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It's not glamorous or dramatic looking and you won't find it gracing the cover of The Yoga Journal or dominating Instagram feeds but this little stretch is one of the most important stretches you should be doing on a daily basis...The (Humble) Calf Stretch.
I call it the humble calf stretch because it is often overlooked when we spend time in yoga or other movement modalities. This quiet little stretch, just waiting patiently in the corner while the other body parts seem to get all the attention. You know, like the hamstrings, hip flexors and shoulders. And of course those big movers and chronically tight muscles deserve our love and attention, but so do our calves. Because, in the wondrous human body, everything is connected and tight calves are going to affect a whole lot more than just your lower legs.
When we think of the calf muscles, we are actually talking about the gastrocnemius, soleus and plantaris. The gastrocnemius is the larger of the three and crosses over two joints- the knee and ankle. It connects to both the femur and heel (blending into the calcaneal tendon). The soleus is deep to the gastrocnemius, originating at the head of the fibula (one of your shin bones) and meets with the gastrocnemius at the heel. The plantaris has a short muscle belly but is the longest tendon in the body, connecting at the femur and down to the heel.
If you just skimmed through that anatomical interlude, that's ok, here is what is really important- as two of the calf muscles connect to both your foot and your thigh bones, and because the majority of people spend a lot of time sitting and wearing shoes with heels, you calf muscles are chronically tight.
When your calf muscles are tight, that tightness is going to affect the way that you walk, your ability to move easily and safely into a squat, the health of your pelvic floor, contributes to knee issues, and even contributes to aches and pains in your spine. So if there is a body part that is deserving and calling out for our love and attention, it is your calves!
Now that I have you thinking about those awesome calf muscles of yours, let's explore the humble calf stretch. If you are familiar at all with Katy Bowman, biomechanic scientist and director of the Restorative Exercise Institute where I received one of my certifications, you will know that the calf stretch is not so humble in their training and movement programs. It receives the star status that it so deserves, one of the foundational movement prescriptions.
You can use a half foam dome, rolled up towel or yoga mat.
- Stand with feet pelvis width apart.
- Place the ball of your right foot on the left side of your dome, making sure that your heel stays on the floor.
- Back your hips so that they are over your pelvis so that your legs are vertical.
- If you feel a stretch in the right calf then you're golden. Stay there and breathe for one minute or more.
- If you don't quite feel a stretch, bring your left foot a little bit more forward. Don't let your pelvis move forward with your foot, keep your hips over your heels.
- The most important part of this calf stretch is to keep the alignment of your bones. In this case, it is that vertical leg and pelvis back over your heel. Over time, as your calf length increases, the foot that isn't doing the calf stretching (in this case, the left) will move more forward, eventually in front of the other foot. Don't worry about getting there just yet... as always, less is more.
To receive the most benefits from the calf stretch, do it often throughout the day. As you can see in the photo, I'm taking a break from assembling legos with my son to enjoy a little calf love so that I can happily squat for longer while playing with him. I also do it at my standing desk, washing the dishes, and most always incorporate it into my yoga classes.
more rescources & tutorials devoted to the calf stretch
For another great calf stretching tutorial with step by step pictures, check this great post from my lovely friend Petra Fisher at Movement Revolution: http://www.movementrevolution.ca/dear-friend-get-yourself-some-alignment-here-part-2/
Peruse some great articles from Katy Bowman proving you more details and some interesting perspectives on the calf stretch and how it affects the rest of the body, check this out: http://www.katysays.com/sitting-in-heels-is-the-new-smoking/
Enjoy your new calves (and a happier rest of your body) and see you next week!