Long hours of sitting day in and day out can cause chronic tightness in your calf muscles.
The consequence is less strength, flexibility and overall functionality of these critical muscles.
When your calf muscles can’t perform the way your body needs them too, you end up with misaligned and imbalanced muscles.
This leads to aches and pains, and puts you at risk for injury.
Thankfully, tight calves are easy to fix.
In this article, you’ll learn how to loosen up your tight calves and understand how to prevent the tightness from happening again in the future.
How Do You Know if Your Calves Are Too Tight?
Most people have tight calves to varying degrees, and many don’t realize it.
Tight calves reduce the flexibility and range of motion of your ankles.
In turn, lost ankle mobility limits the function and health of your knees, hips and back.
That’s why tight calves can result in aches, pain and swelling anywhere from your feet to your lower back.
There are a couple of tests you can do to see if your calves are too tight.
- Perform a squat with your feet hip-width apart and see how low you can bend without your heels popping off the floor. If you can’t get full depth, tight calves are limiting your range of motion.
- You can also test your calf tightness by using a wall. Get in a lunge position with your front foot 10cm away from the wall. See if you can touch your knee against the wall.
How Do Calf Muscles Become Tight?
There are a number of different reasons that can lead to calf tightness.
Lack of Ankle Mobility
Probably the most common way calves become too tight is the lack of ankle motion that enables your calves to dorsal flex and maintain their flexibility.
If you cannot dorsal flex your foot (pull your toes up towards you) enough then your calves will never experience a proper stretching sensation because your lack of ankle mobility inhibits this.
Types of Footwear
Another reason that can cause tight calves is if your shoes have a raised heel, especially high-heels.
High-heels keeps the calf muscles in a constant shortened position.
Over time, the calf muscles will adapt to this length and tighten up.
Tight calves can also result from exercise and athletic training that hasn’t been sufficiently complemented with stretching and massaging to loosen the muscles.
Endurance runners are at particularly high risk of developing tight calves.
Why You Shouldn’t Ignore Calf Tightness
Calf tightness isn’t an isolated problem.
It affects your entire body by causing other muscles and joints to compensate for the reduced range of motion in your ankles.
The imbalances that result cause misalignment that affects your posture.
It can cause pain in your feet, knees, hips and lower back. It also puts you at risk of muscle injuries and Achilles tendon tears.
When left alone, tight calves only become tighter.
To avoid the pain that comes with calf muscle tightness, you want to fix the problem sooner rather than later.
How to Fix Chronically Tight Calf Muscles
There are two main things you want to look into when fixing chronic calf tightness.
Fix Your Ankle Mobility
A good way to get started fixing tight calf muscles is to first make sure that you possess adequate ankle mobility.
Related: How to improve ankle dorsiflexion
2. Massage and Stretch
You can loosen tight calves by stretching and massaging the muscles, and by using tools such as a foam roller or a massage ball for myofascial release.
The first step is to perform myofascial release on your calves to remove trigger points.
Stretching alone isn’t enough to fix tight calves, because the muscles need counterpressure in order to fully release.
Fascia is the sheet of connective tissue around a muscle that stabilizes the muscle and separates it from other muscles, bone and organs.
When your calves are tight, they’re hugging your bone too tightly.
With enough pressure put on the calf muscles, the fascia around your calves can release and return to their normal state of separating the muscles from the bone.
Once you’ve released your calves then comes stretching.
Stretching improves calf muscle flexibility, helping you increase your range of motion.
It gets tight calves out of their perpetual contraction by elongating them.
It also increases circulation, bringing fresh blood into your calf muscle tissue and to the connective tissues in your ankle joint.
This promotes healing and improves the health of your calves.
When done on a regular basis, stretching helps ensure you don’t lose your range of motion or flexibility, and it prevents your calves from tightening once you’ve already worked to loosen them up.
Through a combination of stretching and massaging your calves on a regular basis, you can loosen tight calves and relieve associated pain.
The two-step process:
- Perform myofascial release on the calves using a foam roller or massage ball on both legs making sure the whole calf has been massaged.
- Perform a stretch by placing a foam roller on the floor then put one heel on the floor and the top half of the same foot resting on the foam roller. Try to move your other standing foot as far forward as you can whilst maintaining balance. You should feel a stretch down the calf.
Stretches to Release Tight Calves at Home
The stretch method using the foam roller is one of the most effective stretches for the calves.
However, if that doesn’t work for you there are some other ones you can try out.
Having a few go-to stretches you do every day can help you loosen your calves and release tightness little by little.
Here are four easy calf stretches you can do at home on your own:
Standard Calf Stretch
Face a wall or chair you can use for balance, and stand about a foot away from it.
Extend one leg behind you. Keep the knee straight and the heel on the floor so that you feel a stretch in that calf.
Bend your front knee and hold the wall or chair for support.
Seated Calf Stretch
Sit on the floor and extend your legs in front of you, with your knees straight and ankles together.
Reach for your toes or the balls of your feet with your hands and pull them back to stretch your calves.
If you can’t reach your feet without bending your knees, use a strap or a towel to wrap around the balls of your feet.
The goal of this stretch is to be able to flex your feet past a 90-degree angle in the direction of your knees.
Step-Assisted Calf Stretch
This stretch is similar to the one using a foam roller only instead you are using a step.
To perform this stretch, stand on an exercise step or use a staircase (could also use a yoga block).
Stand with the balls of your feet on the edge of the step so that your heels hang off.
Lower your heels down as far as you can, using a wall or bannister for balance.
Calf Stretching Gadgets
As mentioned, the most effective calf stretches usually require a prop of some kind.
We’ve already seen how a foam roller and a step can help stretch out the calves, however, there are some specially designed tools specifically to aid in this area.
ProStretch Calf Stretcher
The ProStretch Calf Stretcher is a tool designed to make stretching the lower leg muscles more effective than conventional methods by holding your foot in an optimal position.
Not only does it help stretch out the calves, but also helps prevents a number of other calf related problems such as Plantar Fasciitis and heel pain.
Professional Wooden Slant Board
Slant boards are devices that allow you to stand on them at various angles stretching out the calves in the process.
These types of boards are adjustable meaning you can change the angle to achieve deeper stretches if needed.
Preventing Calf Muscle Tightness
Once you’ve put the time into loosening your tight calves, you want to prevent them from tightening up again so that your effort doesn’t go to waste.
You can prevent calf muscle tightness the same way you loosen tight calves, but instead of stretching and massaging every day, you can do it once a week or as needed.
Ultimately, your lifestyle and the cause of your calf muscle tightness will decide the best prevention protocol for you.
If you’re an athlete, you might want to use a foam roller to release your calves after each workout or sports event.
If you sit long hours at work every day, you might want to stretch at the end of each day to maintain your flexibility due to the stagnation your calves and ankles experience.
As soon as you start to notice calf tightness or reduced range of motion in your ankles, do some stretching or massaging right away before pain develops.
Of course, you can’t prevent the problem from occurring again without addressing the cause of it.
If you wear positive healed-shoes or high heels, it’s important you reduce the time you spend wearing them, or remove them from your wardrobe altogether.
Whenever you can, walk barefoot or wear only socks, to provide your ankles better range of motion.
When it comes to muscle or joint pain, it’s important to be seen by a healthcare professional like a chiropractor or medical doctor to get a proper diagnosis.
If tight calves are the cause of your pain, it helps to work with a physical therapist, fitness trainer or other professional to ensure you’re performing stretches correctly.
If stretching ever becomes too painful, stop immediately, as it may indicate you’re not stretching properly.