Tight calves & back pain

Tight calves cause and contribute to all sorts of pain. Calf and leg pain, foot, knee and hip pain, low back pain, upper back pain, neck pain and headaches. I kid you not. I see it every day I’m at work.

More pain

Tight calf muscles cause more lower body pain and debility for more people than almost any other single thing. It’s not an obvious connection but once you start stretching your calves, you will see what I mean.

Hardest worker

Our hearts are by far the hardest working muscles in our bodies. Ceaselessly pounding away for every second of our lives. If you built a dam wall across the headlands of Sydney Harbour and plonked a human heart on top of it and ran a hose down into it, that heart would pump the harbour dry in the average lifetime. That’s how hard our hearts work. Incredible!

2nd hardest workers

A long way behind our hearts and a long way ahead of all our other muscles are our calves. Our calves are by far the second hardest working muscles in our bodies.

The back works harder

All the muscles at the back of us work a whole lot harder than the muscles at the front of us because of the way we are designed. Our tendency is to fall forwards, not backwards. We are designed to move forward but also to curl, crumple or collapse forward.

Arch backward as far as you can and you’ll have a slight to moderate curve. Arch forward as far as you can and you’ll curl up in a ball.

Energy and effort

So the greatest effort in keeping you upright is expended by the muscles at the back of your neck, torso and legs.

Because of leverage, the closer you go to a fulcrum, the more energy or effort is required to effect the lever.

Height x weight x leverage

Think of it like this. Take a pole that is the same weight and height as you. If you hold it upright with one end of it on the ground and one of your hands at shoulder height and tilt the pole over at 30 degrees, you could hold it there for hours, maybe even all day. Easy.

It’s all about leverage

Now, if you slide your hand right to the bottom of the pole, so your hand is touching the ground, and you lean the pole over at 30 degrees, how much harder is it to hold it there? It’s harder alright, much, much harder. Because of leverage.

Our amazing calves

And there are your calves, right at the bottom of the ‘pole’ – you, tirelessly working day in and day out, keeping you upright. This in itself is a humongous effort but it’s not even half the story.


Your calves are also the chief muscles of locomotion, your ability to walk or run around. Stop for a minute and think about how much time you spend walking around. How many steps you have taken in your life, how far have you travelled on foot?

70 million steps every 20 years

We take about 5 to 10 thousand steps a day. At the lower end of the scale that’s still over 1.8 million steps a year. At the higher end of the scale, it’s more like 3.5 million steps! Every year. So if you’re fairly active, that’s over 70 million steps every 20 years!  If you’re in you 80’s that’s in the vicinity of a quarter of a billion steps! No wonder you may feel a bit weary by the end of the day. No wonder our calves get tight!


Now think about each step. From a standing start you transfer all of your weight onto, say, your left leg and swing your right leg forward. Before your right heel strikes the ground, your left calf muscles have been engaged and start contracting to lift your left heel off the ground and continue the momentum forward.

The muscles of your right leg contract to take the weight as your mass passes over the top of it.


As this is happening, your left heel is moving higher, smoothly transferring your weight up the outside of the sole of your foot to the front third of your left foot. The force then swings across towards the base of the big toe.

Swing and pivot

As it does this the foot pivots on the area where the long bones of the feet, the metatarsals, meet the toes, the phalanges, hence the name, metatarso-phalangeal joints. (MTPJ’s)

Head honcho toe

The first MTPJ at the base of the big toe is the most important of these. It takes most of the weight as you continue forward and it, and the big toe, provide the fulcrum and power to continue your forward momentum.

Again and again

As you keep moving forward, the right calf takes up tension and starts to lift the right heel off the ground to continue the cycle. Again and again and again….

If you have bunions or gout you’ll know just how important the first MTPJ is because when they are playing up, it hurts like crazy to walk.

Lions Share

The point here is that your calves do the lions share of moving you forward when you walk. They are what lifts your foot, from back to front, off the ground and propels your forward, whenever you walk anywhere.

They are unsung heroes in our lives. All of the muscles of your legs, indeed of your whole body, are involved in locomotion but none works harder and has such an important role, as your calves.

Look after your calves

Look after your calves, they have a large bearing on the quality of your life. More than you think. Whether or not you have back pain but especially if you do. The older you get the more important it becomes.

That right calf

Whenever I treat, I always check a persons’ calves, regardless of what their presenting problem is. Almost everyone has tight unbalanced calves. By unbalanced I mean that one is tighter than the other. And it is almost always the right calf that is tighter. Almost always.

If you have one calf that is tighter than the other, a torsional effect is created that almost always effects the pelvis and low back, and usually the rest of the body as well.

Typical Strain Pattern

The twisting effect causes the Typical Strain Pattern. I see this pattern all day, every single day that I’m at work. It has been there in most of the people that I’ve ever treated for acute, chronic and recurring muscle joint and back pain. So there’s a fair chance that you may have it too. At the very least you will have a variation or elements of it.


Rarely do I see a problem in the lower half of the body, low back, pelvic, hip, knee or leg pain, that does not have this typical strain pattern or a variation of it. And it’s usually there in upper body problems too.

Learn this one thing

Understanding this strain pattern and how to deal with it may be the single best thing you’ll ever learn about eliminating or reducing and better managing your pain.

Tight calves

People often say to me “How can I have tight calves, I walk around all day”. Well, there’s the answer, they walk around all day, (and never stretch). Muscle tightens up in response to strong or prolonged use, and that is exactly what standing or walking for much of your day is.

Stretch your calves

The answer to this age old dilemma is usually very simple. Stretch your calves for a few minutes, a few, or more times a day. Some is good, more is better.

Stretch your calves

The sorer your feet and the tighter your calves, the more you need to stretch. Simple as that.

I love the simple stuff that works! And this one works gangbusters!

Stretch your calves

If you stretch a few times and your feet or low back still hurts, don’t give up, do more, lots more.

Give it heaps

Up to every hour or so. Stretching your calves is quick, easy, effective, convenient and free.

What more could you ask for? You just have to remember to keep doing it.

High low

Use high frequency and low to moderate intensity – do lots of stretches, not very hard.

Low back pain

And what’s more, calf stretching will also reduce or relieve much of the chronic or recurring lower back pain that so many people suffer.

You beauty. It sounds too simple, but it works. It really does, for most people. If your back hurts, diligently stretch your calves.

Burn ache hurt – stretch stretch stretch

If your feet burn, your legs ache or your back hurts, stretch and stretch and stretch your calves.

Some is good, more is better. If that doesn’t work, seek professional advice.

OK, so how do you stretch your calves?

Check out the Calf Step Stretch and the Video for more calf stretches.