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 soleus is a muscle on the back of the lower leg that assists in ankle plantarflexion.

The soleus is a muscle on the back of the lower leg that assists in ankle plantarflexion.

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.

Young, pretty woman, stretching her calf, thighs against a grani

Image from www.drblakeshealingsole.com

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!

Enjoyed this post? Read Calf Relief with YTU Therapy Balls

Jenni Rawlings

Jenni Rawlings is a Yoga Tune Up® Teacher, a Restorative Exercise Specialist™, and a body and anatomy geek writer and blogger. She has completed a wealth of anatomy and biomechanics trainings, multiple yoga teacher trainings, is a member of the YogaDork Ed. faculty, and has written articles for Yoga International, Yoga Tune Up®, and her own blog. She is also the owner of Drishti, the nation's first stand-alone yoga store, which she opened in Santa Barbara in 2002.

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marie josée packwood

Needed to be reminded Thank you !

Liselotte Frandsen

Great information, I never new that to target the m. Soleus in a calf stretch you need to keep the knee flexed!

Katharina

Thank you Jenni, this is an extremely helpful article for me. I was doing my first squat about 5 years ago, aged 34, and having been a dancer in my childhood, squatting did and does not come easy to me (bending knees without externally rotating my legs… 😉 ) . My calves always feel stiff and dense and even though I could increase their suppleness over the years, my squat is still inadequate and negatively affecting my hips. I am very happy to read about alternative stretching methods for the calves here!

Lorraine

This is a nice breakdown of the gastrocnemius and soleus, I always get those two mixed up and find it difficult to get my head around their differences. thanks for sharing.

cg ovalle

Soleus is a key muscle i keep forgetting to stretch. Thank you for the great insight of the limitation at hand when not taking soleus into play. Thank You

Sun Kim

Thank you SO much for this great article!!! I always have calf pain ( I wore heels in my 20s-bye dorsiflexion! ) and and No wonder I love Downward facings dog! and still got the tirst to stretch my lower calf part! I WANT full squart!! Heading to read the next one!

Kelly Cameron

Love this article! Thank-you Jenni!
I have heard time and time again that in order to increase your squat depth, you need to look after the calves, but no one was ever able to fully explain why, but you just did! Gastro gets all the attention, but can’t forget about the Soleus! This gave me the “lightbulb/Ah-Ha!” moment. Well written.
=:0)

Jamie Saltmarsh

Thanks for writing the article. I recently strained my gastrocnemius muscle from walking on an uneven surface. I also have a really hard time keeping my feet facing forward when squatting. Now I will attend to my soleus muscle as you have suggested.

natalie

Great anatomy reminder for a highly neglected muscle.

Emma

As a runner and yogi with extremely tight calves, I am looking forward to reading the second instalment! Downward dog with feet flat is always a challenge for me, however with my YTU balls and by focusing on the soleus I hope to get there one day!

Kevin V.

A simple stretch for the soleus (and gastroc) that I’ve used is to stand on a step with my heels hanging off the edge; essentially standing on the balls of my feet, heels lower than the actual step. Body weight creates the tension needed for stretch and bending or straightening the knees changes where the stretch is felt. It works best if I hold onto the handrail or wall and ease into the stretch.

John

My relatively limited dorsiflexion definitely gives me a tough time in the squat. I do this soleus stretch, and using a banded distraction helps me too… along with rolling.

Valérie Lavigne

I neglected those poor Soleus and they are thight!

Thank you to bring them back in my mind!

Susannah Nelson

Jenny, thanks for highlighting the often overlooked soleus, and it’s crucial importance in being able to dorsi flex the ankle joint and come to squat .
I use Katy Bowman’s domes with my class already but and shall explore more with the flexed knee option!! Great post thank you.

Michelle W

Great post! I love finding creative ways to stretch more specific muscles. When talking about squats, many students find it difficult to get their heels to the floor, or even to find comfort in the pose (as in Malasana). Taking a little more time in warming the calves is a wonderful way to start to work towards a more effective and pleasant squat.

Harriet

Thank you for this! The book “Whole Body Barefoot” by Katy Bowman offers a great soleus stretch using a half dome with bent knees that I’ve been using for a while. Although I could feel the stretch navigate from my gastrocnemius to my soleus as I went from extended to flexed knees, I didn’t understand why. Your explanation of the differences in attachments and depth of these muscles really illuminated why flexing the knee makes a difference in the region being stretched.

Rebecca Tamm

Whenever I am treating a client and I hit their soleus it almost always sends them off the mat. This is such a neglected muscle!

Tiffany

I often work with students playing with movements such as dorsiflexing the ankle with the knee straight vs bent as a safe exploration of their body that can lead to greater range of motion for them as they practice.

Jamie Walsh

The long lost muscle in the calf. (soleus) I love spending time during my classes to focus on the calves. Students are amazed how much better they feel after the class.

Nancy

Very interesting article. Muscle often forgotten, I will see not to neglect it

Evelyne Linder

Thanks for this great article Jenni. I can squat fully with straight feet but I am not clear on why it is not ok to squat with the feet pointing out. Is it because it puts some stress on the knees? I would love to know the reason behind this. I spend a lot of time in Asia and I observe so many Asians of all ages squatting with their feet slightly turned out. Hmmmm…. Any thoughts on that? Thanks.

Kerri

Well I have definitely been cheating out on a proper stretch to perfect my squats when working out. I always end up pigeon toeing out the feet. I also cheat myself of a proper stretch for the calf as I always focus on my quads. This article was very helpful to bring light to how I not only need to stretch my gastronemius, but also need to give some TLC to my soleaus. Thanks for the dorsi flexion que with knee flexion as I would have ended up in knee extension. These minor adjustments are going to bring a whole… Read more »

Mary

This article is perfect for me. One of my goals for 2017 is to achieve a full squat. I have been working on my calf stretch exercises and dorsiflexion, but I had never heard about getting into the soleus by stretching the calf with my knee flexed. I will definitely add that into my routine moving forward — thank you!

Andi

Many people don’t warm up or stretch the calves before moving into downward facing dog and then try to force their heels to the ground. Some people think the goal of downward facing dog is to have their heels resting on the ground and don’t see the benefits of the posture. The soleus muscle can be the culprit in releasing heels while in downward facing dog or lowering into a squat. Finding stretches that will target the soleus can be challenging and therefore I am anxious to read Part II.

Michelle Tan

I am so glad to have come across this article. I now have a better understand of calf stretch, and the stretch between gastrocnemius and soleus. I have injured my knees a few months ago for reason that I did not know, and I lost my range of motion of squatting. I do notice that if I stretch my calves and roll with the therapy balls, I can squat a little better. I am hopping over to read the next article to learn how the ways to stretch the soleus. Thanks for sharing! Michelle

Ilene Pellecchia

Great info. Thank you. Now I understand why my heels lift and feet turn out in a squat. Getting right to work on that Soleus. Static monk walk here I come.

Siewli

Thanks for sharing this useful info! I’ll check out your other blog also and learn some new stretches for the soleus!

Nadine Maskallis

Thank you for this fantastic description of the calf muscles, and particularly the importance of the soleus in allowing for the foot dorsiflexion that in turn aids in achieving the full expression of such a natural pose as the deep/full squat. As a runner, I am only too familiar with the “calf struggle”, which is very real. Regular calf maintenance, incl. stretching of both the gatrocnemius and soleus, helps me maintain and further develop my full squat.

Laurel Crane

This was great and definitely true, find myself only stretching the top of my calf so looking forward to reading the next blog post to learn how to stretch the soleus.

Dianne

I recently added this soleus stretch to the calf stretch warm-ups I do with my chair yoga class. Now I will have all these added details to explain the how’s and why’s more clearly as we work to improve flexibility in ankle and calf. Thanks for the detailed description and graphics!

Cheryl

Very enlightening and interesting. So Utkatasana should be a good stretch for the soleus along with the cycling pedal stroke with heels down like your scraping mud off of your shoe, correct?

Lena Rogers

I regularly stretch the calf and hamstring with the knee extended, often flexing the torso for a deep hamstring stretch. I didn’t realize that I was still not targeting the deep soleus muscle of the calf! I can’t wait to try stretching with the flexed knee to see if that improves my deep squat. Thanks for the great article.

Dominique Pelletier

Merci pour la description du soleaire et gastrocnemien.

Erika Belanger

I never realized how bending the knee was necessary to reach the deeper muscles of the calf! It’s good to know, maybe over time I will be able to put my heals down!

Rena

I always have my yoga students keep their knees bent on the first few down dogs to go easy on the hamstrings.I had no idea this was helping them stretch their neglected soleus muscle. Yay!

Andrea

I really love the this stretch. So many just stick with the “runners lunge”. Flexing the knee is the key to getting into the Soleus. Fascinating.

Christina

This is really interesting, I never realized the need for a flexed knee calf stretch. I will definitely be paying more attention to my sole us from now on! Thanks.

Lauren Reese

As a movement educator and yoga teacher who works with athletes and CrossFitters this is extremely helpful as many of them have poor squat form and can’t get their heels down, when they add load this puts them in a precarious situation. Looking forward to part two!!

Katy Loomis

Great article! The soleus seems like the forgotten muscle of the squat but so essential in order to increase the squat range. I’ll be know spending more time on the soleus!

Audrey Ventura

Thanks for addressing the soleus as it is completely left out by the gastrocnemius. I’m looking forward to reading the next part of this blog as many of my students can’t get their heels down to the floor.

Juliana Attilio

I had never thought about how the knee would need to be flexed in order to stretch the soleus. This is definitely something I will begin doing myself and include in my group classes. It is such a simple adjustment, but makes such a difference.

Katy

Although a full Ass to Grass squat is easy for me, it’s def not for everybody. Thank you for addressing the soleous muscle in this article! I didn’t know it was so overlooked!

Liz Tyburczy

Jenni so happy you addressed the Soleus Muscle; many people are under the impression that the Gastrocnemius muscle is the only muscles they need to stretch and strengthen. We tend to only pay attention to the muscles that shape our body. Ok who doesn’t like a well- defined calf? In your blog you explain how the traditional calf stretches such as Runners Lunge (which is a yummy stretch) doesn’t target the deeper Soleus. The Gastrocnemius muscle crosses 2 joints the knee and the ankle producing movement at both joints. The Soleus muscle crosses only the ankle joint. Placing the knee… Read more »

jordana

not to mention here the chronic shortening we develop over time from heeled shoes-not even traditional heels, but even small heels present on nearly all sneakers and “flats.” stretching is hugely important but if we dont make changes in footwear, the stretching is just a bandaid and moving around in the heeled shoes will prevent us from ever getting heels to the ground. i think sometimes we all wish it was as easy as doing a few stretches a few days a week, or even every day-but its changes those other 23 hours of the day that make a real… Read more »

Ed

How much interaction is there between gastroc and soleus? Do they share more fascial connections than the Achilles tendon? While I get that flexing the knee can take some of the influence of the gastroc out of the picture, I expect it varies from person to person. Similarly, I’d think that even with the leg extended, there’d be some stretch for the soleus – based upon the dynamic relationship between soleus and gastroc. I enjoyed your post – I’m just greedy for more.

Brittany

No wonder I have never gotten to a full squat.. those soleus are stopping me. I have never been able to do a full squat while keeping my feet on the floor without an aid or turning my feet out. I always think of stretching the gastrocneimius but rarely stretch the soleus (our second heart). Definitely going to give this overworking muscle some nice stretches, which will hopefully allow me to get to a deeper stretch. Can you link me to the next article with the stretches for the soleus. I know the basic stretch against a wall with a… Read more »

Milidi

Much needed, I am working on seeing and understanding, feeling the squat in a new way. I would like to see a video of squat with arms up against the wall as you spoke of in part 2. thanks.

Cathy Corkery

Heading over to part 2 now. You always have great info your articles and videos! I really appreciate it!

Simran Khalsa

Great description of the calf muscles, thank you! I am looking forward to seeing the stretches that can be done to get to the soleus!

Casey Thomas

As someone with lack of flexibility in my calves, this explains totally explains my struggle with malasana, will definitely be stretching my soleus and gastrocnemius more mindfully from now on!