If you spend most of your day sitting at a desk, or if you often wear high heels -- or perhaps both at once -- your calf muscles are probably too tight. Tight calf muscles can be a problem, as the calves support your body weight while simultaneously playing a role in knee and ankle flexion. Stretching your calves can relieve tension in the muscles, making basic physical activities such as walking or running easier. Fortunately, there are several pieces of gym equipment designed to stretch and work out your calves.
The two primary muscles in your calves are the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is the larger of the two, stretching down the back of your lower leg from your knee to your ankle, and is responsible for the drumstick shape of your calf. The soleus is a smaller muscle that lies underneath the gastrocnemius. While both muscles play a role in flexing your ankle, the gastrocnemius bends your ankle when your knee is straight, and your soleus does it when your knee is bent. Whichever muscle you wish to work out will determine which calf-stretching machine you should use.
Standing Calf Raise Machines
All varieties of standing calf raise machines require you to lift your heels against a weighted resistance while in a standing position. This resistance is usually in the form of a padded lever or bar draped across your shoulders. By lifting your heels and extending your ankles, you contract your gastrocnemius against the weighted resistance, then stretch the muscle as you release. A Smith machine, in which you hold a barbell across your shoulders while it sits in a grooved rack, can function in the same way.
Seated Calf-Raising Machines
Seated calf-raising machines generally have you sit on a chair or bench with your feet on pedals that are connected by a pulley to a stack of weighted plates. Often they have pads or rollers to immobilize your thighs, which isolates your calf muscles. You then flex your ankle to push down the pedals against the resistance of the weighted plates, and release to stretch out the muscle. Because your knees are bent in the sitting position, this machine targets and isolates your soleus.
Stair Climbers and Bicycle Machines
Stair climbers and bicycle machines can also stretch out the calves. As your leg moves into and out of a full extension, your ankle will flex forward and back. This works out your gastrocnemius, although it is not an isolation exercise like a standing calf raise; the stair climber and bicycle machine are both compound exercise machines that put your entire leg and hip through their full range of motion. Increasing the machine's incline level will increase the amount of resistance for your calves to overcome, making them stronger and less likely to tighten.
Todd Maternowski began writing in 1996 as one of the co-founders of "The Chicago Criterion." He joined the local online news revolutionaries at Pegasus News in 2006, where he continues to work to this day. He studied religion at the University of Chicago.