Any time you lift your heel-- either to rise onto your toes or to propel yourself forward -- your calves contract. That's why even a casual evening stroll boosts calf muscle strength. On the other hand, if you invest more time beefing up your calves and less time stretching them, you'll end up with a tight, stiff, knotted mess that can cause pain in your back, hips, knees and feet. If you suspect your outer calves -- or gastrocnemius muscles -- are especially tight, give them special attention when you stretch. The rule of thumb is, keep the working knee straight to work the gastrocnemius independently of its sister, the soleus.
Stretch your calves at least three times a week, preferably daily. Since your calves get a workout every time you walk, climb the stairs or stand on your toes to reach a high cabinet, stretching briefly only once or twice a week isn't enough to maintain or improve your flexibility. If you stretch in the middle of your work day, when your muscles are cold, precede your stretching session with a short warm-up. Walk or jog in place for five to 10 minutes and perform a dynamic calf stretch -- such as the pike stretch -- involving smooth, continuous, repetitive motion. When you break a light sweat, it's safe to progress to static stretching.
Take the time to stretch thoroughly after every cardio workout, when your calves are particularly warm, supple and receptive to stretching. Some stretches work both legs at the same time, but if you've got particularly tight calves, try focusing on one leg at a time; you'll likely get a more effective stretch and have an easier time maintaining proper form. Choose the one stretch that you most enjoy and perform it regularly, or play around with a variety of standing, sitting and lying exercises, with or without props.
Turn an old scarf, belt or necktie into a handy stretching strap. Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you and loop the middle of the strap around the ball of your right foot. Grasping the ends of the strap with both hands, sit straight with your head aligned over your spine and your shoulders down and slightly back. Gently pull on the ends of the strap, drawing your toes toward your shin. When you feel light to moderate tension along your outer calf, hold the position for up to 30 seconds. Relax the toes forward briefly and then repeat the stretch one to three times before switching legs. If you prefer, you can perform the exercise while seated in a chair or lying on your back with the working leg extended toward the ceiling.
Stand with your feet together on the bottom step of a staircase. Facing the staircase, inch yourself backward until your heels extend beyond the edge of the step. If you have difficulty balancing, place your fingertips on a nearby wall or railing for light support. Slowly lower your right heel as far as you comfortably can. Bend your left knee slightly to increase range of motion. When you feel tension in the calf, hold the stretch for up to 30 seconds. Take a short break by lifting the heel briefly, and then repeat the stretch for a total of two to four times. Switch legs.
Stand with your right leg extended in front of you, the heel of the foot resting on a chair, low wall, tree stump or other available surface. Place your hands on your hips and focus in front of yourself. Flexing the right foot, lengthen your spine and slowly hinge your torso forward from your hips, grabbing your toes with your left hand. When you feel tension in the calf, hold the position for 30 seconds. If the feeling of tension dissipates during that time, hinge farther forward just a bit and hold again. Return your torso to an upright position. Repeat the stretch up to four times and then switch legs.
- As part of your warm-up before stretching, you can work out knots with a foam roller. Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Rest your palms on the floor near your hips. Place the roller under your right calf, perpendicular to your leg. Slowly roll your calf forward and backward along the roller, rotating your leg at the hip slightly to target all areas of the gastrocnemius.
- Although regular stretching can help alleviate calf tightness, you should also consider swapping your heeled shoes for flats. Women who wear heels all day force their calves into a contracted position, which contributes to shortening and tightening of the muscles.
- Ease into and out of stretches slowly and breathe at regular intervals to achieve a deeper, more effective stretch.
- If you've injured your calf muscle in the past, speak to your doctor, physical therapist or trainer about the advisability of specific calf exercises. Stretching too soon after an injury can result in re-injury.
- Bouncing or forcing a stretch can lead to muscle strain. Stretch only to the point of mild tension, not pain.
Judy Fisk has been writing professionally since 2011, specializing in fitness, recreation, culture and the arts. A certified fitness instructor with decades of dance training, she has taught older adults, teens and kids. She has written educational and fundraising material for several non-profit organizations and her work has appeared in numerous major online publications. Fisk holds a Bachelor of Arts in public and international affairs from Princeton University.