Slender legs have long been a symbol of beauty and sex appeal. If looking at your own calf muscles has you wondering how you might slim them down, stretching is certainly a step in the right direction.It’s important to note, though, that while there’s no dispute regarding stretching in relation to injury prevention and increased range of motion, some question remains as to whether it reduces the size of a muscle.
In practice, stretching a muscle lengthens it from end to end. In theory then, the muscle size should decrease, right? Not exactly. The muscle’s outward appearance may not actually change because of overlying fat, the muscle’s state of fatigue and how often it is stretched. Your posture and the alignment of your pelvis also play a large role, as calf muscles are stressed differently depending on alignment -- and stressing muscles leads to larger, stronger muscles.
Lucky for you, the form of a muscle follows its function, so it can change over time. When a muscle is continually contracted, for example during exercise and weight lifting, the fibers thicken, making it bigger. If the muscle isn't stretched as often as it's contracted, it will shorten and get even bigger still. Stretching increases the muscle’s resting length, so the mass spreads out over a larger surface area. This means that even if the muscle size doesn't actually decrease, stretching does change the way the muscle aligns, which in turn, can lead to changes in appearance.
Other Benefits of Stretching
You probably already know that muscles lose strength and size if you don't use them. In the same way, joints lose range of motion when the muscles surrounding them aren't stretched. Continually working your calf muscle not only leads to those large calves you're trying to avoid, it also makes the muscle tight, which can lead to pain and injury, especially during bursts of sudden movement. That's another good reason to stretch your calf muscles -- or any muscle -- as often as you strengthen them. Not to mention, it can help, if not prevent, post-exercise sore muscles.
Calf Muscle Stretches
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends actively warming up with light cardio and muscle stretching two to three times per week. For calf muscles, try a wide-stance forward bend. Stand with your feet 3 to 4 ½ feet apart. Keeping your spine straight, fold forward from where your hip creases and place your palms flat on the floor in line with your feet. If your hands and/or head can't touch the floor, move your feet further apart or place your hands on a yoga block in between your feet. Hold the pose for 15 to 30 seconds and repeat two to four times.
- American College of Sports Medicine: ACSM Issues New Recommendations on Quantity and Quality of Exercise
- Yoga Journal: Wide-Legged Forward Bend
- Journal of Applied Physiology: Form Follows Function: How Muscle Shape is Regulated by Work
- International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy: Current Concepts in Muscle Stretching for Exercise and Rehabilitation
- Yoga Anatomy; Leslie Kaminoff, et al.
- Healing Muscle Pain; Elisabeth Aaslid, et al.
Nicole Hopping is an American writer based in Hong Kong. As a registered yoga teacher and proponent of unprocessed food, she focuses on the convergence of lifestyle and wellness. Hopping began writing in 2011 and earned a Bachelor's degree in public health and public policy from the University of California Berkeley in 2007.