living 

  • Reduced risk of leg, ankle and foot injury

  • A boost in overall quality of life

How Often Should I Stretch?

Lower leg stretches should be performed based on your level of stiffness. You may want to visit these stretches multiple times a day if you feel your muscles are tight. For others, once a day or every other day should help to keep muscles loose.

If you are feeling unsure and would like some professional guidance, scheduling a physical therapy appointment is a great option for optimizing your results and feeling confident in your recovery process.

Relieving Tight Muscles

Choosing the right stretching exercises for your lower leg pain will require a bit of tuning into your symptoms. Once you know which muscles to target, you will be well on your way to pain relief and more ease with movement. Always talk to your doctor or physical therapist if your symptoms are not improving or suddenly get worse for further medical advice.

Sources:

https://www.healthline.com/health/tight-calves

https://www.healthline.com/health/shin-splint-stretches

https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/ankle-stretches

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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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