This excerpt from an episode of Entourage depicts Johnny Drama and his perpetual quest for bigger calves. Always looking for that "edge" in life, Johnny has a strong opinion that larger calves is THE answer.
Now I am not going to go so far and say he is 100% wrong, but he is fighting an uphill battle. As with many of the things physical in our life, there is a genetic predisposition to have a certain type of physique. This is called somatyping. While discussions about endo/ecto/mesomorphs is a topic for a later date - let's condense things and say that your muscles have a genetic predisposition to be long and lean, thick or stocky, or more athletic and well-rounded. the lower leg musculature is no different. Sorry Johnny.
With lower leg anatomy, we have to observe multiple joints that are crossed. The knee, the ankle, and the digits of the toes are all in play when talking lower leg musculature. We can break this grouping into anterior view, posterior view and plantar side of the foot (bottom). Technically we call the top of the foot a dorsal view but from an anterior view you can see what is need for the depth of this blog.
Anterior view of the lower leg:
The tibialis anterior is the largest muscle in this group. It has an origin along the lateral surface of the tibia and inserts on the medial aspect of the medial cuneiformand base of the 1st metatarsal. This is what actively dorsiflexes the foot and inverts the foot. Dorsiflexion is the flexion of the dorsal side, or top of the foot. Inversion of the foot is the elevation of the medial side of the foot.
There are the extensor group (hallucis longus and digitorum longus - not Harry Potter references). There job is to extend the digits.
The peroneals, AKA the fibular group (longus and brevis) are located on the lateral aspect of the lower leg. The Fibularis Longus originates along the upper lateral surface of the fibula and inserts on the medial cuneiform and the base of the 1st metatarsal Fibularis brevis originates just below longus and inserts on the styloid process of the 5th metatarsal.
Posterior View of the Lower Leg:
The Gastrocnemius is the most superficial muscle and usually the most prominent to the eye. It originates on the backside of the femoral condyles and inserts on the posterior of the calcaneus via the Achilles tendon. Yes - it crosses the knee AND the ankle. It helps flex the knee and also plantarflexes the foot.
The soleus is located under the gastrocnemius and originates along the upper portions of both the tibia and fibula. It also inserts at the posterior aspect of the calcanues via the Achilles tendon. This muscle does not cross the knee and is responsible for platarflexion.
The plantar view of the foot does not receive the necessary attention until it is usually too late. On the underside is where the flexor groups flex the toes but also this is where the plantar fascia reside. Through all the fun we have running, walking, jumping and doing God-knows-whatever else....the plantar fascia are being pulled. If they decide to strike - it can be a debilitating experience. Keep the toes and plantar fascia happy, my friends.
Looking at mobility we need to consider loosening up the feet, the ankles, and knees to ensure all musculature has been given stimulus before strength training.
When looking at strengthening the lower legs and feet, you have some isolated options. But I need to ask how often are you only using this group in isolation? Many athletic based movements can call upon the lower limbs with great success.
The triple extension point of the lift draws explosive power from the ground vertically and the lower legs have a great amount of activation. In this instance, the gastrocs & soleus help propel upward and the tibialis anterior helps stabilize at the top.
Mix it up a bit with some single leg patterns, jumping patterns, and compound movements. When training kettlebells or deadlifts, try to lift with a flat shoe or barefoot (if gym allows) to help "root" yourself with the entire plantar aspect of the foot.
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