Most of my problems are isolated to the lower leg it seems. I suspect yours are too. In this post, I break down what you need to know, some different problems you may have and training options.
I will address all the areas from the knee on down.
Muscles of the Lower Leg
There are a few major muscles that help our lower leg do what it does:
Knee – There are several ligaments and other tissues that help to stabilize the knee. The knee is one of the most delicate joints in our bodies. While it can be one of the weakest, it is also under the most constant pressure. Knee injuries are the most common especially among athletes. The knee is a funny thing which I didn’t learn about until after I had to get my ACL repaired. Knee pain and injury is often not due to the knee at all (unless we’re talking an acute/sudden injury). Many times it’s due to a messed up foot/bad arch, obesity, or improper movement.
Although there’s no real way to strengthen the knee, we can strengthen the muscles around it and train ourselves to move better.
Soleus – runs from the back of the knee to the back of the ankle. Its primary function is to assist with the downward motion of the foot (plantar flexion). The soleus consists of slow twitch muscle fibers which mean that it is mainly used for standing and walking.
Gastrocnemius – this muscle forms the “meat” of your calf along with deeper muscles (like the tibialis posterior). Due to the presence of fast twitch muscle fibers, the gastrocnemius is designed for fast, explosive movements like running and jumping.
Tibialis Anterior – this is a deep muscle located on the front of the leg from the base of the knee to the top of the ankle. This muscle assists in walking, running, hiking and kicking. It is responsible for the upward movement of the foot (dorsiflexion). It is also a key muscle involved in rotation of the foot towards the midline of the body (as in inversion or adduction).
Extensor/Flexor Muscles – These muscles are responsible for the bending of your toes which support upright movements like standing, walking, and running.
Most pain can be categorized into three problem areas or causes: injury (fairly easy to identify if you’ve had a recent accident), mechanical (something’s wrong with the way your body is built; could have developed over time), disease. I would also include a fourth area – functional problems. Some of us just don’t move properly. I include myself in that group. It’s not necessarily the fault of the individual. They may not have had proper instruction.
Here are some problems you may be experiencing with your lower legs:
Sore Knees – As I mentioned above, knee pain is usually a symptom of another problem. The shape of our foot and arch impacts the knee. If your arch causes you to over-emphasize the weight on the inside of your foot, it then impacts the direction of your shin (tibia/fibula), which means your knee will likely fall inward. This faulty motion would be the source of the pain as everything below the knee has to compensate for that foot issue. Another possible cause is obesity. According to arthritis.org, “Every pound of excess weight exerts about 4 pounds of extra pressure on the knees.” There are several other potential causes as described here.
Once we identify and treat the cause, the knee pain should disappear.
Tight calves/Weak calves – These are two opposites. If you have tight calves, that means you need to stretch them. If you have weak calves, you need to strengthen them. In either case, we need to address the issue. The calf muscles are essential to walking, running, and other upright activities as well as squatting.
Sore feet/toes – little though they may be, your toes can impact your balance and gait in large ways. One of the problems I have is hammer toes, which can be painful and uncomfortable. There’s few things you can do to strengthen the feet and toes. Most of the exercise I’ll cover below are aimed at stretching them out to improve flexibility and range of motion.
Lower Leg Flexibility
There are several great ways to stretch your calves, ankles, and toes. This should be done regularly to counteract any strength training you are doing. Here are the ones I’ve found the most effective:
Assisted Squat Hold – find a pole or something that can support your bodyweight. Extend your arms and hold on to it. Squat as low as you can. Sit back with your chest up so you are looking at your hands. Hold that for 15-30 seconds. Do this as often as necessary. An alternative is to squat low with your back against a wall. Just sit and relax in that position.
Ankle Stretch – basically sit back on your feet. Try and hold for 30s. You can use your hands to take some of the weight off if you’re new to this.
Knee circles/Ankle circles – From a standing position, rotate both knees keeping every other part of your body static/stable. Rotate clockwise as fast as you can with control for 30s-60s. Your head should not be bobbing up and down. Repeat this in the other direction.
You can do ankle rotations standing or sitting. The same rules apply as above. Rotate your ankles only.
Toe Stretch – the Toe Stretch looks exactly like the Ankle Stretch. The only modification is that you curl your toes so that you are resting on the balls of your feet instead of the tops of your feet.
Strengthening Your Lower Leg
There are many exercises we can do to strengthen our legs. Exercises like squats and lunges are great compound exercises in that they work the entirety of the leg (and more). And that’s fine. But for the sake of this post, let’s target the calves/shins and feet.
Here are three exercises I like to do each week to do just that. It’s best to always aim for using your full body, in a standing position, but these can be modified if balance is an issue.
Calf Raises – you’ll probably be more familiar with these than the others. These are great for strengthening/tightening your gastrocnemius. As with all exercises, the emphasis should be on form and control.
- Stand upright. Lean forward slightly, bracing yourself on a wall.
- Raise your heels off the ground, so that your standing on the balls of your feet. This is your starting position.
- Lower your heels to the ground slowly over 3 seconds, raise up to the starting position quickly, and hold for 1 second at the top. That’s 1 rep.
If you’re new to this exercise, aim for 3 sets of 20 reps. If that becomes too easy, you have two options: increase the number of reps or increase the tempo of the exercise (5s down or more, explode up, 1s hold). You could also do these with a barbell on a squat rack, but it’s preferable to stick to your own bodyweight.
Another way to do this is on a stair climber. To give your calf muscles more of a challenge, step up on the edge of each stair, pushing off with the balls of your feet. As a bonus, you have the opportunity to work on your coordination. When you step up with your right leg, your left shoulder should extend forward. Left leg, right shoulder.
Tibialis Lifts – I was shown this exercise by a mobility coach. It’s great for working the Tibialis Anterior. These should be paired with the Calf Raise.
- Stand with your back towards a wall. Lean back so only your shoulders are against it. Keep your stomach tight. Your body should be straight. The only things moving in this exercise are the balls of your feet.
- Lift your toes off the ground so that only your heels are touching. This is your starting position.
- Lower your toes to the ground slowly over 3 seconds, raise up to the starting position quickly, and hold for 1 second at the top. That’s 1 rep.
Just like the calf raises, you can increase the load by increasing reps or tempo.
Heel Walks/Toe Walks – Both of these require some balance. If you’re not quite there yet, build up your leg strength and then give them a try. It might be easier to place one hand on a wall for stability at first. For the heel walks, cover 25-30 feet walking on your heels for 3-5 reps. For the Toe Walks, do the same but walk on the balls of your feet.
Duck Walks – These are tough especially if leg strength and balance are issues. The idea is that you start from a squat position – ideally on your toes. Walk in this squatted position. I’m doing this regularly, but have only managed to do it on my flat feet. Also, my squat is not as low as it should be. With this movement, you want to try to move contra-laterally. That is, when your right leg moves forward so does your left shoulder and vice versa.
Downward-facing Dog Pose – Although this works your whole body, it is a great way to work your calves and ankles if you have trouble balancing in a fully upright position.
Isometric Holds – Another great way to build up those calf muscles while stretching the ankles is by playing with different stances. If you prefer to work out at home by yourself, these are perfect. Karate and yoga both have great stances/poses for you to try. Aim for a minute plus simply holding the position while remaining calm and centered. Here’s some you should look into:
- Karate – zenkutsu dachi, kokutsu dachi, neko dachi, kiba dachi, and kake ashi dachi
- Yoga – Warrior Pose 1, Downward-facing Dog (One or Two-Legged), and Triangle Pose
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