Tight Calves: Causes And Solutions

Updated Oct 2022

When your ankles are stiff, it’s painful. Tight calves make it difficult to walk, run, go up or down stairs, do activities, or play sports. Things like plantar fasciitis, calf strains, Achilles tendonitis, and foot pain can develop when your lower leg isn’t as mobile and strong as it should be.

This article will help you understand why tightness in the ankle and calves happen, plus what you can do about it.

Why are my calf muscles so tight?


Muscles can get tight or stiff-feeling for a number of reasons, but they all boil down to one simple equation: your body is responding to a signal it received. And in this case, that response was calf tightness.

Let’s break it down…

The number one principle your body lives by is the Signal/Response Principle. This Principle says: your body is always responding to the signals it receives.

That means that the aches, tightness, injuries, weakness… It’s all a response to something. Your job is to uncover which signals create the response you want, and which signals create the responses you don’t want, and then act accordingly.


Your Nervous System Decides
How Tight To Make Your Calf Muscles


Your nervous system is what decides how stiff or loose your calf muscles should be. 

Your nerves are constantly relaying information to your brain about your environment – both internal signals and external signals. Your brain is responding to that information by adjusting all sorts of things in your body, including how tight or loose your calf muscles are.

External signals are things that are outside of the body that have influence on things inside the body. 

Here are a few examples of external signals that might influence how your calf muscles response: shoes, socks, the type of ground you walk on, or that LEGO that you stepped on (ouch!)

Internal signals are things that are going on inside your body that have influence on you.

Here are a few examples of internal signals that might influence how your calf muscles response: the function of the muscles and joints of your foot, lower leg, knee, upper leg, and pelvis, how you stand/your posture.

signal in-response out


The Number One External Signal
For Calf Tightness: Shoes


One external signal that tells your calf muscles to shorten, and thus get tighter, is wearing the wrong shoes for your body and for the ground you walk on.

The job of a shoe is to support your foot appropriately, and this is a very important job that many shoes fail at. 

With each step you take, there are several motions and positions your foot will go through just to take that single step, including your heel tipping outward and inward, and your foot going from an arched position to a flat position and back to an arched position. 

A shoe’s job is to assist in managing the various positions your foot goes through as you walk or run by meeting your foot at all of its natural contours and not blocking your foot from moving through any of its positions.

Here are three instances where the mismatch of your shoes, your feet, and the ground can create tight calves:

  1. When you wear minimalist footwear or go barefoot on hard, unnatural ground – like all of the floors that are indoors in buildings, and the hard sidewalks that are outdoors.
  2. When you wear shoes that are so rigid they don’t allow for the natural motion of the foot – such as with shoes that correct “overpronation”.
  3. When you put hard insoles into your shoes to “correct” your poor gait pattern.

When your foot meets hard ground unsupported, as in when walking barefoot or in flimsy shoes on hard unnatural surfaces, or when you wear shoes or insoles that dis-allow your foot to move naturally, your brain and body will have to adjust.

This can contribute to responses like tight calves, stiff ankles, injuries to tissues of the lower leg, increased muscle tension elsewhere in the lower body, and more. 

To show you how impactful shoes are, here is a video from my Shoe Assessment day I had with my clinician. Notice the significant differences in range of motion (stiffness versus flexibility) in all of the joints we assessed before and after walking in the shoes.

The Number One Internal Signal
For Calf Tightness: Posture


There is an astounding amount of information being relayed to your brain from your feet which your brain responds to because, as you know now, your body is always responding to the signals it receives.

An important signal that tells your brain to tighten or relax your calf muscles is whether or not your bodyweight rests in your heels.

If your posture is such that you have your bodyweight more forward of your heels, you’re going to find that your calves are tight.

In speaking with a clinician I’ve worked with on my own body care needs, Dr. James Anderson, he gave the example of a hot air balloon for someone who is not weighting into their heels:

“Imagine a hot air balloon filling up with air, so much so that it lifts off the ground. That’s the epitome of having your weight in your toes, you could call it being ‘ungrounded’.

People who aren’t weighting into their heels are lifting up like that balloon.

We have muscles that lift us and muscles that ground us — and the people who are un-grounded will be lifting their chest, arching their back, and pushing through the balls of their feet. So, you’d expect to see their calves are tight, their quads and hip flexors are tight, their back is tight, their neck is tight.”

multi-colored hot air ballon lifting up into a blue sky
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

How To Get Relief From Calf Tightness


Change your footwear to something more suitable for your body and your environment. I teach about the best footwear for a body in my book Becoming Unbreakable: How To Build A Body You Love To Live In, and I offer Shoe Assessments virtually. If you’d like to book a Shoe Assessment, reach out using my coaching contact form here.

Start building your body with strength and mobility work that actually helps you get your bodyweight back into your heels naturally and stacks your posture more optimally. Note, you should NOT do this by using outdated and incorrect cues like “shoulders down and back” and “chest out.” You should also not expect real postural changes by simply trying to hold yourself intentionally in a different position.

The only way to create real postural changes is to send new signals to your body that tell your body it should respond naturally by adjusting your posture to something more stacked and aligned. My Becoming Unbreakable Workout & Lifestyle Course does just that, you can check it out here.

To give you a taste of what I teach in the course, here’s an example exercise that helps your body to begin finding a more grounded position. Note: this is a very nuanced exercise so follow the instructions carefully and don’t try to go at 1000% effort. A 3 or 4 out of 10 in terms of intensity will suffice. Also, it’s NOT a glute bridge. 😉



Want To Get More Exercises To Help Your Entire Body Feel Better?


To celebrate my book publication day, I am gifting you access to my Video Library that houses the first six exercises I teach to help you build a body you love to live in. And you don’t even have to have read the book to get it!

Just click here or on the image below to be taken to a page where you can gain immediate access to my Video Library.


fix your calf tightness with my six pillars exercises

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