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Deadlifts are as basic as it gets when it comes to exercising. You grip a bar and lift it off the ground until your are fully upright. This simple movement works almost all the major muscles of your body, including your calves. The reason for the large involvement of muscles is due to many joint actions that take place in your hips and ankles, just to name a few. With a few tweaks to the deadlift, you can increase the activity at your ankle joint and thus further work on the calves.
First Phase of Deadlift
The main joint actions that occur during the deadlift are hip flexion and extension, knee flexion and extension, and ankle dorsiflexion and plantarflexion. When you lift the bar off the ground, your hips, knees and ankles must straighten. This is the extension part of the movement. Note that ankle plantarflexion is a unique term that means extension of the ankle. Your muscles are concentrically contracting, or shortening during this first phase of the deadlift.
Second Phase of Deadlift
Once you are standing fully upright, you must then lower the barbell off the ground. To do this, you must bend your hips, knees and ankles. This is the flexion part of the movement, or dorsiflexion in the case of the ankles. During this second phase, your muscles are lengthening, and thus being stretched.
The main muscles of your calves are the gastrocnemius and the soleus. Both function to plantarflex your ankles. The gastrocnemius also plays a role in knee flexion, so it gets shortened when you bend your knees during the deadlift. Both of these muscles are worked during the deadlift, but the soleus is more involved due to the shortening of the gastrocnemius when you bend your knees. Thus, it cannot fully contract as a plantarflexor.
Tweaks for the Calves
Your soleus gets a decent amount of work when you do deadlifts, the gastrocnemius less so. To increase the activation of both calf muscles, you should add a tweak to the deadlift. During the first phase, as you lift the bar off the ground, you should raise up on your toes once you are almost in the fully upright position. Try to rise up as much as possible to contract your calves to a maximum. Hold the peak contraction for one to two seconds. To ensure you don't lose your balance while rising up on your toes, keep your body as upright as possible and your neck in a neutral state. Always look forward, never up or down, to keep your balance.