Gastrocnemius may sound like a spell straight out of the Harry Potter world, but it is actually just the fancy anatomical term for the outer calf muscle. If the name has you thinking about your gastrointestinal tract, there is a great reason for that as gastrocnemius has some very interesting etymology.
Derived from Latin, gastrocnemius translates to the “stomach of the leg” because of its bulging appearance compared to the rest of the leg.
Along with the soleus muscle found deeper in the leg and behind the gastrocnemius—the two major muscles work together to flex the foot about the ankle and leg about the knee joint. Both muscles actually physically meet up at the knee and ankle, showing you just how much territory, these muscles are responsible for.
The gastrocnemius is responsible for the explosive motions of running and jumping, and if you’ve ever stood on your tip toes for an extended period of time, you will surely start to feel the burn in this extremely important calf muscle.
Due to the importance of the gastrocnemius in so many daily activities, it is very common for this muscle to become overworked. In order to prevent tears, strains, and spasms, it is important to stretch and work out your gastrocnemius regularly so that it can increase its likelihood of remaining healthy and functional.
The following are some of the best stretches you can perform to keep your gastrocnemius happy and thriving.
Lunging Calf Stretch
This stretch is the most basic of calf stretches, but also one of the most effective. To get into position, keep your hands on your hips and lunge forward with one leg, keeping the other leg straight and fully extended. It is the calf of the straight leg that will begin feeling the stretch.
You will soon start to see that the further apart your feet are, the deeper the stretch will be. As you lunge forward and start to go deeper and deeper, you may feel that your balance is a little off. If this happens, find the nearest wall and place your hands on it for added support and balance.
It is one thing to go through the motions just for the sake of doing so, but you want to focus in on your actual gastrocnemius. Focus on stretching out each and every fiber of the calf muscle. You should feel it more and more the deeper you go down, but at the first sign of pain, you should stop immediately.
Once you feel that your straightened calf is adequately stretched, switch legs, allowing the other calf to be straightened and stretched.
This yoga-inspired motion is not only light on your joints but very effective at providing you with a deep, gradual stretch.
During the entire routine, your heels should be pressed firmly against the ground, never losing contact with the floor. With your heels glued to the floor, place both hands on the ground, making sure that your hands are aligned with your shoulders as if you were about to perform a push-up.
Now on all fours, focus on lifting your backside and lower back straight up into the air. At this point, your body should resemble an upside-down V shape. While in the tent position, focus on pressing your heels to the ground more and more.
You should really start to feel the stretch at this point, and if you need more of a stretching sensation, slightly bend your knees while remaining in the inverted V.
Resistance Band Stretch
Just as the name suggests, this thorough stretch requires a resistance band to perform. Begin in an upright seated position with your legs straight and extended outward. Now take your resistance band and place it around one of your feet while holding the two ends of the training accessory with both hands.
With your foot now on top of the band, start to pull it towards your body. Slow and steady wins this race as quick resistance band pulls could lead to just as quick muscle strains. If you feel that you could comfortably stretch further, give a slight bend to your unworked leg to provide more leverage.
Once you have reached the full desired stretch, put the band around the other leg and repeat. For both legs, make sure that the band rests at the middle of the underside of your feet to prevent the band from sliding off and providing you with a very uncomfortable band to the face.
Once you feel as though your gastrocnemius is sufficiently stretched, it’s time to safely move on to some exercises to build up those ever so important calf muscles.
Standing Calf Raise
Although this exercise can be done by standing on a box and lifting a barbell, look for a calf raise machine to allow yourself to get used to the motion with assisted perfect form.
Once you find the machine, you will see that the setup will consist of a platform and padded shoulder bars attached to weights. Step into the platform and position your shoulders underneath the pads.
Before starting to move the weight upwards, make sure that only the balls of your feet are on the platform. The rest of your foot will be dipping down and coming back up during the motion. Focus on dipping the part of the foot away from the platform as far down as it will safely go, and mindfully lift it up using only your gastrocnemius.
Zone in on your calves being solely responsible for lifting the weight above your shoulders off the ground. Avoid jerking motions and instead make sure that each repetition remains at a gradual, controlled manner.
Perform three sets of between 20 and 25 reps, increasing the weight between each set.
This explosive exercise requires focus and concentration as one wrong step could send you face first into the ground and no one wants that. Exercises such as this will greatly increase your overall muscle endurance and fast twitch fibers.
To get started, position the box approximately one foot away from you. This is the box you will be exposing into, so make sure that the distance remains at a length you are comfortable covering during your jump. Once in a comfortable distance from the box, put all of your weight on your toes and balls of your feet. You should start to feel a stretch of the gastrocnemius already.
Once in a comfortable balance, jump onto the box, making sure that only your toes and balls of your foot land on it. Then, jump off and back onto the floor once again landing on only your toes and balls of your feet.
3 sets of 8 to 10 jumps should be enough to get your calves going.
Seated Calf Raise
Just as with the standing calf raise, you want to find the machine at the gym that performs this specific action. Instead of the pass being located just above your shoulders, this machine will have its weight attached to two large pads that your thighs will rest under.
This machine should have a small bar near the floor for you to rest the balls of your feet on.
Just as before, start the motion with the rest of your foot dipped down, and slowly lift the weight using only your calves. With the weigh being located closer to the muscle group being activated, three sets of just 8 to 10 reps should be enough to give you a great burn.
Key Takeaways from Gastrocnemius Stretches and Exercises
The stomach of your leg or gastrocnemius is an incredibly powerful muscle responsible for full flexion about your ankles. Before starting any weight calf exercises, it is important to first perform some thorough stretches to activate your gastrocnemius. Once warmed up, most of the exercises you perform will take place with the balls of your feet taking on most of your weight, relying on your calves to lift up the weight.
Practice makes perfect, so instead of performing the exercises to just get them over with — work to visualize your calves doing all of the work. Your gastrocnemius will surely thank you.