Exercise Analysis - Heel Raises

The body is only as strong as its weakest link and if you consider the amount of time we spend standing and walking throughout the day, I think you’ll agree that the muscles of the lower leg are critical anatomical constituents that should be exercised regularly. Two of the most important players in this regard are the gastrocnemius and soleus, the predominant muscles that comprise the group that is situated on the back of the lower leg (the calves). Collectively, these muscles function to angle your foot down (as would be the case when standing up on your toes), so if you apply resistance that opposes this motion, your calves will experience the training effect.

The most basic exercise for calves employs only body weight as resistance and involves standing all the way up on your toes momentarily to contract your calves before returning to a flat-foot position on the floor and repeating. Obviously, this is a convenient way to train the muscle group because it requires no equipment and can be done any time any place. However, there are some drawbacks to this approach. First off, calves tend to be very strong relative to body weight so there is a good chance it will be impossible to provide sufficient stimulation without added opposition. Resistance-training adaptations occur only if the load against which you are working allows for the continuation of movement for two minutes or less. Body weight heel raises might not satisfy this criterion.

One way to modify body weight heel raises to allow for the application of a more appropriate load is to perform the movement one leg at a time. However, as your calves become stronger in response to training, body weight as the resistive load for even one leg might not suffice. Strength training is referred to as progressive resistance exercise because loads must be adjusted upward as strength gain occurs. Using free weights and resistance machines allows for such progression.

Another problem with standing heel raises as described is that the muscle is only working through a limited portion of its movement range. Quality strength training requires resisted movement throughout a muscle’s entire range of motion and if the heel cannot descend below the ball of the foot, this is not possible. Therefore, it is better to perform heel raises off of an elevated surface (a step, for example) with only the front portion of the foot supported.

Once your calves become stronger, opposition can be added to bodyweight heel raises by holding a dumbbell in your hand as you perform the maneuver. However, this solution also has a limited shelf life. Before long, your calf strength will exceed your grip strength and you will be in a similar predicament. At this point, the best bet is to incorporate calf-training machines into the mix.

Most gyms have a standing heel raise machine with pads that are attached to the machine’s movement arm. Setting up the machine might require loading plates onto its movement arm or simply inserting a pin below the appropriate load on its weight stack, but either way, your job is to choose an appropriate resistive load, squat under the pads with them positioned comfortably atop your shoulders and extend your legs completely so that the weights are raised. Once you are standing with the weight on your shoulders in this manner, you simply position the balls of your feet on the raised surface and perform heel raises over a complete range of motion. It is important to not rock back and forth as you perform the exercise, so you must keep your hips directly over your heels and limit motion to one joint (your ankles) exclusively. And as with all movements where additional weight is applied atop the vertebral column, keeping a neutral spine is critical, so you should concentrate on keeping your chest elevated, shoulders back and lower back curve maintained throughout.

Many gyms also have a seated heel raise machine with pads that you position on top of your thighs. Many exercisers use this machine interchangeably with the standing version, but there is a major difference. When the knee is bent, only one of your two calf muscles (the soleus) is active. Therefore, seated heel raises are great for isolating the soleus, but if you’re looking to train both muscles with one movement, you should opt for a version where your knees are straight. On the other hand, if you want to place additional emphasis on your soleus, including both seated and standing heel raises in your program is a good idea, but it’s important to consider the order in which you perform the two movements. If you do the seated version first, you will effectively pre-exhaust your soleus, thereby making it the weak link on the subsequent exercise. This will prevent you from being able to adequately stimulate your gastrocnemius when performing the straight-legged movement. Consequently, whenever you include both straight- and bent-legged heel raises in your calf workout, you should do the straight-legged version first.

This article was originally published in New Living Magazine, which can be accessed on-line at www.newliving.com.





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