Gastrocnemius: Learn Your Muscles

The gastrocnemius is the biggest, most superficial muscle in your calf. It is responsible for pointing your foot at the ankle, and it helps you bend your knee. Because of its function, it is a crucial muscle for walking and running.

This means that everyone who walks should learn about this muscle. Keeping the gastrocnemius healthy and flexible will benefit you in both the short and long term.

Location

gastrocnemius
Thanks to Saint Luke’s Health System for the image.

There are two heads to the gastrocnemius. They are the medial head and the lateral head. The medial head is closer toward the midline of your body, and the lateral head is located closer to the outside edge of your body.

Since there are two heads, there are two origins. The origin for the medial head is on the lower posterior surface of the femur above the medial condyle, and the origin for the lateral head is on the lower posterior surface of femur on the lateral condyle.

Translated into plain English:  You know how on some bones there’s those two bumps at the bottom? Those bumps are called condyles. So the heads of the gastrocnemius originate on the back side of your thigh bone just above the bump that’s closer to your inner thigh and also right on the bump that’s toward your outer thigh.

The insertion of the gastrocnemius is on the posterior surface of the calcaneus, which is your heel bone. The muscle connects to the calcaneus by the calcaneal tendon, which you may know as the Achilles tendon.

Function

The gastrocnemius really has two main jobs. First, it plantar flexes the ankle at the foot. This means that it helps you point your foot. Second, since it originates on the femur, it also helps to bend the knee joint.

When you think about these two movements, it’s logical to say that the gastrocnemius is crucial when walking or running.

Common Dysfunction

That being said, if you notice that your gait is off, it’s a good idea to check out your gastrocnemius. Sure, this muscle isn’t the only one that could be throwing off your stride, but it’s a good start.

You know the song about how your leg bone is connected to your… Well, I don’t know. I don’t remember the song, but maybe you do. The point of that song, aside from teaching basic anatomy, is that everything is connected.

So if your gait is off, check out your gastrocnemius, but don’t forget to work up and down the chain. This means that you should check in with your hamstrings and your plantaris, which runs on the sole of your foot. Sometimes the real culprit for the dysfunction isn’t actually the muscle where we feel the pain, so it’s important to take a look at the muscle’s neighbors.

Restoring or Maintaining Health

A frequent cause of gastrocnemius tightness is wearing inappropriate shoes. Now, in all my reading, everybody talks about high heeled shoes being terrible for the gastrocnemius. It’s true; high heels are bad for many muscles in your body.

However, I think it’s unfair to single out high heeled shoes when we have so many shoes that may have a slight lift in the heel. Many tennis shoes are this way. If you take a look, there are shocks or supports of some kind under the heel and nothing really under the toes. This puts you in the exact same position as someone wearing high heels, so please pay attention when you’re picking out shoes.

Make sure that your shoes are level. Or, if you’re able, spend as much time barefoot as you can. I believe that if you spend time barefoot, you will strengthen the muscles in your legs and feet to support you correctly.

Also, if your gastrocnemius is tight, stretch it. You can do a calf stretch while standing or you can sit and use tennis balls (or other muscle release balls like The Orb) or a strap.

Remember that the gastrocnemius can tear or have other significant injuries. If you are in pain, seek help from your physician. They can order imaging to identify the source of your pain and prescribe medicine or movement to help you heal.

More Information

I consulted The Concise Book of Muscles by Chris Jarmey. Recently, the book was revised and is in its third edition. For some reason, the Amazon link wouldn’t pull up, but I did find the newest edition of the book on Amazon.

Personally, I have the first edition, but I can’t say enough about how often I consult this book. If you are interested in anatomy but not in text books, I highly recommend this book. There are wonderful drawings of the muscles and the facing page has concise text about the muscle, what it does, and self stretches for tightness.

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Sarah Stockett is STOTT certified in Matwork, Reformer, Cadillac, Chair, & Barrels, Injuries & Special Populations, and CORE; a Yoga Alliance RYT-200; and has studied Active Isolated Stretching. When she is not trying to discover the best exercises to get rid of pain, she likes watching movies and travelling with her family.

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