Some folks call it the outer calf, others call it the upper calf. Both terms refer to the gastrocnemius muscle, which covers the deeper-lying soleus. The entire calf structure tends to shorten and tighten from excessive use. When you walk to the corner market, press on the gas pedal or prance around in high heels, your calves contract and tighten. That tightening can cause trouble down the road, in the form of foot, knee, hip or back pain. Counteract the effects of calf overuse with daily stretches, keeping the working leg straight to target the upper calf specifically.
Warm up with five to 10 minutes of light cardio activity. Take a brisk walk or march in place to increase circulation and raise your core body temperature. When you break a sweat, perform a dynamic calf stretch -- such as slow ankle circles -- to stimulate and loosen up your calves and prepare them for the stretch. One set of 10 to 15 reps on each leg should be sufficient.
Stand facing a stationary object, such as a wall, tree trunk or fence. With your hands on the wall, tighten your abs and extend your right leg directly behind you. Bending your left knee slightly, push both heels firmly down and slowly shift your weight forward over your left foot. Don't move the left knee beyond the toes of your left foot. When you feel light tension in the right upper calf, hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds. If the feeling of tension subsides, hinge farther forward until you feel the stretch again. Hold for 10 seconds and then relax. Repeat the stretch two to four times before switching to your left leg.
Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Loop a resistance band, towel, scarf or necktie around the sole of your right foot. Tighten your abs and straighten your spine, taking care not to arch the lower back. Gently pull the ends of the band toward you, drawing the toes toward your shin. When you feel the stretch in your calf, hold for up to 30 seconds. Deepen the stretch by pushing the heel away from you. Relax briefly and then repeat the stretch two to four times. Switch to your left leg.
Position both feet on an aerobic step or other low platform. Slide your right heel back until it extends off the edge of the step. With your abs tight and your spine straight, slowly lower the heel toward the floor, stopping when you feel the stretch in your upper calf. Relax, breathe and hold the stretch for up to 30 seconds. If the feeling of tension dissipates during that time, lower the heel slightly to increase the stretch. Release, relax briefly and repeat the exercise two to four times. Switch legs.
Stand facing a wall at a distance of 18 to 24 inches, with your hands on the wall for support. Flex your right foot and place the heel on the floor near the bottom of the wall. The ball of the foot should rest on the wall. Straighten your right knee and slowly lean toward the wall. Continue shifting your weight over your right leg until you feel a moderate stretch in your upper calf. Hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds. Relax briefly. Repeat two to four times before switching to your left leg.
- To improve or maintain flexibility, stretch your outer calves daily. If that's not possible, aim for three times a week.
- When stretching the upper calf, keep the working leg straight, but avoid hyperextending the knee.
- When holding a stretch, relax, breathe easily and avoid movement elsewhere in the body.
- Push a stretch only to the point of mild to moderate tension, not pain. Monitor yourself carefully. If you experience actual pain in the calf, knee or elsewhere in the body, release the stretch immediately to avoid injury.
- Bouncing or forcing a stretch can trigger the stretch reflex, which causes tightening of the muscles you're attempting to loosen.
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.