The Lower Leg The Calf and the Shin

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This article was edited and updated on March 18, 2018.

The Calf Muscles

Location: We usually call it our calf muscle — that space between the back of the heel and the back of your knee — but there are actually two muscles there that work together.

The first is gastrocnemius (pronounced gas/strok/ne/me/us). The long seemingly unpronounceable word comes from Latin and Greek, originally meaning “stomach of leg” (which attempted to describe the bulge at the back of the lower leg).

The other muscle is the soleus.

The gastrocnemius and the soleus together form that more common term “calf muscle.” 2

Origins and Insertions: The gastrocnemius originates from two points just above the knee and inserts (by way of the Achilles tendon) into the heel.

Function: There are so many functions: it helps us to stand, walk, run, and jump. The soleus is primarily for plantar flexing the foot at the ankle and flexing the leg at the knee joint.

Potential Problems: The gastrocnemius is very prone to spasms or cramps; these are sometimes painful but always involuntary contractions of the muscle which can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. They can occur at any time, but at night and during exercise are most common. This muscle is also prone to injury; a torn calf muscle can be very disabling.

Exercises: Anytime you step up on to your toes, you are working your calf muscle. It can be a stretch or a strength exercise, depending on how long you hold it there and how often you repeat it. Walking up stairs will exercise your calf muscles. You can also stand on a step with the heel off the step, lowering the heel below the level of the step. Other standing exercises such as lunges and squats will work the calf, though other muscles are also involved.

Stretches: Stand on a step with the heel off the step, lowering the heel below the level of the step.

The Shin

Thanks to Wikipedia for the drawing.

Location: On the front of the lower leg is the tibialis anterior (TA). We usually refer to this area as the shin. The TA begins in the upper level of the tibia (bone) and inserts into the bones of the foot. This muscle helps us to dorsiflex and invert the foot.

Function: The TA aides us in many activities, including walking, running, hiking, kicking a ball — essentially, any activity that requires us to move the leg or keep it vertical. It stabilizes the ankle as the foot hits the ground while walking, and then acts later to pull the foot clear of the ground during the swing phase. The TA is the antagonist (or opposing) muscle of the gastrocnemius and soleus.

Potential Problems: One of the most common injuries of the TA is called shin splints. This is a very slow healing and painful condition in the shins, usually caused by some form of exercise, the most common being running, jumping, cycling, or dancing. Shin splints are also a common problem for military recruits while training. 3

Exercises: Just tap your feet (sitting or standing) and that will work your shin. A tougher one: Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and lift your toes with a dumbbell on top of the toes. Repeat as many times as you like. It won’t take long to feel the shins begin to burn.

Stretches: Flexing and pointing the toe will work the shins, as well as simply flexing and holding, or pointing and holding.

The shin muscles affect the knees, so you may want to read these related articles:

For articles about other muscles, see:

I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.

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  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. 

  2. Thanks to Unshod for the gastronemius/soleus diagram, although as of October 29, 2013, their website did not appear to be online. 

  3. There are other causes for shin pain than problems with the knees. See your doctor for a thorough exam if you have pain that doesn't go away.