How to Loosen a Tight Calf Muscle

Tight calf muscles can occur for a variety of reasons, even if you haven't had an injury. Whether you're an athlete, a recreational runner or someone who enjoys wearing high heels, you likely have tightness in these muscles.

There are several stretches you can do for tight calf muscles. (Image: LimaEs/iStock/GettyImages)

According to a February 2019 study published by the International Journal of Physiotherapy and Research, the most common disorder that occurs in healthy people is muscle tightness, and the calf muscles — gastrocnemius and soleus muscles — are at the top of the list.

1. Stretches for Tight Calf Muscles

Oxford Health recommends that you stretch your calf muscles two to three times per day to help improve flexibility and increase your range of motion. Hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, and repeat three times on each leg.

Move 1: Seated Towel Stretch

The seated towel stretch is a low-intensity stretch that can be progressed as your flexibility improves.

  1. Sit on a firm surface with your legs out in front of you.
  2. Loop the middle of a towel around the ball of your foot, holding one end in each hand.
  3. Keeping your knee straight, slowly pull the towel toward you until you feel a stretch along the back of your lower leg.

If this seated position is difficult for you, bend the leg that is not being stretched to reduce pressure on your back and hamstrings.

Move 2: Standing Gastrocnemius Stretch

  1. Stand facing a wall, and stagger your feet.
  2. Place both palms on the wall at shoulder height.
  3. Keeping the heel of your back leg planted, bend your front knee and slowly lean toward the wall.
  4. Stop when you feel a stretch along the calf of your back leg.

Move 3: Standing Soleus Stretch

The standing soleus stretch is performed the same way as the standing gastrocnemius stretch, but with the back knee slightly bent.

Move 4: Standing Stair Stretch

The stair stretch is a more aggressive calf stretch. Do not perform this stretch if it causes you pain.

  1. With your knee straight, stand on the ball of your foot on the bottom step of a flight of stairs, with your heel hanging off the edge. Keep your opposite foot fully on the step to help maintain your balance.
  2. Holding onto the rail for support, slowly shift your weight over the leg you are stretching, allowing your heel to drop below the step.
  3. Stop and hold when you feel a strong pull or slight burning along your calf, but no pain.
  4. Repeat this stretch with your knee slightly bent to target your soleus muscle.

2. Active Range-of-Motion Exercises

Calf tightness can develop from sitting or standing in one position for an extended period of time. Active range-of-motion exercise will improve circulation to your tight calf muscles, helping them to loosen up. These exercises can be done at work, without even leaving your desk.

Move 1: Ankle Pumps

  1. Sit on the edge of your chair. Straighten your knee with your heel resting on the floor.
  2. Push your toes down toward the floor as if you are pressing a gas pedal. Hold for two to three seconds; then relax.
  3. Repeat 10 times on each leg, working up to three sets in a row.

Move 2: Ankle Circles

  1. Keeping your knee straight, circle your ankle clockwise 10 times.
  2. Circle your ankle 10 times counterclockwise.
  3. Repeat this exercise with your knee slightly bent to target the soleus muscle.

Move 3: Draw the Alphabet

  1. Sit with your knee straight.
  2. Leading with your big toe, write the alphabet in the air. Make the movements as big as possible, without allowing your leg to come off the chair.
  3. Repeat the alphabet with your knee slightly bent.

3. Build Your Strength

Muscles can tighten in response to activity, particularly if you've started a new exercise or recently increased the length or intensity of your workout. Strengthening your calves can help reduce this risk.

For each exercise, hold the end position for one to two seconds, and then slowly relax. Perform each exercise 10 times, working up to three sets in a row.

Move 1: Plantarflexion With Resistance Band

  1. Sit with your legs straight out in front of you.
  2. Loop the middle of a resistance band around the ball of your foot. Hold one end of the band in each hand.
  3. Pull your hands back until you feel some tension on the band.
  4. Push the ball of your foot into the band, against the resistance.

Make this exercise harder by progressing to a band with a higher resistance level.

Move 2: Calf Raises

  1. Stand, and hold onto a firm surface with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Raise up on your toes as high as possible, without leaning your body forward or backward.

As your strength improves, progress to performing calf raises while standing on one foot at a time. Make this exercise even more intense by standing on the edge of a step and starting the movement with your heel below the level of the step.

4. Roll It Out

According to Dr. John Rusin, a physical therapist and leading expert in fitness and sports performance, using a foam roller will help loosen tight calf muscles.

  1. Sit on the floor with the foam roller positioned under the end of your calf, near your ankle, over your Achilles tendon. Point your toes up toward the ceiling.
  2. Bend the opposite leg and plant your foot on the floor for balance.
  3. Place your hands on the floor behind your back.
  4. Press down through your foot and hands to lift your bottom off the floor.
  5. Move your leg along the length of the roller from the base of your tendon to just underneath your knee joint, five times.
  6. Repeat with your toes pointed away from your body to target your outer calf, then with your toes pointed toward your opposite leg to target your inner calf.

If you don't have access to a foam roller, use a tennis ball instead. In addition, the tennis ball can be used to target any knots you feel in your calf muscles while stretching and rolling.

If you have difficulty performing self-stretches or foam rolling, consult a personal trainer. If you continually have tightness in your calf muscles, with or without pain, consider seeing a physical therapist for an individualized treatment program.

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