Oh my calves!
You stretch them.
You foam roll them.
You do some heel raises, but sometimes even that makes them cramp.
No matter what you do, they’re still tight.
I feel you. I used to have tight calves. They were so tight that even massage felt awful. I wondered, why so many knots?
I found relief.
Maybe some of the things that helped me will help you too.
I hope so.
Why So Tight?
If you’ve been reading our blogs for a while, it will come as no surprise that the answer to why your calves are so tight is: well, there is no certain answer, it all depends. This is because we are all different, we live in different ways, and we do different things. All of this influences how our bodies respond to the tasks and positions we put them in.
However, there are some things we can say. Most of us do not vary our positions enough — we sit or stay sedentary too long and do not get enough movement throughout the day.
In general, if your calves are tight then probably your glutes and hamstrings are not taking on their fair share of the work of holding you up. Your posture, both standing and walking, also influence the calf situation. For me (and for most of us), I needed to work on both of these.
Posture and Glutes!
A chiropractor called my standing posture “ski jumper” posture. I was leaning forward from my ankles which stretched my calves (which can cause a feeling of tightness) and also forced my toes to do a lot of work to keep me from falling forward onto my face. The forward leaning also activated the muscles in the bottom of my feet which then wrapped around my heels to my calves—making them work more.
I also had under-active glutes. Even today, my right glute still needs a bit of a nudge to do its part when extending my hip.
I and many of the folks I have worked with have varying degrees of anterior pelvic tilt (ATP) in their standing posture. When we have ATP in our pelvis, our hip flexors and low back muscles are in a shortened position (and so feel tight) and our abs and glutes (specifically gluteus maximus) are stretched and weak. In ATP our hamstrings feel tight, but are also in a stretched position. This combination of tightness and weakness is called Lower Cross Syndrome (LCS).
So what does this have to do with your calves?
Your glutes and your hamstrings are mainly hip extenders. That is, they pull your leg behind you when needed, as during the movement of walking. However, if your glutes are sleeping on the job and your hammys are over-stretched because of ATP, then some other muscle(s) have to pick up the slack to help move you forward. This is where your calves come to the rescue, they use their power to propel you.
Yay for forward movement! Not-so-yay is that this makes your calves work too hard and thus become very tight.
Calm Down Those Calves
What can you do to help your calves feel some relief from this tightness?
There are a series of exercises that have helped me, and which I do most, if not every day. I invite you to try a couple of these exercises on an ongoing basis.
This deep breathing exercise taps into a parasympathetic nervous system which helps us relax and can help signal the muscles to release some tension.
Quick tips: Positioning the feet up on a box with a slight press down of the heels helps to activate the hamstrings to pull the pelvis in the opposite direction, toward neutral-which may feel like a tuck. This also helps activate the glutes. Yay glutes!
True Hip Flexor Stretch
This setup is focuses on stretching the muscles of the anterior hip and without stretching the ligaments. If we don’t hold a posterior tilt, the ligaments will stretch too, which is not what we want.
Quick tip: It’s important that the pelvis is pulled into a posterior pelvic tilt (AKA tucked under) using the glutes and hamstring muscles. It can be tempting to try to achieve the tilt using only your ab muscles. Resist!
Double or Single leg hip lift.
Start with double leg hip lift (first video below) and progress to the single leg version (second video below). In the single leg hip lift, make sure you keep the pelvis posteriorly tilted throughout. The back often likes to get involved, which pulls you out of the posterior tilt. Don’t allow this.
Quick tip: Focus on contracting the glute(s) to extend your hip and elevate your pelvis towards the ceiling. This also recruits your hamstrings, but don’t let them to take over. If you feel your hamstring cramp it means your hamstring is trying to do all the work. This is common in Lower Cross Syndrome. If this happens, reset. Lower the hips to the floor and focus on driving the heel into the floor, and notice how slowly driving straight down lifts the hip. The hip lift will be much smaller than you might expect.
A great place to start is to add these exercises to your weekly or daily movement practice. They could be as part of your warm up before your workout, or they can serve as a great way to start or end your day.
Be realistic in incorporating the exercises — choose a goal you can achieve, even if that means doing the exercises just once a week. Work up to more days once you are consistent with your first goal. Ultimately you’ll want to work up to having these be part of each day. Our bodies make changes over time and if we want them to move in a different way we need to do things consistently over time.
Feel free to keep foam rolling your calves, stretching, and doing heel raises; those things are good too. But see if adding these exercises helps.
Today my calves are just the right amount of tight. I no longer feel knotted up when I get a massage, and I no longer feel the need to foam roll every day.
I do the exercises listed above as part of a daily movement practice, and they mostly keep my calves from overworking.
However, my journey toward tension-free calves also included working on fixing my “ski jumper” posture, awareness of where I hyperextend in my joints, and finding different ways of standing and walking. I didn’t do it alone, either. I had help with various Physical Therapists and other movement specialists.
I hope you see some improvement if you try the exercises. If you need some assistance like I did, or you’d like to talk with someone who has been through it, please reach out; I’m happy to work with you.
Be Well, Theresa