In a perfect world, muscles would be tight when engaged in exercise or physical movement but relaxed otherwise. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. Sometimes, they stay tight for long periods with no apparent reason. This can easily lead to pain.
If you or a client are experiencing this with the calf, it helps to first understand a bit about the anatomy of this muscle. The next step involves learning a few common reasons behind calf tightness. This information can then be used to decide how to best release the tightness, also easing the pain.
The calf muscle is located on the backside of the lower leg. Though we commonly refer to it as if it is one muscle, it's actually two.
The gastrocnemius muscle is the calf muscle that sits closest to the skin's surface. When tensing the lower leg, this is the muscle you see. The soleus muscle is found deeper within the calf. This muscle is smaller than the gastrocnemius.
The calf is responsible for plantar flexion of the ankle joint. Plantar flexion is when the foot points away from the body. You also use pointer flexion when standing on the tip of your toes to reach something up above.
Sometimes, the calf muscle gets tight. This can lead to pain and even be a sign of injury. But what creates calf tightness?
One reason for a tight calf is engaging in a repetitive activity, such as running. If the calf is exposed to repeated stress, it may tighten up. This is especially true if the exercise is new or when ramping up training intensity, frequency, or workout duration.
Tightness can also be caused by overtraining. If the calf is not given adequate time to recover between training sessions, it might tense up. This tightness could feel intense, like a muscle cramp, or be more of a persistent dull ache.
There are a few non-exercise causes of a tight calf muscle as well. Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is one. DVT is when a blood clot forms deep in the leg's vein. This can create a feeling of tightness, soreness, or pain in the calf. DVT is a serious condition because the clot could release and travel to the lungs.
Some medications have tight muscles, pain, or cramping as a side effect. For instance, the Mayo Clinic reports that 5% of people taking statins—which are used to lower cholesterol—develop muscle aches and pain. Muscle tightness is also a potential side effect of clonazepam, a drug prescribed to help control seizures or reduce anxiety.
If you suspect that calf pain or tightness is caused by a medical issue versus exercise, a medical doctor should be consulted. This healthcare professional can help rule out serious conditions and/or make medication changes to reduce muscle tenderness and pain.
Not only can a tight calf be painful, but it can also affect other areas of the body. The area that is perhaps most impacted is the feet.
The calf muscle attaches to the Achilles tendon. The Achilles tendon then attaches to the heel bone. If the calf is tight, it will pull on the Achilles, potentially leading to Achilles tendonitis.
Consistent pulling of the calf can also cause plantar fasciitis. Plantar fasciitis is when the band that runs along the bottom of the foot (the plantar fascia) becomes inflamed.
Whether the tightness causes issues with the Achilles tendon or it leads to plantar fasciitis, the end result is the same: foot pain. If you've ever had foot pain, you know how hard it becomes to engage in everyday activities. Something as simple as walking to the bathroom can make you wince. Foot pain can also keep you from working out or playing a sport you love.
If you have a tight calf, you might also change the way you walk in an attempt to minimize the discomfort. This can throw your skeletal system out of alignment, causing additional issues elsewhere in the body.
It's also possible that the tight muscle and pain could be a sign of a calf injury. If the gastrocnemius or soleus get stretched too far, you could experience a calf strain, also known as a pulled calf muscle. Research indicates that calf strain is common among sports that involve a lot of running or acceleration and deceleration.
If the calf muscle strain is minor, it might heal on its own with rest, ice, compression, and elevation. A more severe calf strain may cause the muscle to tear. In this case, surgery may be required to fix the injury.
Calf pain could also signal a stress fracture in the fibula. The fibula, or the calf bone as it is sometimes called, runs beside the tibia. It extends from the knee to the ankle. If this bone is fractured, it can lead to lower leg pain.
When muscle injuries are suspected, a doctor's visit should be scheduled. This will help identify whether an injury exists and, if it does, reveal its severity.
Calf muscle tightness that exists due to overuse or overtraining may be relieved with stretching. Stretching helps ease tightness while improving calf muscle flexibility. It can also reduce pain.
If you're looking for a good calf stretch, here are a few to consider:
Seated calf stretch. This stretch involves sitting on the floor with the legs extended. Wrap a towel or resistance band around the ball of the right foot and gently pull back. Hold for 15 seconds then release. Repeat with the left foot. The calf stretch is also good for easing shin splints. (A shin splint refers to pain that runs along the front of the lower leg, often after running.)
Heel drop. Another way to elongate the calf is with a heel drop. To do it, stand on a stair or step. Move the right leg back so the edge of the step sits under the ball of the foot. Drop the right heel down until you feel a stretch in the back of the lower leg. Repeat on the other side.
Downward dog. This yoga pose not only stretches the muscle in the calf but also the hamstrings. Start in a high plank before shifting your buttocks toward the ceiling. The key to a good calf stretch in this position is keeping the heels on the ground. If the calves or hamstrings are too tight, this may not be possible at first. Keep working at it and they should begin to relax.
A foam roller can also be used to release a tight calf. Sit on the floor and place the foam roller under the calf and roll gently back and forth. If you have a handheld foam roller, you can simply rub it along the calf for the same effect.
Some people want to build bigger calves for a more symmetrical look. But a better-conditioned calf may also reduce muscle tightness by supporting a more intense workout regimen. Exercises that strengthen the calf muscle include:
Calf raises. You can do these sitting or standing. If you do them standing, placing the sole of the foot on a stair or step allows for a greater range of motion. Holding a dumbbell increases the stress on the calf, making this move more beneficial to advanced exercisers.
Jumping jacks. Jumping jacks are good for increasing heart rate but they also help build stronger calves. In fact, they're good for building all of the leg muscles.
Tiptoe walk. Walk from one end of the gym or room to the other on your tiptoes and you're going to feel it in the calf. To make the most of this exercise, keep the heels off the floor the entire time.
Just as exercise is important for maximum muscle health, so too is recovery. Encourage clients to take days off between calf training sessions. Incorporate stretches and foam rolling to assist with the recovery. This can help prevent sore calves.
Want to learn more recovery techniques? You can earn your certification as an Exercise Recovery Specialist. This course teaches trainers effective recovery methods, which can help reduce tightness and ease muscle strain body-wide.
ISSA's Exercise Recovery Specialization unlocks the science behind recovery techniques. As a Certified Exercise Recovery Specialist, personal trainers can apply this information to their exercise prescription and programs, helping athletes and general fitness clients alike.