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The calf muscle, also called the triceps surae, is made up of two distinct muscles; the gastrocnemius muscle and the soleus muscle.
They are considered agonist muscles which means that they contract during certain exercises and are responsible for completing a movement such as the calf raise.
Together they aid with plantar flexion.
The word plantar refers to the sole of the foot, whilst flexion means to decrease the angle between two structures.
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In the case of the ankle joint, this means to point your toes away from you or raise up on tip toes therefore reducing the angle of the lower leg and the foot.
When you perform an exercise such as the seated calf raise and raise your knees so that you rest on the balls of your feet, you are plantar flexing the foot.
What Is The Function Of The Soleus Muscle?
The soleus muscle is relatively superficial and sits just beneath the gastrocnemius.
It only spans a single joint, the ankle joint, making it a monoarticular muscle.
The function of the soleus muscle is plantar flexion. Whilst it works with the gastrocnemius to achieve this, the gastrocnemius also crosses the knee joint meaning it assists with knee flexion whereas the soleus does not.
The soleus muscle engages during activities such as walking, running and jumping and plays a significant role in propulsion when pushing off of the ground.
Interestingly, it is sometimes referred to as the second heart as is plays an important role in circulation by way of returning blood back up to the cardiac muscles.
Your heart can send oxygenated blood around the body very quickly and your calf muscles work very hard pushing against gravity to get blood back up to be replenished with more oxygen.
Why Does My Soleus Muscle Hurt?
The cause tends to be due to overuse and overtraining because of the forces applied to the soleus during activity. The good news is that by working on strengthening the soleus can help with injury prevention.
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Aside from overuse, the opposite can also result in issues to the soleus.
The rise in more people leading sedentary lifestyles can have a negative impact on circulation, potentially resulting in swelling, pain and muscle cramps.
However, performing regular exercises to specifically target the soleus is the best way of helping to alleviate such complaints.
Benefits of Soleus Muscle Exercises
Below we take a look at some of the benefits when focussing on strength training of the soleus muscle.
With regular exercise you can improve your circulation and the effectiveness of your soleus muscles when it comes to pumping venous blood back to the heart muscle. Good circulation is vital for overall health.
Increased Ankle Mobility
By increasing strength to the soleus muscle can help to improve stability to the ankle joint, which in turn can increase its range of motion. This offers further benefits such as improving balance and movement efficiency.
Improve Blood Glucose
A published study undertaken by the University of Houston established that performing a specific exercise, the soleus pushup, helps to speed up the metabolism resulting in better blood sugar regulation.
Lowering blood sugar can in turn help to decrease blood pressure and cholesterol whilst assisting with weight loss.
Adding both body weight and resistance-based exercises to activate the soleus muscle can help to build stronger calves.
This can help with stability and support to the ankle joint and offers great carryover to other, more challenging, compound movements such as the squat.
Soleus Muscle Exercises
Now that we’ve determined how important the soleus muscle is, let’s consider some soleus muscle exercises that you can perform either at home or the gym so you can reap the benefits as mentioned above and help to strengthen this powerful muscle.
The soleus push up is a hugely effective exercise that can be performed by pretty much anyone.
Even those of you who spend large parts of your day sitting at a desk can undertake this exercise whilst you work so there’s no excuse!
How To Do Soleus Push Ups:
- Take a seat and position yourself towards the front of your chair.
- Ensure your hips and knees are at 90 degree angles with feet are flat on the ground.
- Push from your ankles to raise your heels off the floor.
- Be sure to perform with full range of motion with movement at just the ankle joint.
- Pause at the top for around 2 seconds.
- Slowly lower the heel back to the ground.
- Repeat for around 30 repetitions.
Soleus Bridge With Heel Lift
Whilst the bridge exercise is typically for the gluteal muscles, the raising up of the heels allows for activation of the soleus muscle making this a great lower body movement.
How To Do The Bridge With Heel Lift:
- Start by laying down on your back with your knees bent.
- Keep your feet around shoulder width apart and your arms down by your sides.
- Push your hips up towards the ceiling so that you form the bridge position. Your body should be inline from your shoulders to your knees.
- Raise up your heels so the balls of your feet remain planted on the floor. Hold for 2 seconds.
- Lower the heels back to the ground.
- Then, slowly lower your hips back to the ground.
- Repeat approximately 30 times.
Single Leg Calf Raise With Resistance
The single leg seated calf raise is essentially another variation of the soleus push up.
It’s made a little more challenging by adding in a weight creating some additional resistance.
By performing this exercise one leg at a time you can address any strength imbalances.
How To Do The Single Leg Calf Raise:
- Start in a seated position, sitting near the front of your chair or bench.
- Hold a free weight (either a dumbbell or kettlebell) on top of the thigh of the calf to be worked. Don’t be tempted too go to heavy as only a little resistance is needed.
- Slowly raise your ankle up as high possible.
- The ball of your foot should remain on the ground throughout.
- Pause briefly at the top before lowering back down to the start position.
- Repeat around 30 repetitions before switching legs.
Single Leg Bridge With Heel Lift
Once you’ve mastered the soleus bridge with heel lift, you can progress by switching to the single leg variation. As with the single leg calf raise, this is a good exercise to isolate the soleus muscles individually.
How To Do The Single Leg Bridge With Heel Lift:
- Lay down on the ground and position your body in the bridge position.
- Straighten out one leg and ensure both thighs remain inline with one another.
- Keep the heel directly under the knee of the bent leg.
- From here, push up the ankle of the planted foot going as high as possible for full range of motion.
- Pause and then lower back to the start.
- Repeat around 30 times before switching legs.
Walking On Tip Toes
Whilst not a traditional body weight exercise, it’s a fantastic way of isolating the soleus improving strength and mobility. Progression of this would be to grab hold of some free weights.
How To Perform Tip Toe Walking:
- Start by standing upright with feet around hip width apart.
- Raise up on to your toes. Be sure to try and keep your weight equally distributed.
- Simply take small steps forward whilst remaining on the balls of your feet.
- Keep a slight bend to the knees throughout.
- Don’t allow your heels to drop and walk for as long as possible.
Bent Knee Calf Raise
The bent knee calf raise is a great way of improving range of motion to the calf muscles. You can use a wall to provide some support if required.
How To Perform A Bent Knee Calf Raise:
- Begin by facing a wall with feet around hip width apart.
- Push back the glutes slightly and maintain a slight bend to the knees.
- Lean forward and place your palms on the wall.
- Keep your head and chest up.
- Keeping your knees bent, raise up onto the balls of your feet.
- Hold and then lower back down.
Elevated Bent Knee Calf Raise
This is a much more challenging variation of the bent knee calf raise.
You’ll be performing this without assistance of the wall and on one leg so excellent stability will be required.
The slight elevation of the foot allows for an increased range of motion allowing for better muscle contraction.
How To Perform The Elevated Bent Knee Calf Raise:
- Start by standing upright with the balls of one foot resting on an elevated surface such as a weight plate.
- Maintain a slight bend to the knee of the elevated foot.
- Take the resting leg up and behind you. You should now be balancing on one leg.
- Lean your torso forwards slightly to give you some stability.
- From here, raise up the ankle as high as possible.
- Hold briefly and lower back down, your heel should drop beyond the plate towards the floor.
- Avoid bouncing on the foot and ensure a smooth and controlled motion.
As mentioned above, the soleus is a small but very important muscle when it comes to human performance. It’s often overlooked for the gastrocnemius which is the larger and more visually dominant muscle group.
Aside from improving performance across workouts and other physical activity it even benefits overall health by way of improvements to blood circulation and metabolic rate.
The exercises listed above require little to no equipment and range from beginner through to more advanced movements.
You can even perform them at home or your place of work when seated, so strengthening this powerhouse muscle is easily achieved.