Calf Stretches

Calf stretches are a vital part of rehab for a whole range of foot and ankle problems. 

Tightness in the calf can affect the position of the foot, the way it moves and our balance. It is a common cause of both foot pain and knee pain.

Here, you can find out about the two calf muscles, gastrocnemius and soleus how they work.  We will then look at how to stretch them both effectively to reduce pain, tightness and instability as well as reducing the risk of injury or conditions such as Achilles Tendonitis, Plantar Fasciitis and Cramp, and how to get the best results from calf stretches.

How Do the Calf Muscles Work?

The calf is comprised of two muscles, gastrocnemius and soleus.  They start at the knee, travel down the back of the calf where they join together to form the Achilles tendon which attaches to the back of the heel. Gastrocnemius comes from just above the knee whereas soleus starts just below the knee.  As a result, we have to stretch them both in slightly different ways to be effective.

The calf muscle works to pull the foot downwards (plantarflexion) and stabilise the ankle.  As we walk, run and jump, the calf muscle pulls the heel up to give us power we need to push up off the ground.

Top 7 Calf Stretches

Here you will find seven different ways to stretch the calf muscles.  You don't need to do them all, pick your favourite two or three calf stretches and do those.

1) Lying Calf Stretch

Calf stretches lying down

Starting Position: Sit on the floor with the leg to be stretched straight out in front of you.  Place a towel or belt around the ball of your foot and hold the ends

Action: Draw your toes and foot up towards you, and pull through the towel to increase the flexion at your ankle until you feel a strong stretch in the back of your calf

Repetition: Hold for 30 seconds, repeat 3 times

Variations: To stretch your gastrocnemius muscle, keep your knee straight as you do this exercise.  To stretch Soleus, bend your knee slightly

2) Seated Calf Stretch

Starting Position: Sit in a chair with the leg to be stretched straight out in front of you.  Place a towel or belt around the ball of your foot and hold the ends. Sit up tall

Seated calf stretches

Action: Pull your toes and ankle up towards you and pull through the towel to increase the stretch in the back of your calf

Repetition: Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times

Notes: 1) To stretch your gastrocnemius muscle, keep your knee straight as you do this exercise. 
2) To stretch Soleus, bend your knee slightly (about 20 degrees)
3) Make sure you are sitting up tall as you do this exercise – not slumped forwards

3) Standing Gastrocnemius Stretch

Standing gastrocnemius calf stretch

Starting Position: Stand facing a wall and step the leg to be stretched back behind you.  Make sure your toes are pointing straight forwards.

Action: Keeping up tall and your back knee straight, lunge forwards onto your front leg until you feel a stretch in your calf muscle on the back leg. 

Repetition: Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times

Notes: 1) Ensure you keep your back up straight and tall rather than bending forwards
2) Keep your back knee straight and your heel on the floor
3) Check your toes are pointing directly forwards, not out to the side – often it feels like they are but when you look they are actually turned out slightly

4) Standing Soleus Stretch

Starting Position: Stand facing a wall and step the leg to be stretched back behind you.  Make sure your toes are pointing straight forwards

Standing Soleus calf stretches

Action: Bend the back knee slightly and, keeping up tall, lean into the wall until you feel a stretch in your calf muscle on the back leg. 

Repetition: Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times

Notes: 1) Ensure you keep your back up straight and tall rather than bending forwards
2) Keep your back knee slightly bent and your heel on the floor
3) Again, check your toes are pointing directly forwards, not out to the side

5) Calf Stretch On A Step: Top Stretch!

Starting Position: Stand on a step with the heel of the leg to be stretch resting off the back of the step.  This is my favourite of the calf stretches

Calf Stretches on a step

Action: Drop the heel down by slightly bending the other knee until you feel a stretch in your calf

Repetition: Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times

Notes: 1) To stretch gastrocnemius, keep the knee straight throughout
2) To stretch soleus, bend the back knee slightly during these calf stretches
3) If you are doing the exercises on the stairs, you may find you get more of a stretch if you have your other foot on a higher step

6) Outer Calf Stretch

Stretch for latreal head of calf

Purpose: Stretches the lateral head of gastrocnemius (the outer side)

Starting Position: Stand leaning on a wall with the leg to be stretched back behind you

Action: Turn your toes inwards and then lean forwards until you feel a stretch in the back of your calf, mainly on the outer side

Repetition: Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times

Notes: Ensure your knee is straight and you are keep your upper body upright

7) Inner Calf Stretch

Stretch for inner part of calf muscle

Purpose: Stretches the medial head of gastrocnemius (the inner side)

Starting Position: Stand leaning on a wall with the leg to be stretched back behind you

Action: Externally rotate the leg (turn it outwards) at the hip and then lean forwards until you feel a stretch in the back of your calf, mainly on the inner side

Repetition: Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times

Notes: Ensure your knee is straight and you are standing up tall

How To Get The Best Results

Calf stretches are simple, but in order to be effective, there are a few guidelines to follow:

1)  Length of Hold: Studies have shown the most effective way to stretch is to hold calf stretches for thirty seconds
2)  Repetitions: You get the best results if you repeat calf stretches at least three times
3)  Degree of Stretch:  Stretches should be uncomfortable, but not painful.  Any discomfort felt should stop as soon as you stop stretching.  Effective stretching isn’t particularly pleasant!
4)  Safety:  Stretching should not be done immediately following an injury e.g. calf tear as it can cause further damage.  You should be able to push down through your toes against moderate resistance without pain before you commence calf stretches.  Always consult your doctor before commencing an exercise programme after injury.
5)  Position:  Due to the anatomy of the calf muscles (one comes from above the knee and one from below the knee), you have to stretch each muscle separately:
a) Soleus: this calf muscle starts just below the knee so is stretched with the knee bent
b) Gastrocnemius: this calf muscle starts above the knee so the knee needs to be straight when stretching it.  The top of the muscle comes from two different places, known as the medial (inner) and lateral (outer) heads.  Gastrocnemius stretches can be done as a whole unit, or can be performed to bias the two different heads

Gastrocnemius stretches tend to feel stronger than Soleus stretches.

What Else Can Help?

Calf stretches are great for improving the flexibility in your foot and ankle, but it is also really important to have good strength in your calf too.  A good test is, can you stand on one leg and easily rise up and down onto your tip toes thirty times?  If that feels challenging, visit the calf workout section for simple ways to improve the strength and endurance of your calf muscles.

You may also benefit from stretching out the foot too - visit the ankle stretches section for more exercises that can help reduce foot, ankle, calk and knee pain.  If you need help working out what is causing your pain, visit the foot pain diagnosis section or visit our sister site on knee pain

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See Also

Common Causes of Foot Pain

Diagnose Your Pain

Foot & Ankle Anatomy

Treatment Options for Foot Problems

Calf Strengthening Exercises



Visitor Comments

"Thank you so much! Your website is a fountain of information! I was worrying about top of foot pain, and your suggestions for strengthening and stretching are helping immensely."
Retha, US

"Your info took me straight to the problem. Well described and clearly explained."
Rick, US

"Thanks for having these exercises available! I performed a few and they have helped tremendously with my foot pain."
Jennifer, UK

"Thank you for this information, it is very useful."
Seluleko, Zimbabwe

"Some really good suggestions and information"
Denise, US

"I have suffered these symptoms for over a year seen two doctors and a physio. None of them diagnosed this. Hope its not too late to put your advice into practice." Lezlee, UK

"Certainly it has helped me to understand and educate me on the issue."
Madhuri, India

"Very interesting! All good information. Tried a few stretches, already feels good."
Cindy, US

"3 days ago I thought I was going to need foot surgery. I NEVER thought that stretching my calf would relieve the excruciating pain at the top of my foot. Thank you!!"
Rich, US