Exercises for the Soleus Muscle

closeup legs of female walker in park
Closeup of female calf muscles (Image: KeremYucel/iStock/Getty Images)

The gastrocnemius and the soleus are the two muscles that comprise your calf. The larger, visible muscle is the gastrocnemius, which raises your heel off the floor and works with your hamstrings to flex your knee and bring your heel toward your glute. The soleus is the smaller calf muscle, and is situated under the gastrocnemius. The soleus raises your heel off the floor when you’re seated and your knee is bent at a 90-degree angle.

Seated Calf Raises

Seated calf raises are the only exercise that specifically target your soleus muscles. While the soleus is involved in a number of other calf and leg exercises, your knees must be bent at a 90-degree angle to fully recruit them without assistance from the gastrocnemius. Sit on the edge of a firm surface with the balls of your feet on a 6- to 8-inch platform. Your knees should be aligned over your toes. Hold a pair of dumbbells, a barbell or a weight plate on your quadriceps just above your knees. Lower your heels toward the floor, stretching your calves and the arches of your feet. Press your knees upward, driving your heels above the platform as high as you can. Lower with control and repeat.

Seated Calf Extension

The movement you perform in this exercise is very similar to pressing your car's accelerator or brake. Seated calf extensions target your soleus, but your gastrocnemius acts as a synergist, providing assistance. You can perform it on a calf extension machine or a combination calf extension/leg press machine. Move the seat close to the foot pedals so the bend in your knees comes as close to 90 degrees as possible when seated. Place your feet firmly on the pedals and grasp the handles below the seat. Keeping your feet fully connected to the pedals, press your toes away from your shins, extending through your ankles. Release with control, bringing your toes toward your shins to stretch your calves.

Seated Soleus Stretch

This basic stretch targets the soleus because, much like soleus-strengthening exercises, the knee of the leg you’re stretching is bent. Sit on the floor with both legs extended straight out. Draw one heel in toward your body, and then relax that knee out to the side so the sole of your foot is tucked toward your opposite thigh. Bend your other knee, drawing your heel in toward your glute with your toes raised in the air. Grasp the ball of your foot and gently pull your toes toward your shin. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, and repeat on the other side.

Advanced Stair Stretch

Stretching your calves on the stairs is an advanced movement that you can easily overdo if you’re not careful. This stretch requires a split stance on the stairs, with your lead leg offering support as you stretch your back leg. Place the toes and ball of your back foot on the first step up from the floor. Place your other foot two or three steps higher, depending on your leg length. The thigh of your lead leg should be parallel to the floor. Use the wall to steady yourself as you bend the knee of your back leg and simultaneously drop your heel toward the floor. Hold it for 30 seconds and switch sides.

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