11 Calf Stretches That Will Feel Amazing If You’ve Been Sitting All Day

Here’s why tightness is such a problem—and what to do about it.

11 Essential Calf Stretches to Loosen Up Your Lower Legs

Katie Thompson

When you want to loosen up after a long day of sitting, you probably zero in on your hips and hamstrings. But calf stretches are important too—even though lots of us tend to overlook them.

“People tend to forget to stretch smaller muscles that are further away from the trunk of their body,” Sarah Otey, NYC-based certified personal trainer and instructor at NEOU Fitness, tells SELF. But that doesn’t mean your calves don’t deserve some extra attention; they play a major role in leg movement, and tightness can lead to pain, imbalances, and inefficiencies in other parts of your body.

That’s where calf stretches come in: Loosening up those tense muscles can help ease tightness—and soothe the discomfort that comes along with it. But first, before we get into some examples to try, let’s talk first about this important muscle group. That way, you can understand why devoting some TLC there can be so crucial.

What are your calf muscles?

Your calf muscles are made up of your gastrocnemius, which makes up the bulk of your lower leg, and the smaller soleus, which lies underneath it. These muscles connect up at your knee and at the bottom of your heel, Jan Schroeder, PhD, chair and professor of fitness in the department of kinesiology at California State University, Long Beach, tells SELF.

An even small muscle called the plantaris also runs between the gastrocnemius muscle and soleus, but not everyone has one of these—about 10% of people only have the gastrocnemius and the soleus, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Your calf muscles help you perform a bunch of everyday movements. They’re responsible for plantar flexion, a movement when you point your toes, stand up on tiptoes, or press down on the gas pedal of your car. They’re also important for the development of explosive power, like when sprinting or jumping. Plus, they also engage during strength training when you’re performing lower-body compound exercises, such as the squat or the deadlift.

What causes tight, stiff calves?

Your calves get tight over time when you don’t move them through a regular range of motion, says Dr. Schroeder. For example, if you sit at a desk all day without walking around, your knee and ankle joints pretty much stay in one position (which means your calves aren’t moving either).

Your shoes can also play a role. “For example, high heels restrict the full range of motion of that muscle group,” says Dr. Schroeder. “Or if you have a running shoe that has a really stiff bottom and doesn’t allow the foot to roll from the heel to the ball of the foot, [that can also restrict movement].” When your movement is hampered consistently, your neuromuscular system isn’t as efficient either—essentially, your brain sends the signal to your muscles saying it’s not safe to move through a very big range of motion. And so the cycle continues.

What’s the problem with calf tightness?

Sure, calf tension can feel tight, achy, and uncomfortable, but it can also lead to more serious issues too. For instance, calf tightness can cause other aches and pains, as well as mess with your form in the gym.

“Achilles tendonitis, shin splints, knee pain, and plantar fasciitis can all originate from tight calf muscles,” says Dr. Schroeder. This is because these shortened muscle fibers actually affect other ligaments and joints. In the case of knee pain, tight calves can pull down on the ligaments on the back of your knee. With plantar fasciitis, tight calves can pull up on the fascia (connective tissue) on the bottom of your feet.

Tight calves can also affect your squat form. “When people can’t get into a deep squat, they might think it’s their hips or they aren’t strong enough, but it could actually be tight calves,” says Otey.

Here’s why: “If you have tightness in the calves, you cannot dorsiflex [your ankles],” Dr. Schroeder explains. Dorsiflexion is when your toes get closer to your shin, the opposite of plantar flexion, or pointing your toes. This causes your heels to lift off the floor as you get deeper into a squat, so you lose stability and can’t go further down. (Ankle mobility also plays a role here.) If you can’t get deep enough into a squat, you’re not using your glutes and hamstrings to their full potential.

“[When this happens,] we’ve disrupted the kinetic chain from the bottom up, and immediately you’re in a weakened position,” adds Otey.

How can calf stretches help?

To avoid or reduce calf tightness, static stretches (which are held in place) can make a big difference—they’ll help loosen up the deepest parts of your muscle, says Dr. Schroeder.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends holding a static stretch for 15 to 30 seconds and repeating three to five times on each side of the body, but Dr. Schroeder says there’s no need to overthink the timing—the important thing is to hold it until you feel a deep, satisfying stretch, she says. Just make sure you get in a little movement first, like a three- to five-minute walk around the house, to increase blood flow to the muscles—it’ll allow you to get deeper into the stretch and help avoid injury, says Dr. Schroeder.

It’s also important to include dynamic calf stretches (stretches that involve active movement) in your routine to improve mobility as well as flexibility, notes Dr. Schroeder. While you might not think of them as calf stretches, doing some bodyweight squats and lunges in your warm-up will help accomplish this, she says. Specific calf exercises such as calf raises—using dumbbells or just your bodyweight, like in single-leg calf raises—can be helpful here too. (Plus, calf workouts can help these muscles get stronger, which is important for balanced lower-body strength.)

Looking for some ways on how to stretch your calves? Check out some of the moves below. Do them the next time your calves are feeling tight, and add a few into your overall stretching routine to help keep your legs feeling limber. But if your calf tightness becomes persistent calf pain or discomfort, check in with a physical therapist or other health care professional first. They can help diagnose any medical issue that may be causing you pain, as well as provide individualized stretches or a specific program that can help you feel better.

  • Downward Dog

    • Start in a high plank with your hands directly under your shoulders.
    • Pressing through your fingers and palms, shift your weight back to bring your butt to the ceiling, so your body’s in an inverted V shape.
    • Hold this position—make sure you breathe!

    The key to getting a great calf stretch out of this classic yoga pose is to press your heels toward the floor. To target the lower part of those muscles, bend your knees slightly while you continue to press your heels down. You’ll also loosen up your hamstrings, lower back, and glutes in this move.

  • Downward Dog With Foot Pedal

    • Start in a high plank with your hands directly under your shoulders.
    • Pressing through your fingers and palms, shift your weight back to bring your butt to the ceiling, so your body’s in an inverted V shape.
    • Rise up on the toes of one foot while you press the heel of the opposite foot into the floor. Reverse the motion, and do the same pedaling motion on the other side. Continue pedaling.

    This dynamic version of the downward dog stretches your hamstrings, heels, and calves.

  • Katie Thompson

    Seated Calf Stretch With a Resistance Band

    • Sit on the floor with your legs extended.
    • Loop a resistance band (or whatever tool you’re using) around one foot, holding both sides of it with your hands.
    • Gently pull your toes toward your shin until you feel the stretch in your calf.
    • Repeat on the other side.

    “Bands are good options for people with really tight hamstrings and calves to increase range of motion,” says Otey. If you don’t have a resistance band, you can use a yoga strap, a towel, or something similar.

  • Katie Thompson

    Single-Leg Heel Drop Stretch

    • Stand with the balls of your feet on the edge of your step.
    • Drop one heel toward the floor. Bend your other leg and try not to put much weight into it.
    • Repeat on the other side.
    • To make this a dynamic stretch, you can slowly pedal your heels back and forth, or drop both heels toward the ground and raise them up and down.

    You can do this stretch with a step, a sturdy box, or the edge of a treadmill. “I love using gravity to assist stretches,” says Otey.

  • Inchworm

    • Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and arms at your sides.
    • Bend at your waist and place your hands on the floor.
    • Walk your hands forward to come into a high plank with your hands flat, wrists stacked under your shoulders, and your core, quads, and butt engaged. Pause for a second in high plank.
    • Walk your hands back to your feet and stand to return to start. This is 1 rep.

    This dynamic stretch fires up your entire body, from your shoulders to your heels. Your calves get in on the action when you walk your hands back to starting position.

  • Forward Fold

    • Stand with your feet together, shoulders back, chest proud, gaze straight ahead, and hands at your sides.
    • Breathe in, and as you exhale, start by tipping your chin to your chest, and then continue to slowly roll down, bringing the crown of your head toward the floor. Imagine moving each vertebrae one by one as you slowly fold your chest forward toward your thighs (your chest may not actually touch your thighs, depending on your flexibility).
    • Once your are folded forward, you may choose to interlace your fingers around your big toes, clasp your opposite hand around opposite elbow, or gently press both hands against the floor as shown.

    While this stretch is primarily thought of as a hamstring stretch, it also loosens up your calves. You should also feel a gentle release in your back. If you can’t touch the floor, you can either increase the bend in your knees or place your hands on a box or yoga block.

  • Calf Raise

    • Stand on a flat surface with your toes pointing straight forward, feet hip-width apart.
    • Rise up your toes, feeling your calf muscle contract, before bringing your heels down to the floor. This is 1 rep.
    • Contine performing reps.

    This is a dynamic stretch that takes you calves through their range of motion.

  • Katie Thompson

    Toes on Wall Stretch

    • Stand with a wall in front of you in a staggered stance, one foot close to the wall and one about a foot back. Place your palms on the wall for support.
    • Bring your front foot close to the wall, putting your hell on the floor and toes up against the wall. Put your weight into your front foot so you can feel the stretch along the lower part of your front leg. (To intensify the stretch, you can rise up on the toes of your back foot and bring your chest closer to the wall.)
    • Hold for a set amount of time, then switch sides and repeat.

    Keep your front heel firmly locked into the floor here to really make the most of this calf stretch—and be sure to wear sneakers so you can maintain a grip on the wall! This stretch hits your lower calf as well as your Achilles tendon.

  • Katie Thompson

    Lunging Calf Stretch

    • Stand facing a couple of feet away from a wall. If you’re not near a wall, you can also just do this with your hands on your hips (pictured above).
    • Place your hands on the wall for support and step one foot back into a mini lunge, bending your front leg and keeping your back leg straight.
    • Lean into the wall and press your back heel down so it’s flat on the ground. The further apart your feet are, the deeper the stretch will be.
    • Repeat on the other side.

    “This is one of the most popular [calf stretches] because it can be done anywhere easily,” says Otey. “A straight back leg means you’re going to feel it in the gastrocnemius, the large muscle of your calf.” To switch this up a bit, once you’ve held the stretch for a bit, change the positioning of your foot. This will hit slightly different areas from different angles.

  • Katie Thompson

    Standing Bent-Over Calf Stretch

    • Stand with your feet staggered.
    • Bend your back knee and keep your front knee straight as you fold forward and grab onto your front foot underneath your toes.
    • Pull up gently on your toes, feeling the stretch in your calf.
    • Repeat on the other side.

    This stretch helps you work on ankle dorsiflexion, says Otey, and it also hits your hamstrings. “[It’s] great to get the entire posterior chain, as one [muscle group] effects the other,” she says.

  • Meiko Arquillos

    Half-Split Stretch

    • Start in a kneeling position with your right knee directly under your right hip and your left leg fully extended in front of your body. Your left foot should be flexed.
    • Walk your hands alongside your left leg until you feel the stretch in the back of your left thigh.
    • Fold your torso over your left leg. If you feel some pull behind the left knee, bend it slightly. Bending your knee should also help you feel the stretch in your calf.
    • Hold this pose for a set amount of time then repeat on the right side.

    While this pose is primarily thought of as a hamstring stretch, it also loosens up tight calves, too.

    Demoing the moves above are Jo Murdock (GIFs 1–2 and 5–6), a registered yoga instructor, dancer, and fitness instructor; Devon Stewart (GIFs 3, 9–10), a yoga instructor and sexual and reproductive health doula based in Harlem; Keri Harvey (GIF 4), a Brooklyn-based NASM-certified personal trainer currently training at Form Fitness Brooklyn; Nicole Figueroa (GIF 7), a NASM-certified personal trainer and online fitness coach; Nikki Pebbles (GIF 8), a special populations personal trainer in New York City; and Jessica Rihal (GIF 11), a registered yoga instructor.


Alexa Tucker is a freelance writer and editor based in Denver, Colorado. She covers all things health and wellness including fitness, nutrition, and general health, as well as travel, beauty, and lifestyle. Alexa received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the renowned Missouri School of Journalism, and her digital work… Read more

SELF does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a substitute for medical advice, and you should not take any action before consulting with a healthcare professional.

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