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.
Discover our solutions for foot and ankle pain relief.
Watch our free 5 minute feet and ankle video.
Check out our Post athletic stretch DVD
I was really surprised during YTU training when I discovered my calf muscles are really tight! I teach mostly aerial yoga where I lift my heel to stand on my toes. Well, there’s the culprit and I guess just life and walking too. Thank you so much for this really fascinating anatomy lesson and also for the other YTU poses that will help!
I was stunned when I started using the YTU therapy balls to roll out my calf muscles. Ouch! I’ve been working with the aerial hoop for some time and did not realize just how engaged this musculature of my legs was holding so tightly during my practice. Now, I roll after each hoop practice.
I never thought that my calves were tight until the first time I rolled them. I was so surprised at how intense it felt, but afterwards I had much more freedom and ease walking and squatting. I love the image of the gastrocnemis as a “little belly”.
Thank you for pointing out how overlooked the gastrocnemius muscle is and how much it does for the majority of us on a daily basis. I am certainly going to explore the exercises you mentioned using the YTU ball.
I had forgotten that calves used to be an object of desire! Thank you for reminding me to pay attention to this very important muscle.
Such a commonly recognized muscle DECODED! Thank you. It is an overlooked muscle – in that we use it and use it and use it without much praise. Gastrocnemius is so taken for granted. I love the do-in work from YTU. It was one of the first techniques I shared with my students when I returned home after training and each one of them had plenty of excitement for that movement. Finally, this muscle will get its due attention with YTU.
I have always had healthy or what I thought healthy gastrocs/soleus.. I teach dance exercise and I think I just assumed all was fine and dandy…and I wore orthotics, so I had a helper. But one day in class there it went a tightness in my left calf I had never had…which moved into minmal dorsiflexion. It subsided but scared the heck out of me-so I found the YTU Balls and now make sure to roll out tose calfs regularly…along with alot of other new found areas of tightness.Thank you YTU Therapy balls!
I have always found difficulty stretching my legs in forward folds, having to consistently bend my knees in order to place my palms on the floor. I always thought that it was my hamstring muscles that were tight and preventing me from reaching the floor; the calves were overlooked. After learning more about anatomy and receiving the Yoga Tune Up balls, I begin to roll my calfs in order to loosen the muscles as well as doing more calf stretches on blocks or rolling up the mat. After stretching I have a much more length in my legs and feel a subtle shift in my forward bending.
There was a time when I definitely didn’t think much about the gastrocnemius, it seemed to be doing just fine down there. That changed pretty quickly when I experienced an extremely painful cramp in my calf while on a practice swim the day before a triathlon I was racing. I became acutely aware of the gactrocnemius on my right side and despite lots of masasge via a therapist and my tune up balls, I felt the residual pain for quite a few days after. Since then, I think about my calf muscles much more often and provide them with the TLC they deserve! In the anatomy training today, we talked about the relationship of the gastrocnemius to the hamstrings and the ability for a tight calf to in turn limit the flexibility of the hamstrings.
I have, by heredity, very strong, well-defined calves. I had no idea how much tension I carried there, especially after years of wearing high heeled shoes. I am very fond of using the YTU therapy balls pinioned between the gastrocnemius and the lower hamstring while kneeling. It is definitely not an easy sensation to acclimate to, but it helps release those tight muscles in ways I’ve not found through any other therapy.
Ah, there’s nothing better than “Tenderizing the Meat” on my calf muscles with my hands, fists or Yoga Tune Up Balls in the morining. It feels sore as I do it, especially if my gastrocnemius is tight. But the after effects are worth it.
I had never even heard of this muscle before but now realize how much wear and tear I have been putting on it between high heels and long commutes to work every day! Mine definitely need a little self-love;) Thanks!
So not only am I ruled by my abdominal belly, but now my little belly too! Thank you for the complete, concise overview. I have spent a long time unkinking my rectus femoris, IT band and hamstrings–all of which got very cranky in the throes of knee surgery. Now it seems my restrictions have migrated south, to the gastroc & soleus attachments. Suffice it to say, I will be spending some time now feeding my little belly–thanks for the menu!
I know so many sassy, heel-rocking women who would benefit tremendously from giving their “little belly” a little love (in so many ways, but I’m referring to the calves here!). It’s been long since I’ve worn a pair of heels due to an ankle injury, but walking on concrete and pushing on the gas pedal are surely enough to merit some self-massage time! Thanks for the reminder to give this often overlooked muscle a little TLC.
In the past years getting a massage was great until they got to my calves. They were always so painful and sore I couldnt take it. Ive been using the YTU balls nightly and it is becoming less and less painful. Ive made up my a sequence that works for me.
[…] full and tight and causing you pain? I am again referring to “the little Belly” (see my previous posts on this and you’ll know I’m not referring to the separate stomach sections children say exist […]
It is amazing what an overused muscle the calf is! I recently started using the YTU balls on my calves and noticed a real difference on the extensors and peroneus muscle on the front of my lower leg by working out the tightness in the gastrocnemius. I can only imagine how shortened it would be on a high-heel wearer.
Fantastic information. I keep my calf muscles happy by drinking plenty of water, excersize, Yoga, and using the balls. I use a block and one ball put it right in the ‘belly’ flex/ point as many different directions as possible – circles, chugs you name it all the way up and down to the achilies. Next I mate the balls back in the bag and do the front of my leg each ball on either side of tibia – to get of the front of the calf. Also I aticulate feet, ankles, and toes through different yogaloties moves. Their all connected, always best to ensure whats connected on apposing joints is happy too! Even if it’s just tiny toes.
Thanks for sharing this insight of information on a muscle that is easily forgotten but carries so much tension as it is the main connector to our feet and knees and is used while supporting us through our daily activities. I find using the YTU balls for calf massage to be a great ways to get into this tender muscle belly and bring more blood flow to the muscle so helpful. It would be great if you could post your YTU ball massage sequence 🙂
I hope you are going to post a YTU ball sequence for the calves because it makes such a huge difference. It is amazing how much tension is stored in those calves. They get unbelievably tight and sometimes the only way to free them up is with a YTU ball.