I posted a series of photos on my social media, photos showing various ways one could perform a calf stretch. In each of the photos there are several variables and variations. In each instance, even though your goal might be the same, the outcome might be different. My reason for posting them was to illustrate this fact, and that if you are doing one, you are not necessarily getting the benefits of the others (or indeed, the benefit you think you are getting).
So let’s start with the objective. Why are you stretching (besides being told to by your personal trainer/PT/whoever)? Are you relieving perceived tension? Seeking to lengthen it temporarily, or permanently? If you are seeking permanent length, how do you know it’s the muscle that is lengthening and not the tendon (or both). Does that matter? How long do you need to hold a stretch for permanent change? How often do you need to do it? What other changes do you need to make to support and encourage the change?
And anyway – WHAT IS A STRETCH? Let’s start with a definition of a stretch. A muscle can either contract or stop contracting. They can be contracting when they get longer (eccentric), they can be contracting when they get shorter (concentric), they can be contracting when staying the same length but having a load placed on them (isometric). The muscles produce and/or control all skeletal joint movements.
A stretch is actually a type of contraction. Your Central Nervous System (CNS) determines the length of the muscles and the safety of range of motion. So when you are doing an eccentric contraction, you are asking your CNS to make the call that this is not dangerous and to give you length. A stretch can happen to a muscle because of other forces acting on it, such as gravity, another muscle or person.
Often when I teach a client Calf Stretch (as in, the Restorative Exercise position called Calf Stretch), the client will report that he or she already does a calf stretch and therefore does not need another one, or this one. In fact, the calf stretch they do is usually perceived as better or more efficacious than the one I teach, as determined by a sensation of stretch experienced in their favoured exercise.
By the way, I posted 4 photos, but I could have posted 5 – the one I didn’t post was the stretch performed leaning into a wall with the hands, with the forward leg bent at the knee and the back leg (the stretching one) straight. This is often done with the feet pointing out, which changes the loads to the muscles. This is one of the most commonly prescribed calf stretches and one most of my clients report having been taught at some point.
Picture 1. The Restorative Exercise Calf Stretch
Picture one shows the Restorative Exercise Calf Stretch. This is a tool that I use to assess the ability of the ankle to dorsiflex (top of foot towards front of shin) without causing compensations in the rest of the body. Essentially I am looking for the ability of the person to dorsiflex without falling backwards, or an absence of forces that would send you backwards. Such forces can show up in the form of tension in various places of the body, or displacement of body parts to counterbalance those forces. Thus, a sensation of stretch is not the objective, but a stretch might be felt, particularly if a person spends a good deal of time with the knee bent (sitting) and the heel elevated (shoes). The end position for this assessment might be different for different people. Some people might have the foot on the floor further back or forward in order to meet the objectives (no tension or displacement). The leg is vertical or behind vertical, so the only load to the calf group is from the ankle dorsiflexion.
Depending on where that back foot is, the weight can be evenly distributed on both, or more towards the back leg. This will also > or < the loads to the lengthening muscle.
The reason I find this assessment important is because it tells me about a person’s gait abilities, and the ability to get a posterior push off that optimizes hip extension and a good force producing foot.
Picture 2. The general calf stretch
The second picture shows a similar exercise, but with the floor foot further forward, producing increased load in the stretching calf. The leg is no longer vertical, and the knee is in front of the ankle, adding tensile load to the tissues. There may be tension in various other parts of the body in order to keep the position. The goal is to increase the pull to the calf muscle and its connective tissue (and you need to ask yourself: to what end?). If you don’t actually have this much dorsiflexion, by forcing it you may create compensations elsewhere. It looks like the tibialis anterior is concentrically contracting.
Picture 3. Hanging off a step calf stretch
Stretching leg is vertical but there is nothing under the heel. The load is supplied by your body weight in gravity and the potential for more length is there. By doing one leg at a time, I can keep that leg vertical and not need to hang on to anything. This position can be used for calf raises/lowers, alternating concentric and eccentric work for calf muscles.
Picture 4. Both heels hanging off the step stretch
Both heels hanging off a step – the knee is forward of the ankle and the ankle is in dorsiflexion (the body needs to lean forward for balance unless you are hanging on to something). The stretch is the same as above but you might show less dorsiflexion with the knee forward of the ankle.