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What are the Different Types of Calf Muscles?

By Colette Larson
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The calf muscles, or triceps surae, consist of three separate muscles in the back of each lower leg: the gastrocnemius muscle, the soleus muscle and plantaris muscle. The gastrocnemius muscle raises the heel when the knee is in an extended, straight position, and it is mainly used for walking and running. The soleus muscle's primary function is flexion of the ankle joint to extend the foot down when the knee is in a bent position and to balance the leg on top of the foot when the body is in an upright position. The plantaris muscle works with the gastrocnemius muscle to extend the ankle when the foot is in a raised position or to bend the knee when the foot is in a fixed position.

The connective tissue of the three calf muscles join to form the Achilles tendon, which connects the calf muscles to each foot. The calf muscles are very powerful and are used to flex the ankle and knee, muscle movements that are required to walk, run, stand and jump. When walking, the calf muscles lift the heel from the ground, supporting the body on the raised foot, so that the opposite leg can swing forward.

The gastrocnemius muscle is the largest and most superficial of the three calf muscles. It originates from behind the knee on the femur and extends down to the heel. The gastrocnemius muscle is prone to involuntary nighttime leg cramps or spasms that are usually referred to as charley horses. These involuntary, painful contractions of the gastrocnemius muscle usually occur either on the verge of sleep or wakefulness, and they can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes.

The soleus muscle is a broad, flat calf muscle located immediately in front of the gastrocnemius muscle. It helps the body balance on the feet and keeps it from tipping forward. The soleus muscle is also referred to as the skeletal-muscle pump, because it is responsible for pumping venous blood from the extremities back up to the heart.

The plantaris muscle is a superficial calf muscle that is not considered vital to motor function, and it is not found in 7-10 percent of the population. When present, the plantaris muscle is located between the gastrocnemius muscle and the soleus muscle. It is considered to be of minimal importance in calf muscle function, but the plantaris muscle sustains damage when the Achilles tendon is ruptured.

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Discussion Comments

By Mor — On Jun 28, 2011

@umbra21 - You did that just by wearing high heels once, but people who wear them all the time get even worse problems. They can eventually shorten the muscles and might even get torn calf muscles if they push them too hard.

There are old ladies who have worn heels all their lives and have to walk on tip toe because of how tight their calf muscles are now.

If you wear high heels a lot you have to work your way into doing calf muscle stretches or you'll do yourself an injury. Don't try to just jump into them.

Go and get professional advice on it, and do them regularly to prevent problems later on.

By umbra21 — On Jun 25, 2011

I pulled a calf muscle the other night.

I had tried wearing high heels when I don't usually do that. After I took them off I could feel that my calves were a bit sore, but not bad.

Then I tried running to beat a pedestrian light and something went "pop" in my leg. I've been limping ever since.

It is healing though.

I'm keeping off it as much as I can and putting some heat to it. And I'm doing some very light calf muscle stretches as well.

It is really annoying to have sore calf muscles though.

By indigomoth — On Jun 24, 2011

My mother had an awful cramp in her calf muscle the other night. I assume from the article that it was her gastrocnemius muscle, although it didn't exactly matter to her at the time.

I was actually worried she'd had a blood clot or something because she was in so much pain. She tried walking it off and that didn't work. She tried stretching the calf muscle, tried relaxing the muscle and nothing worked.

Then we got some petroleum jelly with menthol in it (like vaseline, but it was a generic brand) and I rubbed the area with the jelly for several minutes, pressing hard on the part with the cramp.

Eventually that stopped it and even though it threatened to start again during the night, she was able to relax it herself.

So if you ever have the same cramp, try rubbing some menthol grease or jelly into the muscle and see if that helps.

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