Our calf muscles are a great team. Two muscles, gastrocnemius, and soleus, both joined to the heel via the achilles tendon. Gastrocnemius is the powerhouse – propelling us forwards with every step we take. Soleus is a postural muscle – a less flashy chap that works a just a little but for a lot of the time. Soleus is what is working most when we stand still.
Strong calf muscles help us to stay upright and walk, but they also prevent the curse of ‘cankles’. When we are on our feet a lot, particularly in hot weather, our ankles can swell. That swelling is simply fluid called ‘lymph’ that has leaked from the blood vessels in our legs and flowed down to the lowest point. This leakage is a good thing and is supposed to happen. The lymph actually washes through the tissues before being reabsorbed back into the bloodstream. It only becomes a problem for us when it is slow to be reabsorbed and starts to build up. Strong calf muscles help to pump the lymph out of the tissues and back into the bloodstream – swollen ankles solved!
Calf muscles can get a bit on the tight side too. This can be caused by over-strengthening and not enough stretching. Too many miles in shoes with heels can make this worse as well. But fear not – yoga is the answer! Simply walking to our mat in bare feet helps stretch the calves. Tadāsana, or mountain pose, helps to lengthen very tight calves.
Here are five poses designed to develop strong, shapely and supple lower legs:
1) Chair Pose
Utkatāsana, or chair pose, is a lovely pose to stretch and strengthen soleus. Sinking the weight into the heels as the knees bend really targets lengthening this muscle by relaxing the longer gastrocnemius. Deepening the bend challenges our balance and makes soleus more active to keep us still.
2) Goddess Pose
Utkata konāsana, fierce angel or goddess pose, is a wide-legged squat where the intention is for the thighs to be parallel to the floor with the knees and ankles at 90 degrees. The body remains upright and the arms are held out to the side at shoulder height with the elbows bent and hands facing forwards. This version of the pose will, like chair pose above, already be activating the soleus muscle in the calves. But to really work those calves try lifting one heel at a time and hold for a few breaths. A few repetitions of this will really get those calves burning. Or maybe you want to try lifting both heels together – now that is nails!
3) Toe Standing Balance Pose
Start in Tadasāna with feet together and hands in prayer position across the chest. Inhale to rise up on to toes as you raise the prayer overhead. You can simply stay here for a few breaths then return to Tadāsana – or try rising up and down slowly with the breath.
Another version is to see if you can stay on your toes as you slowly to move from the arms overhead position into a squat with hands in front of the chest. Then back up again. A few repetitions of this will really get those calves in tip-top condition – not to mention the rest of your legs!
4) Walk the dog
I’ve already mentioned that chair pose stretches the soleus muscle in the calf which means you are half way to supple calves already. Now, gastrocnemius is longer than soleus and goes all the way up to the lower thigh, just above the knee. To stretch this muscle we need to have the knee straight and the toes pulled up towards the shin. Sound familiar? Yes – just like in Adho Mukha Śvānāsana (down dog).
Down dog stretches our calves but pedaling the feet up and down to ‘walk the dog’ adds even more value. Because each leg is stretched individually, it is the perfect time to be really mindful – inch into that yummy stretch and see if it eases or stays the same while you hold it. This is especially wonderful when done as part of a warm-up or in sun salutes early in practice.
5) Heels up in bridge and wheel
Move into Setu Bandhasāna, or supported bridge, the normal way with feet and knees hip-width apart. To add a calf focus, lift both heels. This can be for a few breaths as a sustained hold or lift and lower with the breath for a few times.
You can try this in Urdhva Dhanurāsana, upward bow or wheel, too if it is in your practice.
And finally …
These poses help you work towards super strong, sexy calves that look GREAT in summer sandals AND help to keep ankles slim and trim. What’s not to like?
So, set your intention to care for those calves next time you kick off your shoes and head to your mat. They do, after all, spend their life carrying you around – don’t you think they deserve some love?