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How to Properly Stretch Tight Calf Muscles

Even though performing the calf stretch seems simple, proper execution is often elusive. Dr. Jonathan Su, the Get-Fit Guy, shares seven things to look out for to get the most effective calf stretch.

By
Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT
4-minute read
Episode #578
The Quick And Dirty

Here are seven things to look out for when performing the calf stretch:

  1. Side-to-side distance between the feet
  2. Front-to-back distance between the feet
  3. Hand placement
  4. Elevation of the back heel
  5. Direction of the toes of the back foot
  6. Bend of the back knee
  7. Bend of the front knee 

If you do a lot of walking, running, or hiking, the calf muscle on the back of your lower leg can become stiff and painful. I’m always surprised by how many walkers and runners let this problem brew until it becomes serious enough to seek out someone like me to help them fix the problem.

I always tell my patients that the solution is simple but the execution is difficult. If you really want to fix this problem, you have to care enough about it to get the execution down. That means making time to do maintenance work on your body and ensuring that what you’re doing is done right. 

One of the simplest solutions to a stiff and painful calf muscle is static stretching. This is where you lengthen your calf muscle to its limit or place of tension and stay in that position for up to a minute.

Stretching can help keep the calf muscle supple and pain-free and I highly recommend it as part of your daily, thrice weekly, or, at the very least, once weekly body maintenance routine. If you’re a walker, runner, or hiker, this is one stretch that you should be doing after every workout.

Even though performing the calf stretch seems simple, properly executing the stretch is often elusive because there are several elements that all need to come together to get the most effective stretch. Trust me when I say that this is one of the most difficult stretches to nail down.

I see this stretch performed sub-optimally by almost everyone at the gym and I’m always needing to make adjustments for my patients when they perform it in front of me.  Keep listening to find out how to properly stretch your calf muscle so you can help them feel like new in a snap.

Calf stretch

So what exactly are all the elements that need to come together to get the most effective calf stretch? There are seven elements to look out for:

  1. Side-to-side distance between the feet

  2. Front-to-back distance between the feet

  3. Hand placement 

  4. Elevation of the back heel

  5. Direction of the toes of the back foot

  6. Bend of the back knee

  7. Bend of the front knee

Let’s walk through how to implement each of these elements into your calf stretch.

Side-to-side distance between the feet

The side-to-side distance between the feet should be about hip-width distance (six to eight inches) apart. That’s about the distance between your two fists if you place them together between your feet with the inner sides of your curled-up thumbs and index fingers touching.

Keeping your feet hip-width distance apart will keep your torso, hips, and legs squared and pointing in the same direction. This in turn will allow you to get the most out of the calf stretch.

Front-to-back distance between the feet

The front-to-back distance between the feet should be about two to three feet depending on your height. You won’t be able to get a good stretch if your feet are too close together or too far apart. 

Hand placement 

When performing the calf stretch, you should be standing in front of a wall with your hands against the wall and half your body weight leaning into your hands. Try to perform the calf stretch with and without your hands against the wall and you’ll notice the difference right away. 

Elevation of the back heel

Your back heel should be glued to the ground while performing the calf stretch. Your stretch will be less than optimal and you’ll notice a big difference if your heel elevates even a millimeter off the ground. 

The reason is that the calf muscle crosses your ankle joint, so you need to make sure that your heel is pushing into the ground to get your calf muscle to lengthen. 

Direction of the toes of the back foot

The midline of the foot is measured by the second toe. Make sure that your second toe is pointed straight forward in relation to your torso and hips to get the most out of your calf stretch.

Most people will perform the calf stretch with their toes pointed out and the end result is one side of the calf muscle getting a great stretch and the other side of the calf muscle getting no stretch. 

Bend of the back knee

The back knee should be completely straight when performing the calf stretch. In addition to crossing the ankle joint, the calf muscle also crosses the knee joint, so make sure your back knee is straight to get your calf muscle to fully lengthen during the stretch. 

Bend of the front knee

In contrast to the straight back knee, the front knee should be bent. The amount of bend in the front knee is what controls the intensity of the calf stretch. 

Make sure all the previous elements are humming before bending the front knee and you’ll notice that the amount of bend is directly correlated to the intensity of the stretch. 

With all these elements in place, hold the stretch for 45 to 60 seconds and repeat on the opposite leg. Be sure to check out my YouTube for a video on how to perform the calf stretch. 

Here’s a little bit of extra information about the calf muscle for you anatomy geeks out there. The calf muscle is made up of two major muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is the larger of the two and forms the diamond-shaped bulge visible beneath the skin. 

The soleus is the smaller flat muscle that sits underneath the gastrocnemius. The two muscles taper and merge at the bottom of the leg to form the tough connective tissue known as the Achilles tendon. 

Together, these muscles work together to flex the ankle and flex the knee. There’s actually a small third muscle called the plantaris muscle that works mainly to stabilize the knee. 

If you have a question that you want me to answer on the show, email me at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave me a voicemail at 510-353-3104.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT

Dr. Jonathan Su is the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast. He is a physical therapist and fitness expert whose mission is to make fitness accessible for everyone. Dr. Su is author of the bestsellers Six-Minute Fitness at 60+ and Six-Minute Core Strength.

Got a question for Dr. Su? You can email him at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave him a message at the Get-Fit Guy voicemail line at (510) 353-3104.