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The standing heel raise -- or calf raise -- ranks high on the list of most-beloved calf exercises. The American Council on Exercise recommends it for boosting strength in the gastrocnemius, the larger and more prominent of the two calf muscles. If you want to go deeper than the gastrocnemius and work its companion muscle, the soleus, pull up a bench and take a seat. Heel raises from a seated position, with the knees bent, are the go-to exercise for building soleus strength.
Your calves propel your forward when you walk, power your vertical jump and enable you to balance and walk on the balls of your feet. The gastrocnemius muscle of the calf lies closer to the surface. It consists of inner and outer -- or medial and lateral -- compartments. Standing heel raises develop both compartments of the gastrocnemius, giving the back of the lower leg a bulbous, diamond-shaped appearance. Every time you rise onto your toes in a standing heel raise, the gastrocnemius fires up, while the underlying soleus lays low. During a seated heel raise, with the knees bent at 90 degrees, the soleus kicks into high gear, while the gastrocnemius is almost entirely inactive. Building up your soleus enhances the line of your lower leg and helps ensure maximum calf performance.
For the least intense version of the exercise, sit on a firm chair or bench with your feet on the floor in front of you, hip-width apart. Slowly raise your heels off the floor, lifting them as much as you comfortably can while keeping your insteps directly over your second and third toes. Press your weight into the balls of your feet and contract your calves at the top of the movement. Hold for two seconds and then slowly lower your heels. If you're reasonably fit, complete one to three sets of 10 to 15 heel raises, resting for 60 to 90 seconds between sets. Muscle cramping or pain in the calf area is your cue to stop. You can perform the exercise up to three times a week, resting a full 24 hours between workouts.
Use variations of the basic exercise to add variety and intensity. You can work with your forefeet on a raised platform -- such as a board or aerobics step -- which allows for greater range of motion. When working with a platform, lower your heels as much as possible toward the floor. Add resistance by gripping a dumbbell and resting it on your thighs or placing a small pile of heavy books across your lap. If you wish, work one leg at a time, relaxing the non-working foot to the side. Playing around with your counts can boost outcome, as well. Try raising your heels for a count of three, holding for a count of three, and then lowering for a longer, more drawn-out count of five.
Tips and Considerations
Precede the exercise with a suitable warm-up, including 10 minutes of general cardio exercise and a dynamic stretch -- such as slow ankle circles -- to increase circulation in the calf area and prepare the soleus for intense action. Follow your workout with a gentle soleus stretch to prevent soreness and tightening. Sitting on the floor with your legs extended in front of you, loop a rolled-up towel around the sole of your right foot. Bend the right knee to 45 degrees and pull back gently on the ends of the towel, drawing your toes toward your shin. Hold for up to 30 seconds. Repeat up to four times before switching to your left leg. If you've injured your calf, ankle or Achilles tendon in the past, speak to your doctor, physical therapist or trainer about the advisability of specific calf exercises and stick to your rehab schedule to prevent re-injury.