Calf raises are a very simple exercise. It is an exercise that practically everyone has done or at least seen someone do in the gym. Typically, these are completed at high intensity -high speed or high weight - until failure.
For the one person who doesn't know this exercise, here's a brief explanation - standing on two feet with your toes pointed forward, lift onto your toes so the heels come off the ground. Simple and straight forward. Typically this exercise is focused on the gastrocnemius, but when completed correctly it is a great exercise for the Fibularis muscles, the Posterior Tibialis, and the foot intrinsic muscles.
The problem comes when the exercise is completed haphazardly, with too much weight, or at a high rate of speed. When we lose the correct form, it will change the demand on specific muscles. This can result in overuse injuries in the foot, ankle, calf, and knee. It can also train the muscle in an incorrect movement pattern; this has the potential to engrain that movement into similar patterns - namely walking, jumping, and running - which in turn will decrease performance or increase injury risk.
So before you add weight or increase speed, you need to make sure you are doing them correctly. But first, how are these done incorrectly?
The most common movement fault during the double leg calf raise is to invert the ankle and supinate the foot. This will cause the ankle to roll outward, placing more weight through the 3rd-5th toes. This outward rolling of the ankle decreases foot and ankle stability and is the same movement that typically results in ankle sprains.
This movement pattern will likely increase the strain on the Fibularis muscle group and soft tissue of the lateral (outside) ankle. It will also decrease the effectiveness of the Posterior Tibialis muscle, a muscle that is crucial for ankle stabilization during the pushoff phase of gait and foot stability during the the mid stance phase of gait.
When this faulty movement pattern is consistently practiced, we will likely see decreased performance and an increased risk of overuse injury.
So, quite obviously, we want to stop this pattern and facilitate the correct movement pattern.
What is the correct movement pattern? Glad you asked!
Here's what we want to see: As you lift onto your toes, make sure your pressure stays over the first and second toes.
That's really it. It is a simple fix; but it is a very important fix, because that little cue keeps the ankle in a neutral position as it moves over the toes. You should feel better muscle contraction of not only the gastrocnemius and soleus, but also the Tibialis Posterior, Fibularis muscle group, and the intrinsic foot muscles.
There are 2 ways to fix the calf raise movement pattern. The video above shows how to correctly complete the exercise, but here is a brief rundown:
1. Mindful movement. Just think about keeping the weight along the 1st and 2nd toe. Minimize any outward weight shift over the 3rd-5th toes. When you do this, you should see the ankle track forward as you move onto your toes rather than outward.
2. Tactile Cuing. If you are like me and mindful movement doesn't always work, then this is what you need. The body responds very well to touch when learning new movement patterns. Tactile cuing can help guide your body through the correct path. In this scenario, we need to maintain ankle eversion. So grab a lacrosse ball, tennis ball, one of your child's toy blocks, or something roughly that size. Before you begin the calf raise, squeeze the ball between your heels. Keep that pressure as you lift your heels off the ground. This should help your foot/ankle track better and you should feel a change in muscle control and contraction.
I'd be remiss if I didn't provide a way to make calf raises more challenging and more applicable to sport. Sure you can add weight, but is that really functional? Maybe, instead of that, we modify this exercise into positions and movements that we typically complete during sport.
If you guessed single leg modifications, then give yourself a Gold Star as a reward, because single leg is exactly what you're going to do.
Running is a single leg activity, so any athlete who runs should progress to single leg calf raises. Can't do single leg calf raises? Don't worry, that post also shows scaled versions of a calf raise so that you can start easy and work your way up to single leg calf raises. That post is coming soon, so check back when it's up.
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