The Soleus is one of three calf muscles that run down the back of the leg from the knee to the Achilles tendon. This group of muscles is most active at the push-off, or late stance, phase of gait, plantar flexing the foot downwards to push us off the ground. The Soleus is the shorter of the three and is more active with the knee bent, making it an important muscle for runners, as it generates a large percentage of the power in push-off, around 2/3s of the load according to the research.
I find that The Soleus is often weak when assessing runners, and this can lead to tightening of the calf, an increased risk of calf strains, and compensatory overload in other structures such as the Achilles and Plantar Fascia increasing the risk of injury in those areas.
So how do we strengthen this important muscle?
- As the muscle is active with the knee flexed, you need to work it in this position.
- Stand on a step with your heel hanging over the end of the step, and flex your knee.
- Push up into a heel raise, making sure your knee stays flexed, pushing up through the ball of your foot.
- Slowly lower yourself down, dropping the heel below the step.
- Repeat up to 15 times in 1 set, building up to 3 sets of 15 repetitions as a baseline.
- Stop the repetitions when you start to lose control or if you are getting too much pain in the calf.
Here are a few tips for success
- Keep the knee bent throughout the exercise! Imagine your knee is locked in a metal brace and you cannot straighten it.
- Try and maintain good control throughout the exercise. If the calf is wobbling and you are struggling to maintain a smooth movement up and down, reduce the reps to stay in control.
- If the exercise is too easy, try slowing down the speed of the exercise, spending more ‘time under tension’ to increase the difficulty.
- You can also add hand weights such as kettle bells, or household objects such as milk cartons or a weighted backpack to increase the demand.
Initially look to do this exercise on alternate days over about a 6-week period to build strength. Once you add weights you can reduce the repetitions and the frequency to about 3 sessions per week for maintenance. This exercise is best done in combination with an overall strength and conditioning programme focusing on the key muscle groups of the lower limb such as the glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps.