No one likes the feeling of tight muscles, but if you spend a lot of time working out, do unaccustomed exercise, or even spend more time sitting than you probably should, there’s a good chance that you’ve experienced tight calf muscles at one time or another.
Having tight calf muscles is a very common complaint among athletes as well as individuals who are mostly sedentary, surprisingly, because there are quite a few different causes of calf muscle tightness.
There are cases where people complain of having “tight calf muscles for no reason.” Although calf muscle tightness can be idiopathic (meaning there’s no clear reason), in most cases, at least one of the common causes or risk factors for tight calves contributes to stiffness in the muscles.
In this article, we will discuss what causes tight calf muscles and how to alleviate calf tightness.
We will cover:
- What Are the Calf Muscles?
- What Causes Tight Calf Muscles?
- How to Solve Calf Muscle Tightness
Let’s get started!
What Are the Calf Muscles?
Before we discuss what causes tight calf muscles, it’s helpful to have a quick little primer on the anatomy and function of the calf muscles.
The calf muscles, usually referred to as the calves, are the muscles that run along the back of the lower leg. They originate behind the knee and taper down to the Achilles tendon, which attaches to the base of the calcaneus (heel bone).
There are two primary muscles in the calf muscle group: the gastrocnemius and the soleus.
The gastrocnemius is the larger, stronger, and more superficial calf muscle—the one that bulges out when you stand on your tiptoes.
It’s a two-headed, biarticular muscle, so it controls motion at both the knee and the ankle. It helps the hamstrings flex (bend) the knee, and it plantarflexes the ankle, which is the motion your foot makes when you press the gas pedal on your car.
The soleus is the thinner and deeper calf muscle that assists in plantarflexing the ankle. It also stabilizes the tibia (shin bone) during walking and running.
There are also a few smaller and even deeper muscles in the calves and lower leg, such as the posterior tibialis and extensor digitorum longus. These little muscles help control the arch and extend your toes, respectively.
There are also the peroneal muscles, often called fibularis longus and fibularis brevis, which are located on the outer (lateral) side of the calf and shin. These muscles help evert the foot and also assist the gastrocnemius with ankle plantarflexion.
Together, the calf muscles are involved in most types of exercise, especially running, walking, stair climbing, elliptical, cycling, and strength training exercises like deadlifts, step-ups, calf raises, lunges, and even squats to some degree.
What Causes Tight Calf Muscles?
Although there can be a variety of causes of tight calf muscles, here are some of the most common:
- Overuse, such as from repetitive endurance exercises like running, cycling, rowing, swimming, stair climbing, hiking, and the elliptical machine.
- Wearing high heel shoes or running in shoes with a high heel-to-toe drop because the calves are always in a shortened state and don’t get to stretch out.
- Dehydration or electrolyte imbalances can potentially contribute to muscle cramps and stiffness.
- Calf muscle strains, Achilles tendonitis, or other calf muscle injuries.
- Inactivity can prevent your calves from being stretched regularly through their normal range of motion.
How to Solve Calf Muscle Tightness
There are various ways to treat and prevent tight calf muscles, the success of which will largely depend on the main reason for the tightness.
Here are the top ways to fix tight calf muscles:
Stretching the calf muscles is probably the go-to solution for tightness, and calf muscle stretches can certainly be helpful, but they are usually most effective when used in conjunction with other treatment modalities, such as massage guns and foam rollers.
If you are going to perform static stretches that involve holding the position for 15 to 30 seconds or more, you must first warm up.
Make sure that your calf muscles are warmed up thoroughly before you stretch. Either do a warm-up and then stretch or make sure you hop on the foam roller and use the massage gun for a couple of minutes before you hold static stretches.
This will ensure that your tissues are loosened a bit and that they are well-perfused with oxygenated blood.
#2: Foam Roll
Foam rolling can help loosen tight calves by increasing circulation and providing myofascial release for tissue adhesions.
Roll up and down the length of your calves and Achilles tendon, as tolerated, hitting the sides and shin as well.
Foam rollers with textured surfaces and grooves, such as the Roll Recovery R4 Body Roller, are often ideal because they can more aggressively knead your soft tissues and apply targeted pressure to your muscle fibers.
Try foam rolling before and after each workout or when you wake up and before bed. Setting a consistent routine is the best way to resolve and prevent calf muscle tightness and stiffness.
#3: Use a Massage Gun
Massage guns increase circulation and trigger the nervous system to relax tight tissues, which increases range of motion and flexibility and decreases stiffness and soreness.
Although any type of massage gun should be effective enough at alleviating calf muscle tightness, if you are a competitive athlete or someone who is training consistently, it’s often a good investment to buy a top-of-the-line massage gun that will serve all of your self-myofascial release needs.
Our pick for the best massage gun is the new Theragun Pro. It is completely customizable in terms of the speed, intensity, and even amplitude or depth of the pulses that you get. There are lots of different interchangeable massage gun heads to target different tissues and provide a different massaging experience, depending on your needs.
Using a massage gun to warm up your calf muscles before a workout and after you finish exercising to help accelerate recovery can be one of the best ways to continue exercising if you already have extremely tight calves and to prevent calf stiffness in the future.
Therabody, the company behind Theragun massage guns, also has guided protocols in their app that you can use for specific muscles, including the calves. They even have a massage gun sleep routine that you can use to help you get more restorative sleep.
#4: Strengthen Your Shins and Calves
Although we usually think of stretching as the best way to solve calf stiffness, strengthening the muscles in the calves and shins can also help make your calf muscles stronger and more equipped to handle your workouts without becoming overworked and subsequently sore and stiff.
Make sure that you perform calf strengthening exercises at least 2 to 3 times per week in addition to your usual exercise routine, be it running, cycling, incline walking, etc.
Examples of calf strengthening exercises include heel raises off of the stair or curb, toe walks, resisted plantarflexion with a resistance band, and seated calf raises on the leg press machine.
You should also strengthen your shins by doing heel walks or resisted dorsiflexion with a resistance band.
After your calf muscle exercises, be sure to stretch your calves.
#5: Rethink Your Footwear
If you wear shoes with an elevated heel, such as high heels for daily footwear, or running shoes with a significant heel-to-toe drop (anything over 8 mm, which most traditional running shoes will exceed), consider gradually transitioning to zero drop running shoes or those with a lower heel.
This will allow your calf muscles to fully stretch and lengthen in their natural range of motion. However, if you already have tight calf muscles, be particularly mindful to transition slowly because a sudden change in the relative height of your heel will only exacerbate the stiffness and tension you feel in your calf muscles.
Although evidence is mixed on the association between dehydration and muscle cramps, there is evidence to suggest that electrolyte imbalances and dehydration can increase the risk of muscle spasms and cramps, particularly during exercise.
Staying well hydrated before, during, and after workouts, as well as during your daily life, will ensure that your muscle cells are supple and hydrated, able to fully lengthen and contract and relax without seizing up.
Overall, tight calves can limit mobility when walking, running, or exercising in general, but stretching, foam rolling, using a massage gun, changing your footwear, and strengthening the calf muscles can help alleviate and prevent calf tightness.
If tightness persists, or you feel like you have a calf muscle injury, you should work with a physical therapist to properly diagnose and treat the injury.
Check out our guide on the Best Calf Stretches For Runners to loosen up those tight calf muscles today.