Anatomy and Stretching 101
The “Calf Muscles” Part A: Anatomy • The calf muscles are technically known as the “posterior compartment of the leg.” • “The leg” describes the region below the knee. • The posterior compartment of the leg (plantar flexor compartment) is the largest of the three leg compartments. • The posterior compartment and the muscles within it are divided into superficial and deep sub-compartments/muscle groups by the transverse intermuscular septum. The superficial sub-compartment is comprised of the gastrocnemius, the soleus and the plantaris muscles. The gastrocnemius and soleus become tendinous, called the Achilles Tendon and insert onto the posterior surface of the calcaneus, or heel bone. See Image A. IMAGE A
The primary action of the superficial sub-compartment is plantarflexion or pushing the forefoot down. See Image B. This action is performed to lift, propel, and accelerate the weight of the body when walking, running, jumping, or standing on the toes. To stretch this compartment therefore, you have to do the opposite to its action. You have to dorsiflex it! See Image C. More on that in Part B.
Image C Dorsiflexion is required to stretch the posterior compartments.
The small deep sub-compartment • Four muscles make up the deep group in the posterior compartment of the leg popliteus, flexor digitorum longus, flexor hallucis longus, and tibialis posterior See Image D. • The popliteus acts on the knee joint, whereas the other muscles plantarflex the ankle with two continuing on to flex the toes. • The two muscles of the posterior compartment that flex the toes are crisscrossed – that is, the muscle attaching to the great toe (flexor hallucis longus) and the muscle attaching to the lateral four toes (flexor digitorum longus) have tendons that cross in the sole of the foot and provide support for the medial arch. See Image E.
The action of the posterior deep sub-compartment also includes inversion of the foot (see Image F). The three muscles also provide strong support for the longitudinal arch of the foot. IMAGE G
To stretch the muscles that both invert and plantar flex the foot you have to reverse their actions. So, you need to dorsiflex and evert the foot. More on that in Part B. The action of the flexor hallucis longus and the muscle attaching to the lateral four toes-flexor digitorum longus is also to flex the toes, (along with countless other muscles). See Image G.
To stretch the toe flexor muscles therefore, you need to extend the toes. See Image F. More on that in Part B.
Part B: Stretching Below are selected stretches from 3 of my books, see references below. The rules above apply in all cases. That is, once you understand the concentric action of the muscles, to stretch them you simply reverse these actions. You can get creative too and design your own stretches on your equipment with these principles in mind.
Stretch the superficial sub-compartment with a lying and standing version. Both involve dorsiflexion of the ankle.
Lying Calf with Strap FLEXORS GROUP HOW TO STRETCH: Photo A - Place strap over ball of foot and pull downwards to point of tension HOW TO CONTRACT: Photo A - Press foot up into strap
HOW TO RESTRETCH: Photo B - Pull down on strap to restretch to new point of tension
Major muscles stretched Soleus Gastrocnemius
The Standing Calves • Standard: Any • Muscle Emphasis: Entire calf group
A. How to stretch
B & C. How to restretch
Lean hips toward ladder to POT. Bend one knee, tighten quads in straight leg.
Lean hips further toward ladder.
B. How to contract
Press ball of foot that is stretching into slant board as if accelerating.
What to watch out for: • • • •
Gripping with toes Moving into stretch too quickly -“bouncing”. Allowing knee to bend. Don’t drop arches, lift heel or turn out foot.
Stretch the toe flexors with a seated or standing version that involves toe extension.
Seated Toe Extension FLEXORS GROUP HOW TO STRETCH: Photo A - Clasp foot as pictured and bend toes backwards towards top of foot
HOW TO CONTRACT: Photo B - Press toes down into hand HOW TO RESTRETCH: Photo B - Bend toes further backwards - Explore one toe at a time
Major muscles stretched Intrinsic muscles of foot
Standing Toe Extension • Standard: Any • Muscle Emphasis: Flexors of toes
A & B. How to stretch Stand on slant board and place some body weight onto metatarsophalangeal joints. Lean forward to POT.
B. How to contract Press toes down into slant board (toe flexion).
Standing Toe Extension C
C. How to restretch Lean forward and take more weight onto toes to increase toe extension.
D. Variation Shift bodyweight around above each toe in turn.
Stretch the invertors of the foot -the three muscles of the deep posterior compartment-by a combination of dorsiflexion and eversion.
Eversion with Strap INVERTERS HOW TO STRETCH: Photo A - Place strap over ball of foot and pull to turn sole of foot outwards from centre HOW TO CONTRACT: Photo A - Press sole of foot back towards centre
HOW TO RESTRETCH: Photo B - Pull on outside of strap to turn sole of foot further from centre
Major muscles stretched Tibialis posterior Flexor digitorum longus Flexor hallucis longus
Dorsi Flexion on the Pilates Reformer If you have a pilates reformer, try the stretch below for the superficial posterior group. The deep group will also be stretched to some extent. • Standard: Any • Spring Tension: Medium - Heavy • Muscle Emphasis: Entire calf group
A. How to stretch Press carriage away and lower one heel slowly to POT. Bend other knee. Tighten quadriceps in stretching leg.
A. How to contract Press ball of foot that is stretching into foot bar as if accelerating.
B & C. How to restretch Lower heel slowly under bar.
What to watch out for: • Gripping with toes • Moving into stretch
too quickly -“bouncing”.
• Allowing knee to bend.
Conclusion If you experience pain in the “calf” or the sole of the foot, often called plantar fasciitis, practice the stretches above 3 times per week at least. If you want to avoid pain in the calf or sole of the foot, practice the stretches above 3 times per week at least! The stretches that require no equipment can be found in my book “StretchFit: Safe Effective Stretches for Every Body,” on Amazon books. The final stretch on the Pilates reformer is from “Stretching on the Pilates Reformer: Essential Cues and Images” on Amazon books.