Calf muscles are like any other muscle in your body. With the proper resistance training and nutrition, they will become bigger and stronger. Reducing or stopping your training, however, can cause your muscle to waste away. This muscle wasting will be more apparent if you spend most of your day sitting or lying down and than if you stand or walk regularly.
The calf muscles refer to the set of muscles that extend from the back of your knees to your heels. There are three main calf muscles, with the largest being the gastrocnemius. This muscle runs the length of your lower leg and is the muscle that is most visible when looking at your legs. Under the gastrocnemius is the soleus, which is a longer and thinner muscle. It originates at the back of the tibia or shin and extends to the ankle. The plantaris is also considered a calf muscle. These three attach to the Achilles tendon, which is attached to the heel.
There are two types of muscle atrophy, or muscle wasting. One is called neurogenic atrophy and is associated with injury or disease. The second is called disuse atrophy and occurs when you stop exercising the particular muscle. If you regularly train your calves with weights and then stop, your muscles will eventually get smaller. Also, if you are a regular runner or walker and you become more sedentary, you will also notice that your calves will gradually shrink.
What to Expect
A study published in the February 2005 issue of the Journal of Applied Physiology confirmed that different people experience muscle atrophy at different rates. According to the study, highly trained athletes can show signs of atrophy within two weeks of ending their training. If you have a less regimented training schedule, it can take several weeks before your muscles begin to waste. The rate of atrophy will also depend on your lifestyle outside of exercise. If you are detained to a bed, the rate of your muscle atrophy will be much faster than if you still carry on an active lifestyle including standing and walking.
Reversing Muscle Atrophy
Returning to your resistance training program is the best way to reverse muscle atrophy. Of course, your muscles will now be weaker than they were when you stopped exercising, so you will have to begin gradually, using lower weights or lower intensity exercises until your muscles are capable of handling more weight. Beginning an exercise routine can also reverse age-related, neurogenic muscle atrophy. There is also mixed evidence that supplementing with protein may help reduce or prevent muscle disuse atrophy.
You can strengthen your calves using calf raises or calf presses. Both these exercises can be done in either the standing or seated position. The standing exercises place more emphasis on your gastrocnemius muscle while seated training, with your knees bent at 45 degrees, places more emphasis on the soleus. Incorporate both types of exercises into your training regimen, and always end your workout by properly stretching the muscles to increase your flexibility and prevent muscle tightness and future injuries.
- The Encyclopedia of Science: Calf Muscles
- Medline Plus: Muscle Atrophy
- Journal of Applied Physiology: Changes in the Human Muscle Force-Velocity Relationship in Response to Resistance training; Lars L. Andersen, et al.
- Sports-Specific Rehabilitation; Robert Donatelli
- Neurobiology of Aging: Effect of Exercise on Age-Related Muscle Atrophy; A. Ishihara, et al.
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition; Does Protein Supplementation Prevent Muscle Disuse Atrophy and Loss of Strength?; T.P. Stein, et al.
- Exercise Prescription: Exercise Instruction: Directory: Exercise Menu: Calves
Andrea Chrysanthou began writing professionally in 1993. Her work has been published internationally by "The Cyprus Mail," MochaSofa and My Favorite Trainer, among other magazines and websites. She holds a Bachelor of Applied Arts in journalism from Ryerson University. Chrysanthou is a certified fitness instructor and personal-training specialist with more than 10 years of experience in the fitness industry.