Gastrocnemius (or gastroc for short) is the most superficial and largest muscle in the calf. It attaches behind the knee, under the hamstring, and tapers down from two muscle bellies into a single tendon: the Achilles tendon. The bulk of the gastroc muscles is located right under the knee. The gastroc muscle is often lumped together with the other calf muscle: soleus. Together they make up the vast majority of calf muscle strength. The actions of the gastroc muscle include pointing the foot (plantar flexion) and bending the knee to bring the heel to the back of the leg (flexion of the knee joint).
Overworking the gastroc can happen with several sports – mostly those involving jumping, stopping and starting running, or pushing off the toes. Dancers, runners, basketball players, soccer players and those who enjoy high impact aerobics must regularly stretch their gastroc muscles before and after activity to avoid strain. Proper footwear is also key in avoiding injury – shoes with arch support and impact absorption will assist in healthy biomechanics. (1)
Because the gastroc muscle crosses both the knee and ankle joints, it is susceptible to more injury than smaller muscles with less functions. It is most frequently injured on its medial muscle belly which helps distinguish between gastroc and soleus strains. (2)
Often times the gastroc muscle can become overworked from non-activity of other muscles. Weakness in the glute muscles can often force the calf muscles (gastroc and soleus) to become the primary extension muscles of the lower body. Think of it this way, the muscles that keep you from falling forward are the glutes and the calf muscles. If the glutes aren’t doing their job, you begin to lean forward at the hip. The calf muscles (gastroc and soleus) tense up to keep you leaning back at the knee. This leads to a flat butt and bulging, sore calves.
Rescue your gastrocs by strengthening your glutes. Several easy floor exercises can help encourage your glutes to work after a long day of sitting on them (3). This in turn, gives the calves a well deserved break. Stretch your gastrocs by using a foam roller, dropping your heel off a step, using wet heat to increase stretch, ice for pain and swelling, and visiting your local active release technique provider. Strengthening the gastroc is relatively easy and involves lifting onto the balls of your feet repeatedly with or without extra weight. For problems stemming from improper foot mechanics, it may be necessary to use heel cups in your shoes or see a podiatrist.
About Dr Swann: Dr. Swann graduated from Southern California University of Health Sciences with her Doctorate of Chiropractic in Spring 2012. She is full body certified in Active Release Technique and holds certifications in Graston Technique, Cox Technique and Kinesiotaping. Dr. Swann works with Dr. David Ness at Performance Sports & Wellness in New Paltz, and at Poughkeepsie Crossfit.
1. Livestrong.com 2. Gastrocnemius vs. soleus strain: how to differentiate and deal with calf muscle injuries. J. Brian Dixon. Curr Rev Musculoskelet Med. 2009 June; 2(2): 74–77. Published online 2009 May 23. doi: 10.1007/s12178-009-9045-8. PMCID: PMC2697334 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2697334/ 3. Glute Strength. Kimball, Nikki. Runner’s World. Mar 2011. http://www.runnersworld.com/workouts/glute-strength