Although squatting is an essential human movement that we should all ideally be able to perform with ease, the majority of our modern Western bodies are significantly “squat-challenged”. There are many different areas of the body that can restrict our range of motion in a squat but one that commonly comes into play is the calves. With this in mind, many of us have incorporated a regular practice of calf-stretching into our routines, which is an excellent movement choice! However, the most common methods of calf-stretching mainly target only the most superficial calf muscles. To truly improve our squat, we need to be sure to include movements that access our deeper calf muscles as well.
The calves consist of the muscles that line the back of the lower leg. When they contract, they point the feet (also called “plantarflexion” of the ankle joint in anatomy speak). The opposite direction of movement of plantarflexion is “dorsiflexion”, in which the top of the foot moves toward the shin. When calf muscles lack flexibility (as they do in so many of us!), they will restrict the ability to dorsiflex.
What does this have to do with squatting? Well, if you picture a person sitting in a full squat with heels on the ground, you can see that their ankle needed to move into a good amount of dorsiflexion in order for this position to be achieved. But what happens when our calves do not lengthen very far? In this case, in order to squat we will make one of two compensations in order to get down into the pose: 1) heels lift and you balance on the balls of your feet in the squat, or 2) feet turn out and angle away from the midline. Both of these strategies allow us to bypass the need to significantly dorsiflex our ankles in our squat. But if our goal is to one day achieve a full squat with our heels down and feet in parallel (and why wouldn’t we aim for this excellent goal?), stretching our calves to increase range of motion in dorsiflexion should be a huge priority.
However, when deciding how to stretch our calves, we need to think beyond the ankle joint alone. The largest and most superficial calf muscle is the gastrocnemius and crosses at two joints – the ankle joint and the knee joint. You may know the gastrocnemius as the prominent “two-headed” calf muscle that can sometimes be observed on people with particularly defined calves (Think road cyclists and avid runners). Because this muscle crosses two joints, we need to both dorsiflex our ankle and extend (i.e. straighten) our knee to stretch it. This is coincidentally the way most calf stretches are done. Think of the classic “runner’s lunge” in which one foot is forward, the other is behind, and we lean forward and press our hands into a wall. Yoga’s downward facing dog pose (adho mukha svanasana) is another perfect example of a stretch for gastrocnemius.
But there is a deeper calf muscle called the soleus that is not lengthened when we work with these straight-legged stretches. While the soleus and gastrocnemius share a common distal attachment on the calcaneus (heel bone), the gastrocnemius attaches high up on the femur and the soleus attaches lower down on the tibia and fibula (lower leg bones). So while the gastrocnemius is a two-joint muscle that acts on both the ankle and knee, the soleus is a single-joint muscles that crosses only the ankle.
Improving your squat requires that you have adequate flexibility in both gastrocnemius and soleus. But in order to stretch the soleus, we need to dorsiflex our ankle while the knee is flexed, not extended. This is because if we try to stretch soleus with an extended knee, the more superficial muscle tissue of gastrocnemius will stretch first, preventing the stretch from layering down to the deeper soleus. In order to truly stretch and strengthen our soleus, we must first slacken the overlying gastrocnemius by flexing the knee.
Calf stretches with bent knees are harder to come by than straight-legged ones, however, and there are few (if any) to be found in traditional yoga asanas. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog post on Friday in which we’ll look at a few great ways to effectively target soleus, the key to our amazing full squat!