Are tight calves ruining your squat?

On your quest to improve pelvic floor function with squats, you may have discovered that you can't keep your heels in contact with the floor when you reach the bottom of your squat.

If this is you, calf tension is holding back your squat.

What's the big deal?

When it comes to using muscles during different movements, how your body parts are arranged in relationship to each other dictates whether or not you're working the muscles you think you're working as much as you really think you are. 

If your calf muscle (or Achilles tendons) can't lengthen enough to keep your heels on the floor when you squat, you've altered how much access you have to your glutes during this movement. 

Glute participation is what makes squats such a potential ally to your pelvic floor. Your squat is either a quad dominant activity or a glute dominant activity depending on where your knees are in relation to your ankles. 

The more vertical your shins are, the more your glutes can participate.

The more your knees are in front of your ankles, the more your quads steal the thunder from your glutes.

When your heels are off the ground and you're trying to balance on the balls of your feet, your knees are almost always way out in front of your toes. You aren't able to back your pelvis up and get your shins vertical, which means your glutes are missing out and your quads are the main workhorse. 

Get your heels down and back your pelvis up so you can better leverage your glutes. 

How to address tight calves

Just like most things body related, a multi-faceted approach is important. Most of the time a three-pronged approach is needed, one that addresses lifestyle habits, movement habits and corrective exercises After all, there are multiple factors that set you up for this lack of mobility in your calves. 

Lifestyle habits

  • ditch the heels - shoes with an elevated heel (and no, I’m not just talking about high heels, chances are your sneakers have an elevated heel) shorten your calves, stretching your calves for 5 minutes a day can not undo the effects of wearing an elevated heel 12 hours a day, shift to shoes with a flat sole. 
  • sit less - sitting for extended periods of time, day after day, also shortens your calves. Sitting while wearing high heels wins the calf shortening prize. Again, stretching your calves for 5 minutes a day can not undo the effects of sitting for 12 hours a day. Sit less and change how you sit.

Movement habits

  • straighten your feet when you walk - walking with turned out feet changes how your ankle joint articulates when you walk. Instead of a forward back movement of the foot at the ankle joint, there's more of a side to side roll. This changes how (and how much) your calf muscles participate when you walk. Straighten your feet and you give your calf muscles valuable movement opportunities that supports the mobility of these muscles with every step you take.

Corrective exercises

I saved the stretches for last, not because they aren't important but to remind you that it's not just about the stretches. It's about stretches plus lifestyle habits plus movement habits. They all add up and for most people they all need to be addressed to some extent.

There are 2 main muscles that make up the calf muscle group - your gastrocnemius and your soleus.

The gastroc crosses your knee joint, which means you need a straight knee in order to stretch it.

The soleus doesn't cross the knee joint, so bending the knee will give you a more direct stretch of that muscle. A squat is a bent knee movement, so the soleus muscle is the greater player when it comes to heels off the floor. That said, most of us could benefit from doing both stretches.

Calf stretch

Calf stretch

1. calf stretch - grab a half dome (12" half round foam), or a rolled up bath towel or yoga mat and put the ball of one foot on the top of the dome, let the heel rest on the floor.

Step forward with your other foot but watch for the tendency to lean your upper body forward to overpower your calf tension.

Keep your upper body stacked over your pelvis and only move your standing leg forward as far as you can without clenching your glutes, quads or toes to keep your balance.

This probably means your standing foot will be far behind your stretching foot. This can be a blow to your ego, but with time and practice you'll see improvement. 

Soleus stretch

Soleus stretch

2. soleus stretch - same as the calf stretch, except you're bending your knees to access the soleus muscle. Check that you aren't tucking your pelvis under or leaning your upper body forward.

Practice these stretches throughout your day. Doing them throughout your day will yield better results than 1 longer stretching session. Frequency matters.

That said, if you've spent a lifetime in heeled shoes or sitting or both (which you probably have) don't start with 5 calf stretches a day. Progress slowly. It may seem like just a calf stretch, but it's a very different experience for your tissues. Do your body a favor and progress gradually.

Want more squat goodness?

If you're looking to improve your pelvic floor function via squats and find you are struggling, it may be because your strength and mobility gaps are getting in the way. For help addressing those, check out the online course Freedom From Kegels.