We've all been there - done with our workout and still have a little left in the tank, so we find some big dumbbells and pump out a few dozen calf raises. It gives a great pump feeling as well as fulfilling our deepest desire of having great calves.
While there's nothing wrong with that scenario, we need to understand that the calves are more than just showcase muscles.
Just so we have common language, we are going to use the term "calves" to define the Triceps Surae, or the combination of the Medial Gastrocnemius, Lateral Gastrocnemius, and Soleus Muscles.
So yes, the calves are a great looking muscle group, but the benefits are far more than simply aesthetic. The primary purpose of this muscle group is plantar flexion of the ankle - pointing the toe down and standing on your toes. This movement is very common - running, jumping, walking, climbing stairs, pushing on the gas pedal.
Because it is a common movement, the demand on the muscle and tendon during sport is huge. The number of steps in a marathon, acceleration and deceleration during soccer, and jumping during volleyball are significant stressors on the soft tissue. If undertrained, the result could be Achille's Tendon injuries, calf strains, ankle pain, or even posterior knee pain.
The best way to train the muscle is to in the way that it performs. This means that your heavy loaded double leg calf raises are not the best option, unless of course that is what you do in your sport.
Here's a better place to start - single leg calf raises.
Why is this a better option? Because most of what we do in sport is single leg. Running is simple repeated double leg, loaded hopping, and many times we jump off of one leg (yes, we do jump off of two at times, so check out our double leg post here).
It is very important to do this exercise correctly. In the clinic, I often seen this done horribly wrong. I've seen calf raises done too fast, not high enough, too much supination, or with too much weight to actually be useful.
During a basic calf raise, there needs to be control. Make sure your body weight moves along the first two toes. Often, the weight is moved to the 4th and 5th toes, causing inversion of the ankle. Not only does this change the muscles being worked, but it also puts the ankle a position that typically causes ankle sprains. We don't want either of those, so make sure to keep the foot nice and straight.
What if you can't do a calf raise correctly? Don't use bands or do all the work with your arms pulling you up. Start with eccentrics. Commonly called "negatives" you will be using two feet to lift up, and one foot to lower yourself down. This allows your muscles to work in an "eccentric", or lengthening, manner. Once you can do that exercise well, switch back over to full range of motion calf raises.
Yes, we want to be strong, but focus more on muscular endurance. A soccer game is 90 minutes. A marathon or ultra can be an all day event. So instead of loading up the weight, add repetitions to simulate actual sport.
But how do you know if your calves are strong enough? Assess, don't guess, right? How do we assess?
The single leg heel rise test is your answer. It is very easy to complete and has some great research backing up the validity.
The single leg heel rise test is a great way to determine the calf's ability to work. While it is a terrible test to predict strength, it is a great way to assess muscular endurance. This makes it a great assessment for return to sport after an injury such as Achilles tendinitis, ACL repair surgery, or after a period of inactivity.
This activity is just repeated loaded plantarflexion of the ankle. We use this movement when walking, running, jumping, and hopping. So being able to have a test that can assess this motion is extremely valuable.
The test itself is very simple. The starting position is standing on one leg with the foot flat on the floor. The action is lifting the heel off the ground. You complete this motion until failure. Failure is defined as being unable to complete another repetition through the full range of motion.
So, basically, stand on one leg and go onto your tip-toes until you cannot do another one. The number of repetitions is your score.
For balance, you can use your findertips on a wall. But make sure you don't bend the knees to "Drive" upward like a push press; all movement must come from your ankles!
Again, the number of repetitions is your score.
According to one study (Lunsford/Perry 1995), you should be able to complete 25 repetitions on each side. This has been the standard since publication in 1995.
But what about age difference? Should a 25 year old professional basketball player and a 70 year old runner be assessed the same?
In a more recent study (Herbert-Losier 2017), the normative values were clarified. Norms are as follows:
If you have never done the single heel rise test and are comparing these numbers to double leg calf raises, these numbers may seem very small. But it's actually quite difficult and challenging. Remember to keep good form, lift through the ankles, and use finger support only for balance.
If you are able to achieve the amount advised for you age group, then great job! If not, go back to the workouts we described above. Try for a month, then retest yourself.
Calf injuries are too common in all jumping, cutting, and running sports so we have to take extra steps to make sure we are strong enough to tolerate the demand we put on this region.
If you're dealing with a calf injury and you want more help than just a online post, schedule a Physio Eval with us. One of our PT Docs will go through a thorough assessment to determine the exact cause of your pain and create a plan to get you out of pain and back to sport.