This post will complete the lower body portion of the Anatomy For Athletes Mini-Series. Check out parts 1 through 4 to learn the key functions, training considerations, and exercise examples for the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and adductors.
Functional Anatomy Of The Lower Leg
The primary lower leg muscles are the gastrocnemius, soleus, and tibialis anterior.
There are a number of other small muscles on the lower leg, but I’m only going to focus on the primary ones in this article because if you include exercises for those, you’ll be working all of the smaller muscles as well.
The gastrocnemius is one of the two calf muscles that converge to form the Achilles tendon. It crosses both the knee and ankle joints.
The primary functions of the gastrocs are knee flexion and foot plantarflexion (i.e. pointing the toes). Because of this dual function, the knee must be extended in order to effectively train them.
Examples of gastroc exercises include standing calf raise variations.
The soleus converges with the gastrocnemius to form the Achilles tendon. However, unlike the gastroc, the soleus only crosses one joint — the ankle. So to selectively train the soleus choose calf raise variations with flexed knees, like seated calf raises.
Plyometric exercises worth both the soleus and gastrocs. They’re more functional too, so they’ll typically provide more benefit than calf raises.
Tibialis anterior is an antagonist to both the gastrocnemius and soleus. It’s the strongest dorsiflexor of the foot (i.e. it flexes the foot upward). It also assists with balance, ankle inversion and arch support.
Examples of tibialis anterior exercises include dorsiflexion variations. These are most often used in the rehab setting.
Considerations For Training
If you want big calf muscles, include both seated and standing calf raises in your training programs. Otherwise though, the calves tend to get worked enough on daily basis though things like walking, running and sports activities.
More often than not, I find that people have excessively tight calves, rather than weak ones. This can be problematic because tight calves can contribute to decreased ankle range of motion, excessive pronation and valgus (knock-knee) alignment.
So…if you fail to include mobility exercises for the ankle and soft tissue work for your calves it will affect your ability to squat and deadlift with full range of motion and may also contribute to foot, ankle and knee issues.
The video below provides a few examples of exercises you can include to improve ankle mobility and calf tightness.