While foam rolling can be a quick and easy way to break up myofascial restrictions, decrease pain and increase range of motion in most areas of the body, the calves are a particularly tricky area to access alone with a foam roller. Generally, foam rolling guides will tell you to sit on the ground with your legs outstretched, cross your legs at the ankles, and lay the calf of your bottom legs across the foam roller, while using your arms to lift your hips off the ground, in an effort to put as much downward pressure into your lower legs as possible, hoping to transfer that pressure into the foam roller and achieve results in your calves. There are, however, several problems with this method.
First of all, it defies basic physics. Physics tells us that with a long lever arm, such as the full length of your legs, the more muscular effort you’ll have to put into the foam roller to see results. When you sit your hips on a foam roller, you’re mostly using the force of gravity to apply pressure. As you move further down the leg, gravity helps less, and your own muscular energy has to make up the difference.
Second, while large foam rollers are great as a generalized tool for large muscle groups, there are more than a dozen tiny muscles that make up the calf, each crossing the ankle and holding your body stable on unstable surfaces. The larger more superficial muscles that make up the general shape of your calves and fuse into your Achilles tendon may get generalized relief from standard foam rolling practices, but to really impact your ankle mobility and break up fascial adhesion, you’ll need to work a little bit more specifically to see results.
Prepping Your Calves
To get the most out of your self myofascial work, it helps to prep your calves with gentle stretching. While there are 12 separate muscles in your calf that cross the ankle joint to help stabilize and propel your movements, the two largest and most superficial are gastrocnemius and soleus.
Gastrocnemius originates above the knee, and forms the thickest part of your upper calf before tapering into the Achilles tendon and crossing the ankle. Since it’s a two joint muscle, the best stretch is achieved with a straight knee and a flexed ankle, such as in warrior one pose in yoga.
Soleus is a single joint muscle that starts toward the top of your lower leg, below your knee, and also fuses into the Achilles tendon. It makes up the bulk of the muscle in your lower leg, below what is normally thought of as the calf bulge. To target this muscle, stretch with a bent knee by flexing at the ankle with your knee bent to take the stretch off gastrocnemius and allow soleus to get the attention.
Reversing the Force
So we’ve already covered why your body weight isn’t particularly effective at generating pressure for the calves on a foam roller. What if you switched roles, and left your body as the stationary object, using your roller to apply the downward force.
Sitting up on your knees, with your shins and the tops of your feet on the floor, place the foam roller across the back of your calves. Engage your core, and reach your hands behind you until your resting your palms on the foam roller. Using your upper body as the weight, you can slowly work on your calves.
This strategy is still using your body weight, but much more efficiently. However, it’s still using a large generalized tool, a general purpose foam roller, which is much better suited to large muscles or broad areas. To target specific areas, you’ll need something smaller.
Using a Bar Bell
Using a standard Olympic bar, you can passively apply force without the strain (and flexibility requirements in your psoas) of leaning your body backward to apply body weight force. Take a Olympic bar and lay it on the floor near you while you get into position, still on your knees with your shins and feet on the floor. Lift one end of the bar bell and place it on top of your calves, allowing your body to adjust to the pressure.
Slowly move the bar bell up and down your calves, one calf at a time, pausing at any troublesome spots. Roll your calves and feet inward and outward to access lateral muscles. For more targeted work, slid up further onto the bar so that the part in contact with your calf is the narrow grip portion.
Be sure to work within your comfort level, and work up to longer sessions to avoid bruising or damaging tissues.