“Get lower, that rep doesn’t count.”
- Your coach (as you slowly die trying to grit through one last set of squats for the day)
You try to get lower, but your darn calves are just too tight. You’re frustrated because you’ve been doing calf stretches for 6 months now. Heck you’ve even been through a couple rounds of dry needling, cupping, and even massage therapy. But nothing has changed. They are still as tight as ever and you’re lucky if your squats get you low enough to a couch seat.
What if the solution isn’t stretching because…………. your calves aren’t actually tight?
What if instead of a muscle issue it’s a body position issue?
Muscles are rarely truly “tight” and physically shortened to the point of affecting range of motion. In most cases, that tightness is just a strategy created by the brain and nervous system in order to compensate for something elsewhere in the body.
What is the Reason for Tight Calves?
For most people, it is because they keep their center of mass too far forward in space, so more weight is towards their toes, opposed to being centered on their midfoot or heels. This positioning places more tension on the calf muscles to hold our body weight up against gravity (picture standing on your tiptoes all the time). It also places the ankles into an already relatively dorsiflexed position, so when performing a squat, it is difficult for the ankles to dorsiflex even further when attempting to achieve full depth. For more explanation and a visual, watch this video.
Take a look at the two pictures below. The top picture shows what its like to have your center of mass directly over your midfoot, where it should be. The bottom picture shows the center of mass being pushed too far forward. You will notice this resembles what many think of as the dreaded anterior pelvic tilt. See how the center of mass, aka your most of your weight, is out over the toes? Definitely not an ideal place to start from.
Why are You Forward in Space?
Put simply, this position is what your brain has determined is the best for you to fight gravity and stand upright. The reasoning behind this will be different for each individual, but generally speaking this means you will leverage your low back and quad muscles more often, which are the muscles that push you up and forward (and also into an anterior pelvic tilt).
How Do You Fix It?
Get your weight back on your heels. Not just lean back like you’re Fat Joe and the Terror Squad. But by using the muscles that naturally keep your center of mass back: your hamstrings and abs.
The two exercises below are fantastic at helping to find these muscles in the right patterns to create a backwards weight shift and take tension off your calves.
When it comes to getting back in the gym, there are a couple different techniques that can be used to incorporate these same concepts into your regular workouts.
One option is to perform squats with your heel(s) elevated. This will help take tension off of your calves and allow your pelvis to better achieve proper positioning, which in turn will keep your weight more centered, decreasing the limitations of your calves. Here are two options you can use with this technique to learn a proper squat pattern.
Another option is to use an anterior load during your squats. Holding the load in front of your body will force you to use more abs to keep your weight back during the squat. Front/goblet squats and zercher squats are great options.
As stated earlier, the reason for your center of mass being shifted forward is going to be unique to each individual. Unique problems require individualized solutions. Here at Human Function and Performance we specialize in figuring out exactly what you need in order to move freely and perform at your very best. If you are currently dealing with tight calves and it is affecting your ability to squat or perform to the best of your ability while in the gym, then call us at (469) 626-7254 to set up your first assessment and learn more about how we can help you.
If you have any questions about the content covered in this blog, or more about how body positions can affect movement capabilities, then email me at colten@humanfunctionandperformance so we can continue talking about this fascinating topic.