Stretch your calves, bro.
Your calves do so much for you. Think about how much they bear the brunt of your weight. Are you thinking about how much you’re doing for you?
“It’s not what your calves can do you for you, it’s what you can do for your calves.”
– John F. Kennedy, probably.
Your calf muscles perform several duties, including flexing the knee and pointing your toe—otherwise known as plantar flexion.
When your calves plantarflex all day, they shorten to a point that limits how much they can do the opposite. The opposite movement, bringing the toes up, is dorsiflexion.
The tibialis anterior—the antagonist to the calf muscles and the main muscle on your shin—does this motion, stretching the calf muscles. But if your calves are super tight from sports and whatnot, they won’t be able to stretch.
Effectively, they’re shortened and no longer have the ability to dorsiflex to what’s necessary for optimal posture, performance, and health.
Everybody says your tight hip flexors plot against your posture, and that’s true, but your tight calves may be a leading culprit in your tight hip flexors and low back pain.
The fairer sex makes an absurd amount of sacrifices for beauty. Wearing high heels is one of those understated sacrifices. Not just because they’re difficult to walk in, but also because elevated heels shorten the Achilles tendon and the calves, limiting dorsiflexion.
During a normal walking movement, about ten degrees of dorsiflexion is necessary to walk without compensation (1). Walking in heels, however, mimics what it’s like to walk downhill: all your weight is slanted forwards.
This weight shift causes all upstream effects, leading to your quads and hip flexors to tighten up, your low back to tighten up, and your shoulders to round forward, as the effects move upstream.
For high heel wearers, these postural changes are well-documented (2).
Wearing high heels leads to excessive anterior pelvic tilt and lumber spine curve, a postural phenomenon known as lower-cross syndrome, which can lead to low-back and hip flexor pain.
The effect, however, is the same if you have insufficient dorsiflexion because it gives our heels a slight “lift” up, causing the same forward shift in weight that leads to the same postural issues.
Lacking dorsiflexion will lead to even more issues when more dorsiflexion is needed, like during squats.
During training, these limitations get exacerbated. Squatting requires simultaneous hip flexion, knee flexion, and dorsiflexion.
If you lack dorsiflexion, however, it will be impossible to sit down and keep your center of mass underneath you without some kind of compensation. The compensation could come, for example, from the low back extending in order to artificially “squat” down lower. It’s the same compensation as walking in heels: your weight shifts forward (3).
This is no different than sports settings. I’m going to use hockey because that’s my sport as an example, but this applies across all sports. An ideal hockey stride requires you to sit low while striding. But, sitting low requires sufficient dorsiflexion, just like squatting does. Insufficient dorsiflexion with either:
A) Cause you to not get as low and therefore go slower
B) Cause compensation that leads to bad postural changes
To prevent this, you can either elevate your heels, which is what skate companies do, what weightlifting shoes are for, and why people squat with your heels on 5lb plates, or improve your dorsiflexion.
Elevating the heels works because it basically creates artificial slack, and allows you to shift your weight back to neutral. But, this continues to shorten your calves more and more because now they need to dorsiflex even less to get into the positions you’re demanding, which in the long-term compounds the problem.
To draw an analogy, it’s like wearing a weight belt. If your back hurts while lifting, a weight belt will help you stabilize your core. But then, you’re not improving your core strength and stability to be able to lift heavy without out, making it even harder next time to do without a belt.
It’s a positive feedback loop, otherwise known as a vicious cycle.
No, that’s not what this means. It means you can, and you should train your calves. BUT you need to train them through a full range of motion, especially the fully lengthened position with the calves as dorsiflexed as possible.
Honestly, I don’t train guys who train calves six days a week. So if you’re one of those guys, I’d just recommend taking extra precautions by monitoring your dorsiflexion and making dorsiflexion activation exercises a part of your warm-up routine.
Before we get into fixing the issue, let’s test to see if you actually have an issue. So, we’re going to test your dorsiflexion. This is the exact test I use with the hockey-playing population to check to make sure their dorsiflexion isn’t the limiting factor in their stride length. Looking at this picture, this much dorsiflexion (about 3.5″ over my toes, you can measure with a ruler) correlates with just above 90 degrees on a squat, so if you’re skating (or squatting) deeper than this, you should aim for better dorsiflexion than me.
If you squat “ass to the grass” as some people say you have to (I’m not one of those people) then you’ll need more dorsiflexion.
If you did this test and your dorsiflexion is phenomenal, then your calves aren’t your limiting factor. If that’s you, but you have a postural issue, it means you have to move upstream to your other joints, probably your hips.
I can’t believe that in the non-athlete community stretching isn’t part of a systematic warm-up. Whatever. Now, for you it is. At a minimum, do this exercise before your workout as part of your warm-up every day.
Half-Kneeling Calf Mobility.
Take the test, and then make it an active mobility drill. Pulse back and forth, trying to tap your knee to the wall. Go for ten pulses, pushing your dorsiflexion capabilities with each tap.
If you’re more in trouble, and more motivated to do more, add these to your routing
Yes, high heels are terrible. But actually, most of our shoes are heels, to an extent. And what that means is your calves are sitting in a shortened position and your weight is shifted forwards all day.
That’s why the toed shoes are actually great. But they look fucking ridiculous so please don’t get them.
For gym shoes, the New Balance Minimus (I like the limited edition Cressey version) is a great choice.
And then for your everyday life, classic Chuck Taylor’s and slip-on Vans are both “zero drop.”
Again, this doesn’t mean you can’t wear your stylish Chelsea boots (personally, I’m a huge fan), but consider the drawbacks, and mix in some extra dorsiflexion drills to mitigate the risks if you’re wearing heels on a daily basis.
Your calves deserve love. They’re essential for peak performance, staving off injuries, and keeping your posture aesthetic as fuck. So stretch them, test their range of motion, and make sure you can do all of your life activities without compensating.