Have you ever sprained your ankle? Suffered from Achilles tendon pain? Weakness in your calf muscles may be a contributing factor. There are two muscles in your calf that insert onto the heel through the achilles tendon: the Gastrocnemius and the Soleus.
The gastrocnemius is more active with your leg straight
The soleus is more active when the knee is bent
The Achilles tendon is a thick tendon that helps transfer the forces produced by your calf muscle into ankle movement. One exercise that can be very helpful in the treatment and prevention of ankle/foot/achilles tendon pain is a calf raise. There are many variations of calf raises that can be done to increase challenge or help with more specific injuries. Here we will go through different progression in order of increasing challenge.
Evidence shows that weakness or lack of endurance in the soleus muscle is a large contributing factor to developing achilles tendonitis. At the end of each section I will demonstrate a bent knee version of the exercise to target the soleus muscle over the gastrocnemius.
Double Leg Calf Raises
For this exercise you can hold on to a stable surface for balance. You want to rise up on your toes as high as you can go comfortably and slowly lower down, under control. Try to think about pushing up through your big toes rather than loading through the outside of the feet. If this is challenging for you, try squeezing a small light ball between you heels. Note: doing this ball squeeze will help activate the tibialis posterior muscle which helps with arch control and ankle stability.
Eccentric Single Leg Calf Raises
Using the same principals as above, rise up on with both feet, transfer all of your weight over to one side by lifting your opposite leg. It is important during this phase that you maintain the full height of the calf raise, if you’re unable to do so you may need more support through your hands, or this may be too challenging for you. Then slowly lower down under control for a count of 3-5 seconds. If you cannot control the lower for 3-5 seconds you may be at risk of developing foot/ankle pain with higher level loading activities such as running or jumping.
Single Leg Calf Raise
For this variation you will rise up and down on one leg only. The goal is to be able to achieve the same maximal heigh of your heel that you can when you do a double leg calf raise. If you cannot do this you should regress to the previous variation.
Further ways to increase challenge would be adding in weight to your hands/in a backpack or increasing the volume (number of repetitions or sets of each exercise).
You can also increase the load on the muscle and tendon by doing these exercises on the edge of a step. By doing this you will be strengthening the muscle through a longer range of motion and therefore making it more challenging!
IMPORTANT: If you’re having calf/achilles/ankle pain these exercises should not be done without assessment from your health care provider to assess suitability of the exercises.
Jayme Gordon graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Master's degree in Physical Therapy. Prior to this she completed a Bachelor's of Science Kinesiology degree at the University of Victoria. She is a member of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association as well as the Physiotherapy Association of BC. Jayme has a passion for working with a diverse patient population ranging from athletes to community dwelling seniors. Book with Jayme today.