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If you’re anything like me, your calves are tight all the time. “But I practice so much yoga!” you might say, incredulous that your calves could keep you up at night with cramps, even though you make stretching a priority. How is this even possible?
Well, for most of us, overuse and tight ankles.
The cause of tight calves
Our calves are engaged in literally every step we take, and if you supplement your yoga practice with running, hiking, cycling, or weight training, fatigue can quickly set in. Reduced ankle mobility is another culprit, not being able to dorsiflex your foot efficiently (or raise your toes up toward your face) puts more strain on the achilles tendon and calves. Our bodies are a kinetic chain, so not addressing tight calves can also lead to knee and hip pain. The gastrocnemius needs to lengthen (think: be flexible) to properly dorsiflex your foot, so if it’s constantly tight and constricted, more walking and exercise will only exacerbate the problem.
What is the calf muscle?
The calf itself consists of two main muscles: The gastrocnemius, which looks like a large teardrop on the back of your shin, and the soleus, which is a flat muscle that rests behind the gastrocnemius. When you walk, both muscles constrict to pull the heel up and dorsiflex your foot so you can land on your heel first and roll onto the ball of your foot mid-stride. In yoga, the calf muscles lengthen in various folds to keep your heels on the ground. When your knee is straight, the gastrocnemius is the primary mover of plantar flexion in your foot, which enables you to point your toes down. But when the knee is bent, the soleus takes over to accomplish the task. In a mindful walking practice, you can feel the calf muscles on both legs engaging and notice the sensations of the lengthening and constricting with every step.
If tight calves are an issue for you, one of the best remedies is to stretch them regularly. The yoga poses below provide the lengthening you need to address that pesky constricted feeling.
8 yoga poses for tight calves
Why this yoga pose helps with tight calves: Holding this posture gently extends the calves, and you’re able to control the intensity. Using your hands to pull on the tops of your feet simulates the way your feet move in your gait—heel pressing down while your toes are pointed up. As you grow accustomed to the way this feels in your body, you can apply it to your stride while walking.
How-to: Sit on the floor with your legs pointed straight out in front of you, toes pointed up. Keep your back straight in an upright position. Then, generously bend your knees (we’re targeting the calves over the hamstrings, so adjust as you need to so you can reach your feet). On an exhalation, hinge forward at your hips and reach your arms in front of you, arms staying parallel with your legs, and hook your hands around the balls of your feet. On an inhalation, straighten your legs as much as feels comfortable while pulling the balls of your feet toward your knees. Fold a little deeper on every exhalation. Practice for 3 to 5 breaths. To exit, slide your hands over the tops of your legs as you slowly bring your chest back above your hips.
Why this yoga pose helps with tight calves: Similar to Seated Forward Bend, this calf stretch comes from pulling the ball of your foot toward your face while pressing through your heel. By focusing on one leg at a time, you’ll discover more targeted relief. Plus, this pose can be modified by bending the knee of the lowered leg to a 90-degree angle which helps with the scissoring of the legs, bringing the elevated leg closer to your torso.
How-to: First, locate a yoga strap and place it near your hands. Lie on your back with both legs extended out in front of you, in line with your hips. On an exhalation, draw your right knee into your torso. Loop the strap around the arch of your right foot, holding it with both hands. On an inhalation, straighten your right knee and press through your right heel while lifting your toes back toward your face. Press your left leg strongly into your mat. If you have tight hamstrings, which limits your ability to raise your right leg toward your torso, modify by sliding your left foot toward your sitting bones while keeping your foot on the mat, bending your left knee to a 90-degree angle.
Walk your hands up the strap until your elbows are fully extended. Then, broaden your shoulder blades while drawing your elbows to the floor, increasing the stretch through your calf and hamstring. Hold for 3–5 breaths. To release, push your elbows up to get rid of some of the tension through your right leg, and slowly lower your right leg back down to the floor. Repeat on the other side.
Why this yoga pose helps with tight calves: Pedaling out your feet in Downward-Facing Dog intensifies the stretch in the straightened leg, making it more targeted than keeping both heels on the ground.
How-to: Begin in Tabletop with your hips stacked over your knees and your palms planted slightly in front of your shoulders, shoulder-width apart. Next, tuck your toes. While keeping your hands parallel with one another, on an exhalation, press firmly into your mat as you raise your hips up and back. Allow your head to hang freely as you straighten out your back, ears between your biceps. Begin to pedal out your feet, bending your right knee slightly while pressing into your left heel and hold the position for 1–2 breaths and then switch to the other foot over the course of 5 rounds. Or you can continuously pedal the feet, one at a time, for 5 breaths. To exit, lower both knees to the ground and come back to Tabletop.
Why this yoga pose helps with tight calves: Similar to pedaling out your feet, the extra body weight on the planted leg will deeply stretch and lengthen the grounded calf.
How-to: From Downward-Facing Dog Pose (see above), lift your right leg up and back, keeping your leg straight and in alignment with your hips, torso, and arms. Distribute your weight evenly between both hands, while keeping your left leg planted firmly. Flex your right toes toward your torso while pressing through your back heel. Hold for 2–3 breaths. To release, lower your leg back to Downward-Facing Dog. Repeat on the other side.
Why this yoga pose helps with tight calves: This forward fold provides a deep stretch through the entire extended leg. Blocks may be helpful if you have tight hamstrings.
How-to: Stand in Tadasana. On an exhalation, step your left foot forward about 2 feet, and once planted, step your right foot back about 2 feet. Then, turn your right foot out to the right about 60 degrees. Align the right heel with the left heel. On an exhalation, rotate your torso to the left, squaring it with your mat. Then, press both thighs inward, as if squeezing a block between your legs. On another exhalation, hinge at the hips, bringing your torso over your left leg. Drop your hands to the floor framing your left foot. Blocks can be used here for support. Deepen the stretch, press your left thigh back as you lower your torso more. Hold for 3–5 breaths. Release by slowly rolling your back up above your hips and stepping your feet back to Tadasana. Repeat on the other side.
6. Ardha Hanumanasana (Half Splits Pose)
Why this yoga pose helps with tight calves: This is another pose that mostly targets the hamstrings, but you’ll feel an exceptional stretch through the calves as well, especially if you keep your toes pointed upward. Modifying with blocks may help you reach your full expression of the pose.
How-to: Begin in Low Lunge with your left knee on the ground and the fingertips of both hands mirroring your right foot. Place your hands on blocks instead here if you have them. On an inhalation, raise your chest up and widen your shoulders, creating a flat back. On an exhalation, rock backward so that your bottom is above your left foot. While doing so, you’ll feel the stretch move from your left quadricep to your right hamstring. Once here, to engage your calves, lift your right toes up while planting into your right heel. To deepen the stretch, on an exhalation, hinge at your hips so that your chest moves toward your foot. Hold for 3–5 breaths. To release, return your torso to above your hips, place the top of your right foot back down, and shift forward back into Low Lunge. Repeat on the other side.
Why this yoga pose helps with tight calves: Pressure meets lengthening in this posture. Lowering your hips while standing on one leg automatically recruits the calf muscles as it supports your body weight, and no matter how far you can wrap your elevated leg around your lower leg, it will be pressing into either your shin or the back of your calf, providing a gentle massage.
How-to: Stand up tall in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with your arms by your sides, palms facing out. Next, lift your left foot up, and while balancing on your right leg, cross your left thigh over your right thigh. Press your right heel into the ground to help stabilize you and point your left toes and hook them around your right calf muscles.
To modify, press your left calf into the side of your right shin bone instead of trying to wrap your left foot around your leg. Bend your right knee slightly, dropping your hips closer to the floor while maintaining a flat back. Once here, stretch both arms out in front of you, parallel to the floor, while spreading apart your shoulder blades. Next, cross your arms so that your right elbow is resting in the crook of your left elbow. Bend both elbows at a 90-degree angle so that your hands come toward your face. The backs of your hands should be facing each other. Then, loop your hands around one another and press them into each other, fingers pointing up. Hold for 3–5 breaths. To unwind, begin by releasing your left foot back to the earth for a stable base, and then release both hands back to your sides. Repeat on the other side.
Why this yoga pose helps with tight calves: Tight hips can also affect your calves. While this pose might not feel very intense on your calves, loosening your hips improves your stride, taking some of the strain off your calf muscles. Think of the yogi’s squat more as preventative than directly stretching the tight muscle.
How-to: To begin, stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Then, separate your feet to about shoulder-width distance apart. On an exhalation, bend your knees and squat down, pressing your elbows against the inner sides of your inner knees. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths. To release, press through your heels and come back to standing.
See also: The Best Poses to Stretch Sore Muscles