Following on from the popularity of his first blog on hamstring strengthening, Rehab Specialist Barry Sigrist is back with a blog chocked full of great exercises! Today he’s talking calf conditioning…
Tom’s been very kind and invited me back to contribute to this great resource so hopefully this will give you something to think about.
Quad and glute strengthening are pretty sexy for running conditioning. One area that generally gets less focus but has vital importance is the ankle joint, and more specifically the plantarflexors. The two I’ll focus on here are the soleus and gastrocnemius.
Soleus is thought of, by some, as the most important muscle for running, I have to admit my bias as I am one of the believers. When running its two main performance characteristics are shock absorption (of ground reaction forces) and vertical displacement (pushing your center of gravity upwards). Ever tried running without bouncing slightly upwards? It’s impossible.
This video from Samuel Hamner illustrates soleus function in running nicely, his research suggests the calf muscles are the greatest contributor to propulsion during running.
Absorption exercise – Soleus isometric press
By improving soleus’ force absorbing efficiency you may be able to reduce your foot contact time. Reducing the time taken to move from force absorbing (isometric into eccentric) to force applying (isometric into concentric). Inability to do this may lead to longer soleus activation times, which is seen in some patellofemoral pain populations (Esculier, Roy & Bouyer, 2015) it’s a chicken and egg scenario but that’s certainly not optimal for running efficiency.
Soleus also provides us with the “bounce” during gait, giving us a little air time to maximise the distance our horizontal force providers can give us. The video here is a simple way to isotonically load the soleus with this in mind. There are many other ways to do this including a smith machine, in a wall squat position (which will help co-ordinate quadriceps activity) or even in the leg press as shown in the Soleus Isometric press video above.
Vertical displacement exercise – Seated calf raise
Gastrocnemius provides the beef when we look at someones calf, it’s main job when running is propulsion and horizontal force production giving us the distance in our stride afforded to us by the “bounce” provided to us by soleus. It’s these traits that we will focus on for conditioning.
A straight knee calf raise has a multitude of variations but I like to keep things simple and use a smith machine or barbell. We mimic the leaning forward of running and have a pretty fast turn over of reps, aiming specifically to increase the capacity of the muscle and improve its efficiency during the stretch-shortening cycle when in the smith machine. In the squat rack we lose the leaning forward but it’s more of a challenge of frontal plane stability providers (glutes and peroneals). It‘s pretty specific for those high speed, short distance runs or the times you want to inject a little acceleration into proceedings.
Straight knee calf raise in smith machine
Straight knee calf raise barbell – gastrocnemius capacity
The calf is often overlooked during conditioning programs and often consists of a few calf raises chucked in at the end of the session. By looking at what characteristics both soleus and gastrocnemius bring to our gait we can, in a fair specific way, improve their contribution to our form. One key thing is to have these planned into your week appropriately as too much work and not enough recovery can lead to Achilles tendon discomfort.
I’d like to acknowledge James Moore for his contribution to shaping my approach to calf performance during gait, which has influenced this particular article greatly.