What are the Best Achilles Tendon Exercises?
Achilles tendon exercises are movements designed to strengthen the Achilles tendon in the heel. Made up of the tendons of the gastrocnemius, soleus, and plantaris muscles in the calf, the Achilles — the strongest tendon in the human body — anchors these muscles to the heel bone, the calcaneus. Because this tendon transfers forces created by muscles in the calf across the ankle joint by pulling upward on the heel, Achilles tendon exercises tend to focus on strengthening the gastrocnemius and soleus and to a lesser degree the plantaris. Most effective exercises are variations on pointing and flexing the foot, as well as stretching the Achilles tendon to make it stronger.
The large two-headed muscle of the calf running from behind the knee to the heel bone, the gastrocnemius, is a powerful plantarflexor, meaning that it flexes the foot downward at the ankle joint. Beneath the gastrocnemius in the calf is the soleus, a slightly smaller muscle that also plantarflexes the ankle, particularly when the knee is bent. The third muscle with a common tendon in the Achilles is the plantaris, a relatively minor muscle of the leg whose muscle belly is situated behind the knee and whose tendon runs between the gastrocnemius and soleus to the heel. As the action of the plantaris is so insignificant — it is in fact considered a vestigial structure — exercises that strengthen the Achilles primarily involve the gastrocnemius and soleus.
Because contractions of these calf muscles pull upward on the Achilles tendon, thereby hinging the foot downward as in pointing the toe, strength training the gastrocnemius and soleus proximally strengthens the tendon. Any exercises that involve plantarflexion can therefore be considered Achilles tendon exercises. Novice exercisers and individuals rehabilitating an Achilles tendon injury can benefit from simple seated exercises. These can be done while sitting at one’s desk at work, and include basic plantar and dorsiflexion, or pointing and flexing the foot repetitively, as well as more complex ankle movements, such as drawing the alphabet with one’s toes.
Traditional calf-strengthening moves can also be considered Achilles tendon exercises. These include standing and seated calf raises. Standing calf raises, which work both muscles, involve standing on a step with the back half of the foot hanging off the edge and rising up onto the balls of the feet, followed by lowering the heels past the step until a stretch is felt before repeating. These can be done with one’s own body weight or on a machine for added resistance. Seated calf raises, which better emphasize the soleus, are performed on a machine with both knees pressed against overhanging pads to lift and lower the weight.
Though the Achilles is the most powerful tendon in the human body, the tendency toward tightness in the muscles of the calf leaves it susceptible to tears. For that reason, stretches for the calf muscles and their tendons should be included in a regimen of Achilles tendon exercises. To stretch the Achilles, a standing calf stretch is recommended, in which the individual stands facing a wall, plants both hands on the wall at chest height and steps one foot straight back into a lunge. Keeping the front foot planted and knee slightly bent, he should straighten the back leg and press the heel of the back foot into the floor while lunging his body weight forward to increase the stretch. This stretch should be held without bouncing for 30 seconds and repeated with the back knee slightly bent and heel on the floor, which targets the soleus.
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