The calf muscles are six in number: the gastrocnemius, the soleus, the popliteus, the tibialis posterior, the flexor digitorum longus, and the flexor hallucis longus. The flexor digitorum longus and the flexor hallucis longus are less important calf muscles; they are responsible for flexing or gripping the toes (e.g., as when picking up a sock with your toes). The other calf muscles are more important. At the risk of oversimplification, these calf muscles extend the ankle. In other words, the calf muscles contract to straighten your foot as when, for example standing on your toes. The calf muscles are what are called slow twitch muscles which means that the calf muscles are, for the most part, made up of slow-twitch muscle fibers, fibers that are best at endurance feats.
The gastrocnemius and the soleus run between the knee and the ankle. Down by the ankle the two muscles merge into the Achilles tendon. The calf muscles get worked out the best when playing sports that require a lot of ankle stabilization, sudden stops, sudden acceleration, and abrupt direction changes, namely basketball and racket sports like tennis. This is why injuries to the calf muscles and the Achilles tendon are more common in these sports. Hiking and mountain climbing also put a lot of demands on the calf muscles because when a human is walking up an incline, the ankle is taken through a larger, fuller range of motion than when walking on flat ground which means the calf muscles have to do more work with each step.
One of the calf muscles, the soleus, has a special ability. The soleus is sometimes referred to as the “second heart” because when standing the soleus is constantly contracting to help pump blood upwards in order to aid the heart in circulation.
If you imagine your calf as an onion with muscles being the layers, the topmost (closest to the skin) muscle of the calf is the gastrocnemius. Peeling back the gastrocnemius you find the soleus. Underneath the soleus are the other three calf muscles in various locations.
The calf muscles are dense and fibrous and tend to be in great need of massage, or self-myofascial release. This common state of the calf muscles is evidenced by the facts that (1) many people suffer from spasms of the calf muscles and (2) many people, when having the calf muscles massaged for the very first time, find it excruciatingly painful. When the calf muscles are all bunched up by years of neglect, the extra intramuscular fascia present in the calf muscles can lead to both knee and ankle problems. In order to restore the muscle tissue quality, you should consider massaging the calf muscles with a tennis ball, as detailed in the calf self-massage article.
Experts generally agree that women should not wear high-heel shoes every day because the calf muscles, along with the knees, hips, ankle, and toes tend to suffer from the non-natural standing and walking patterns necessitated by high-heels.
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Originally Posted: 6/19/2011