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  • Writer's pictureCoach Matt Pippin

The Best Ankle Friendly Calf Raise



Calf strength is an absolute must if you want to perform at any level of sports, competition, or simply enjoy everyday activities. Think about it, how much force must they both absorb and produce to run, jump, and cut? 


For most, the first thing we turn to to build those strong calf muscles are calf raises, and for good reason - they’re a very simple exercise that you can incorporate into your workout routine and more importantly, they’re effective. 


Unfortunately for some, they can cause unwanted ankle pain, hinder performance, and eventually cause problems up the chain in the knees and hips.  


If this sounds like you, keep reading because we’re going to go over everything calf raises and I’ll share the best alternative you can start doing today to ensure you’re making progress without causing more damage.  


WHAT ARE CALF RAISES?

Calf raises are a strength training exercise primarily targeting the muscles located on the back of the lower leg, the gastrocnemius and soleus. This exercise is performed by lifting the heels away from the floor when driving the balls of the feet down into the ground and then lowering the heels back down. If done properly, you should feel the back of the lower leg (the calf muscles) doing the work.  


BENEFITS OF CALF RAISES

Calf raises offer a range of benefits, including:


  • Strengthening the calf muscles as well as the small muscles located on all sides of the ankle and foot

  • Improving ankle stability

  • Enhancing athletic performance and explosive strength, especially in activities like running, jumping, and change of direction

  • Helping to mitigate injuries that occur in the lower leg and feet, such as shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and ankle injuries



DO CALF RAISES STRENGTHEN THE ANKLES?

One of the main functions of calf raises is to strengthen a major movement of the ankle, plantar flexion (think pushing the top of your foot away from your shin bone). They also will develop strength and stability in other actions of the ankle as well (inversion, eversion, and dorsi flexion).


WHAT MUSCLES ARE WORKING DURING A CALF RAISE?

During a calf raise, the primary muscles engaged include:


  • Gastrocnemius: The largest of the calf complex, located closer to the knee than the ankle joint. The major function of this muscle is plantar flexion of the foot (pushing the top of your foot away from the floor).  

  • Soleus: Situated beneath the gastrocnemius muscle, the soleus assists in plantar flexion and provides not only stability to the ankle but also ensures that you don’t fall forward from a postural standpoint

  • Plantar fascia: Starting at the bottom of the ankle (calcaneus) and running along the entire bottom of the foot, this piece of tissue helps support the arch of the foot and plays a large role in how the foot/ankle is used during walking and running 

  • Peroneal muscles: Running along the outside of the lower leg, these 3 muscles assist the ankle in not only eversion (pulling the outside part of your foot away from the body) but also contribute to plantar flexion as well  

What muscles work during a calf raise?

CALF RAISE VARIATIONS THAT WORK THE SAME MUSCLES

There are a variety of different ways to do calf raises that target the same muscles, while mixing up your routine. These include:


  • Calf raises on a flat surface

  • Calf raises on the edge of a step or elevated surface (this produces a larger range of motion)

  • Single leg calf raises

  • Double leg calf raises

  • Calf raises with added weight, such as a standing version with dumbbells, barbell, or machine loaded (like a leg press machine or a hack squat machine)


WHERE SHOULD YOU FEEL A CALF RAISE?

During a calf raise, you should primarily feel the tension and contraction in the calf muscles, specifically the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. You may experience some sensations in the feet as well depending on the surface and the shoes you’re wearing. If you’re feeling the sides of the lower leg, quadriceps, hamstrings, or pretty much any other muscles, your technique may be compromised.  


ARE CALF RAISES BAD FOR YOUR ANKLES?

Calf raises themselves are not inherently bad for the ankles, but if you have improper form, too much load, or you’re currently dealing with an injury around the foot or ankle, then they can be problematic. 


CAN CALF RAISES DAMAGE YOUR ACHILLES TENDON?

Calf raises when done with poor form or too much load for the tissues to handle, can lead to achilles pain and possibly being damaged. However, achilles tendonitis is usually associated with poor postural alignment, excessive exercise involving the achilles area, and lack of strength in the muscles of the lower leg.  



HOW ANKLES ASSIST IN A CALF RAISE

The ankles are the primary joint moving when performing calf raises. During this movement, the ankle must dorsi flex (pushing the top of the foot away from the shin bone) while also stabilizing the joint so it doesn’t move side to side. This requires not only adequate strength to perform the movement but also stability to ensure the ankles don’t collapse side to side.  


WHY DO CALF RAISES HURT MY ANKLES?

Calf raises may cause ankle pain for several reasons, including:


  • Poor ankle mobility or flexibility

  • Weakness in the muscles supporting the ankles and feet

  • Excessive load or improper form

  • Postural alignment placing stress on the area before you even ask the joint to move or add load


WHAT NOT TO DO IF YOU HAVE ANKLE PAIN FROM CALF RAISES

If you experience ankle pain from calf raises, avoid the following:


  • Continuing to exercise through pain without trying alternatives or ensuring your form is perfect

  • Neglecting a proper warm-up to make sure the tissues are ready for the exercise

  • Ignoring signs of fatigue or discomfort from previous workouts


HOW DO I PROTECT MY ANKLES WHEN DOING CALF RAISES?

To protect your ankles during calf raises, follow these tips:


  • Ensure proper form, with the feet hip-width apart and the weight evenly distributed between your feet

  • Engage the core muscles to ensure you’re not in excessive anterior pelvic tilt (don’t have your butt and chest sticking out as this will place undue tension on the lower leg muscles)

  • Start with calf raises from the floor (so you're using a smaller range of motion) using your body weight before progressing to heavier loads and larger ranges of motion

  • Incorporate ankle mobility to ensure the joint can move appropriately in all directions and ranges of motion 


THE BEST ANKLE FRIENDLY CALF RAISE

If traditional calf raises are causing you ankle pain but you’re determined to get calves like ballet dancers, here’s a simple alternative that will get you going in the right direction. The only equipment you’ll need is a yoga block and something to help you maintain your overall balance (large foam roller, wall, etc.)


  • For the starting position, stand on a flat surface and place a yoga block (skinniest side) between your ankle bones

  • Keeping your balance, squeeze the yoga block, and start to drive the balls of your feet into the ground so your heels start to rise

  • Press up as high as you can while maintaining the squeeze on the yoga block  

  • Slowly lower down maintaining the squeeze

  • Repeat for the desired number of repetitions

A good place to start for programming is 10-12 reps for 2 sets, 2-3 times per week. Slowly increase your volume to higher reps and more sets as needed.


How to do calf raises without causing ankle pain

HOW TO GET RID OF ANKLE PAIN FROM CALF RAISES

If you're experiencing ankle pain from calf raises or any other exercise, follow these steps:


  • Rest and allow your body time to recover

  • If pain persists, get assessed by a licensed practitioner

  • Perform gentle ankle mobility exercises to improve flexibility and range of motion but only in pain-free ranges of motion

  • Strengthen the muscles surrounding the ankles with targeted exercises like the one above

  • Gradually reintroduce calf raises or other calf exercises once the pain has subsided, focusing on proper form and progression

  • Lastly, begin to add more dynamic movements like running, jumping, and change of direction into your routine



In conclusion, while calf raises are an effective exercise for building lower leg strength and increasing athletic performance, it's essential to prioritize proper form and listen to your body to avoid ankle pain and injury. By incorporating alternative exercises like the one above and working on your ankle mobility, you can ensure that your ankle pain will be a thing of the past while achieving your calf gain goals.


MORE MOBILITY GOODNESS

For my favorite mobility exercises to bulletproof your body, click the link below where you can get my 3 must-have mobility moves for free. Once you try them, you’ll see why they’re my all-time favorite.


* I am an Amazon Associate and earn from qualifying purchases with some of the links on this blog.

 

ABOUT COACH MATT PIPPIN

Matt is a Strength and Mobility Coach with over 15 years experience in his field and has coached over a thousand professional, collegiate and everyday athletes with the goal to help them move, feel and perform at their highest level. He's incredibly passionate about bringing simple and effective online mobility training programs to everyone who wants to take control of their self care and make lasting change. CLICK HERE to learn more.

Certifications:

  • NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist

  • Level 3: Fascial Stretch Specialist

  • Level 1: Institute of Motion Health Coach

  • Certified FRC Mobility Specialist (FRCms)

  • Level 1 Kinstretch Instructor

  • Weck Method Qualified

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