Of all common complaints on the subject of flexibility and fitness — low back stiffness, neck and shoulder tension, achey hips, by far the one that comes up the most often is that of tight calf muscles. I imagine that’s partly because so many of our daily movements — both in work and home life and in sports and fitness, and even most of the shoes we wear, are oriented towards activating and shortening the calf. Over time, it’s almost inevitable that these muscles will become noticeably tight, at least left to their own devices. The other reason is probably because tight calves affect so many activities. Just getting out of bed in the morning and walking around the house can become uncomfortable, and you might find yourself having to curtail certain sports or even alter the way you walk to accommodate the change. I don’t know about you, but such things will definitely get my attention!
So you’re probably already aware if you have tight calves, and you’re probably already aware that something needs to be done, be it stretching or massage or a combination of measures. And to help you with at least some of the direct stretches and techniques for this, please refer to my two popular articles on the subject: “What Causes Calf Muscle Tightness?” and “10 Ways to Stretch Tight Calf Muscles.”
But there’s something else you should be aware of if you’re struggling with tight calf muscles: There’s a good chance this is just the tip of the iceberg, that your tight calves are likely to be accompanied by several other muscle imbalances, and that, while stretching the calves will certainly provide some relief, if you don’t attend to those other areas, you may still find yourself struggling. Happily, these other concerns are easily identified and addressed; with just a few key additions to your stretching and exercise routine, you can provide more comprehensive relief to the big picture, and in doing so, give your body the best chance at long-term mobility and movement ability.
Here are three overlooked essentials when seeking to address calf muscle tightness. Understand, this is under the assumption that you’re aware of the need to stretch your calves (and choose good quality stretches), so these three points are meant to be in addition to that action:
- Tight Hamstrings: Where there are tight calf muscles, there are almost always tight hamstrings. Largely, this is because many of our daily movements and fitness activities that involve the calves….also involve the hamstrings. They often work in tandem, helping to propel us forward when we walk, steady us when we’re leaning forward, and lifting us up an incline or stairs. A good way to tell if your hamstrings could use some stretching is to stand up and face the seat of your chair, with your feet about hip distance apart. Carefully, bend forward and rest your hands on the chair seat. Can you do this without bending your knees? Try to straighten your legs as fully as you can. Can you do this without rounding your back (i.e. could you balance a class of water on your low back while in this position)? Can you drop down to your elbows on the chair seat? Do you feel tension or tightness in your hamstrings if you try? Bottom line: if you only address tightness in one of the two muscle groups, you will continue to fight a sense of restricted movement. So be sure to include effective hamstring stretches in your stretching and exercise program.
- Weak Core and Low Back: This may seem unrelated, but tightness in the calf and hamstrings often stems in part from overdepending on these muscles, due to a lack of strength and stability in your trunk. If the muscles of the core and low back are weak, the body attempts to make up for the deficiency by having the legs (and, for upper body movements, the shoulders and arms) take up the slack. It stands to reason that the result is increased fatigue and tightness from this overuse. By including exercises and movements to develop a strong core — including those that reinforce good posture, you’ll help distribute the demand of movement across a broader range of muscles, taking the pressure off of your hamstrings and calves.
- Ankle movements: The ankles are an incredibly complex and mobile joint. Yet, if you step back and consider what our daily movements look like, our ankles are basically put through a very narrow range of repetitive movements. This can not only cause stress to the ankles, it slowly reduces the overall mobility in that joint, which in turn further impedes the ability to bring balance to the calf muscles. A great way to reverse this trend and foster better results in your calf stretches is to perform daily (or better yet, twice daily) Knee to Chest Ankle Circles: Lie on your back, and gently pull one of your knees to your chest, holding onto your leg with your hands. There’s a good chance you’ll feel a stretch thoughout your legs and back (if your neck is crooked in an awkward position, put a pillow or folded towel under your head to keep your neck neutral). As you hold this position, perform circles with your ankle. Make them slow, deliberate, and big: involve your ankle, the arch of your foot, and your toes. After a number of circles one direction, reverse and circle your ankle the opposite way. Then release the leg and perform the same on the other ankle. Alternately, you can perform ankle circles while sitting in a chair — such as at the office. A particularly effective timing is to do these just before you go on to stretch your calves and/or hamstrings.
So now you have the tools: Calf stretches and their techniques, and three other key essentials to ensure you conquer the entire iceberg, and not just the “visible” tip!
Are tight muscles beginning to affect your sports? Stop the problem in its tracks by doing yoga online with E vamarie! If you are already a member of www.TheFlexibilityCoach.com, the best workouts for tight calves include Yoga Videos #7 and 13, the audio workout, “Stretches for Tight Calf Muscles,” and the individual stretch video, “Chair Hamstring and Calf Stretch.” Join today and never be without stretch guidance again!