If you’re a runner, then you know how important it is to stretch your calves, it’s as important as a hamstring stretch!

Your Calf… or Gastrocnemius.  First, etymology…gastrocnemius comes from the Greek.  Breaking down the word, ‘gastro’ means belly and ‘kneme’ means leg, put together it’s the ‘stomach of the leg’ (Think Gastronomique or GastroPub, an excellent place to find all sorts of bellies, pork, human or otherwise). Go ahead, take a look at your calf, it really does look like a little belly on the back of your leg.  Renaissance men wore tights to accent it, body builders covet well-defined ones, women wear heels to emphasize them and it’s said that Shakespeare made poetic reference to its shape.  While true that it is a shapely muscle, it is also one of the unsung muscular heroes of our daily lives.

Next, anatomy…gastrocnemius sits at the posterior of our lower leg, behind the tibia and fibula.  It sits on top of the soleus muscle, its partner in movement and musculature.  Together they are called triceps surae.  Soleus accounts for much of the calf muscle’s mass but gastrocnemius is what gives the calf its distinctive shape.  It is a powerful bicep (two-headed) muscle.  Each one of the two heads, lateral and medial, originates at a corresponding lateral and medial “knuckle” (condoyle) at the posterior of the femur.  The muscle is short but broad.  Midway down the lower leg it makes its insertion into the strong calcaneal or Achilles tendon, which it shares with soleus.  Gastrocnemius is a polyarticular muscle which means it crosses over and moves more than one joint—similar to rectus femorus or the hamstring group.  One function of gastrocnemius is as a flexor of the knee joint, working synergistically with the hamstrings.  The other is to point (plantarflex) the foot from our ankle joint.

Fascinating to be sure, but why is Gastrocnemius unsung you may ask?  Thighs, IT bands, hamstrings and abs usually take center stage when we talk about firming or strengthening specific muscles.  Just take a moment to think of how many times in a single day you move the calf.  Walking, exercising (maybe running, cycling or swimming), depressing and releasing the accelerator of your car, standing on tiptoe to retrieve something from a kitchen shelf, going up and down stairs, walking in the grocery store… the list is endless.  All this repetitive usage can tighten and shorten both the muscle and its attachments.  Not surprisingly, gastrocnemius has a high tendency for cramping.  Which can be caused by many things including but not exclusive to dehydration, low potassium or carbohydrate levels and… wait for it… tightness from overuse.

So what can you do to keep your gastrocnemius happy and pain-free?  Yoga Tune Up® offers a myriad of movements and poses to keep that muscle strong and supple:  Asymmetrical Triangle, Prasarita Lunges, Dolphin or Purgatory Dog just to name a few.  If you really want to give your calf a treat, try a dynamic YTU movement called “DO-IN for the Calf or Tenderize the Meat.”  It’s a self-massage action that stimulates blood flow into the muscle.  Your “little belly” will love it.

Read our article about your calves.

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Watch our free 5 minute feet and ankle video.

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