Muscles You’re Using Wrong: Calf Edition

Muscles You’re Using Wrong: Calf Edition

I’ve decided to start a new article series: Muscles You’re Using Wrong. And this one’s dedicated to your PLANTAR FLEXORS. Your posterior calf.

 Plantar flexing= Pointing your foot. Muscles that can plantar flex include:

  • Gastrocnemius
  • Soleus
  • Tibialis posterior
  • Flexor hallucis longus/brevis
  • Flexor digitorum longus/brevis
  • Peroneus longus/brevis

Yep, there’s that many… In the picture below, you can see these muscles in cross-section, view from above.

cross section of the lower leg.

Before I continue, I already know the perfectionist in you is screaming “OOOOOMG not ANOTHER thing I’m doing wrong!!!”, so heed this disclaimer: You are not consciously doing something wrong, and you’re NOT a bad person because your plantar flexor group is hypertonic. Please do not feel bad about using a muscle group “the wrong way”. It’s not your fault.

So now that that’s out of the way, I’m sorry to break it to you but your calves are probably inhibiting your ability to use your glutes properly. And It’s not necessarily even a strength vs. weakness thing, it’s a pattern stored in your brain from years of foot pointing.

These are NOT innocent calves, though they belong to an excellent dancer: Luis Ortigoza, principal dancer Ballet de Santiago.

Before we go any further, I want to over-simplify something HUGE:

Many dance styles require foot pointing.

Dancers are reprimanded for not pointing their feet.

Dancers often feel inferior for not having naturally pointy feet.

Being reprimanded and feeling inferior is stressful.

Dancers learn to point their feet as a reaction to stress and to receive praise.

Dancers will unconsciously point their feet in non-dance situations to cope with stress, mentally (like exam writing) or physically (strenuous exercise)

Foot pointing uses your calves (plantar flexor group to be precise).

Therefore, dancers tend to overuse their calves.

In dancing, yes, foot pointing is necessary. But this plantar-flexion-reaction, can also carry over into other non-dance activities. Your calves are just always on. As you’re sitting here reading this, maybe your feet are pointed, even if not actively.

For example, a few days ago I caught myself sitting on the bus like THIS:

I know it looks like I’m actively pointing my foot, but that’s a relaxed ankle position. As you can probably tell, I don’t need to work very hard to get my calves to hypertrophy: Every exercise is a calf exercise for me.

Signs that your plantar flexors are facilitated and interfering with other muscle functions: 

  • When your massage therapist touches your calves it makes you want to vomit and/or cry.
  • In dance class you don’t feel “grounded”, or get corrected to be more grounded
  • You often have to hop to find your balance on one leg.
  • You get foot or calf cramps frequently.
  • If you’ve ever sprained your ankle(s)…
  • Your ankles feel “jammed”.
  • You’ve had shin splints, plantar fasciitis, achilles tendinitis, or numerous other lower leg woes.
  • Your calves just feel generally, unreasonably “tight”.
  • Do a set of 20 hip bridges: Do you feel your calves burning? Can you even feel your butt work?

The above points are particularly true for dancers who rely on their calves to do the work of glute max. They are synergists, after all.

Problem: Hyperactive calves could be preventing your glutes from firing when you need them to (more on why that can be problematic later on in this post).

Solution: Is two-fold. First, you must down-regulate the plantar flexors via soft tissue release and/or stretching, and second, up-regulate the glute max via activation and strengthening exercises.

In the video below, a colleague of mine, Dr. Blessyl Buan (also my co-collaborator for the DTP summer training intensive) helped me demonstrate a few techniques I’ve found useful to release the calves and re-activate the glutes in a better sequence. Turns out (haha get it? TURN OUT?) that, like me and many other dancers, she has a little bit of a plantar flexor dominance thing going on, too. Shit happens when you point your feet!

SO to recap for those of you who didn’t want to watch the video:

1) Use lacrosse ball to release the calves.

2) Do a very low grade glute activation exercise by simply pushing the foot into the floor, and holding the lacrosse ball behind your knee to give you some feedback as to whether or not you’re using your calf and/or hammies to do it, rather than the glute max.

Anecdotally, this sequence has been helping with my own hip, knee, and lower back troubles. It’s also been helping myself and my clients to feel their glutes more, be more stable standing on one leg, and help with that awful calf tightness

My favourite time to perform my calf/glute homework is as it’s own session, before bed. Takes me about 15-30 minutes (depending how deep I feel like getting into it). But this work can and should be done before working out or dancing as part of your warm-up, for a shorter period of time, if you know it’s an issue you’re struggling with. It should help put your glute max back where it belongs (not in your calf).

Why is glute max function such a big deal for dancers?

I’m sure I’ve written about this before, BUT(t)… ha ha ha

Glute max is an important player in pelvic alignment.

The Postural Restoration Institute refers to glute max as the number one anti-gravitational, and most powerfully positioned external rotator of the pelvis and femur, meaning that if you lose glute max function and strength, you lose your position. And likewise, if you lose your pelvic and hip position, you lose your glute max power.

Photo from PRI's Myokinematic Restoration manual.

Glute max not only stabilizes the hip and pelvis, but the knee too.

This is due to it’s fascial connection with the IT band, which crosses the knee, giving the glute max a bit of influence on knee function. Ever been diagnosed with “IT band syndrome”, “knee tracking syndrome”, or “patellofemoral pain syndrome”? In many cases these are all just fancy ways of saying “something’s inhibiting the glute”.

 

Dancers tend to overuse their glute max to facilitate turnout. 

This could be a topic for another edition of “Muscles You’re Using Wrong”. When your leg is off the floor, the deep lateral rotators should be turning the leg out, not glute max, but since the calves are being glutes, the glute is free to find something else to do, so turnout it is!

The length and strength of the deep lateral rotators  are best manipulated by using the glute max.

Another reason it’s important for the glute max to be doing it’s OWN function properly: Piriformis, obturators, and friends can get short and tight (but weak) from all the joys of dancing turned-out, but due to their deepness, they are quite difficult to actually stretch and activate in isolation.

The DEEP lateral rotators. Notice the similar fiber dirrection of glute max and piriformis? Makes it easy for your brain to confuse their functions sometimes. And that hamstring, too...

But your superficial glute max is much easier to get to (to release, stretch and strengthen). By changing strength and position of glute max, you can indirectly improve the strength, length and tonicity of those deep lateral rotators, which have a way of bunging things up (jammed SI joints, hip compression and pain, back pain, sciatic pain, etc).

And there are probably more things that could be said about glute max function. Like how you need to it do athletic things. Aesthetics, too, are important ;).

So now you know what to do, and I hope you’ll try it out and let me know how your calf vs. glute struggle goes.

*FYI I have also seen cases of plantar flexors inhibiting the function of the psoas, quads, and abdominals. So please get those calves under control. It’s kind of a big deal.