Squats are one of the most fundamental weight training exercises. It is a compound movement that engages multiple major muscles in the body. Despite engaging mostly the posterior chain of the lower body like the hamstrings and the glutes, it also engages other supporting muscles.
Squats use the calf muscles in order to stabilize the knee flexion and ankle movement. It provides a supportive mechanism to the major lower body muscles to help in performing the exercise. It also provides a major push when lifting the legs at the lowest point of the movement.
Anatomy of the Calf Muscle
The calf muscles (along with the anterior tibial muscles) are the first set of muscles that activate when the feet come in contact with the ground. It functions as the accelerator as well as the brakes of the legs when sprinting or jumping. As such, untrained calf muscles are one of the most frequently injured in the body.
The calf muscles do not need to be strong for the legs to perform their regular motion. However, strong calf muscles make running faster and jumping higher easier and more energy-efficient; The calf muscles add explosive strength to leg movements.
Athletes strengthen their calf muscles to gain an advantage over their competition. Their calf training, however, is not as simple as training other muscles in the body. Their training targets specific parts of the calf muscles depending on their fitness or performance goals.
The calf muscle is composed of two muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. These muscles engage during plantarflexion and dorsiflexion or the ankle movement of the feet. Underdeveloped calf muscles can lead to lesser stability, weaker locomotive performance, and higher injury risk.
Between these two components, the gastrocnemius is the more noticeable and receives most of the force when performing activities. This gastrocnemius is made of up to 65% fast-twitch muscle fibers which are responsible for explosive movements like sprinting and jumping.
The soleus muscle lies behind the gastrocnemius and is wholly or partially composed of slow-twitch muscle fibers; It's much more resistant to fatigue. It is responsible for endurance activities such as jogging and walking.
Benefits of Squats on Lower Body Development
Squats are one of the most popular compound exercises. It can build muscle in almost every major muscle in the body. Its greatest impact, however, is on the lower body, specifically the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves.
It has significant effects in terms of balance and mobility, making it ideal for muscle coordination in performing functional exercises and activities. It also helps in preventing injuries due to falls, especially as one gets older. Performing squats regularly can trigger testosterone and human growth hormone release which can improve fat burning and promote muscle growth.
As a compound exercise, squats target the legs, glutes, and abdominal muscles which help in regulating glucose and improving insulin sensitivity. This protects the body against cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity. It also improves the functions and processes of the digestive and excretory system.
One of the most important benefits of squats is its accessibility. It does not require any equipment and can be performed fully using one's bodyweight. However, using weights can significantly augment the effects of squats on the body.
Effects of Different Squat Variations
The normal biomechanical effects of the squat involve the engagement of the posterior chain of the lower body. This includes the hamstrings and the glutes. The hamstrings in particular are essential for the functional movement and knee flexion when executing the squat; It helps in stabilizing the knee and preventing injuries.
While squats can be performed without weights, heavier squats increase the activation of the affected muscles. It increases the pressure on the hamstring muscles as well as the calves, specifically in terms of stabilizing the exercise.
Several variations of the squats like the jump squat and barbell squat affect the muscles differently. These variations also alter the priority muscles that are affected during the exercise. As an example, the barbell squat greatly affects the back muscles when compared with the other squat variations.
The underdevelopment of the calf muscles is at times attributed to genetics. Using weights such as barbells and kettlebells on squats increases the recruitment of the crucial calf muscles and helps in overriding the genetic component that prevents the muscular development of the calf muscles. Changing the angle of the squat also alters the engaged muscles and increases the load on specific muscles.
Calf Engagement During Squats
Despite engaging the hamstrings, quads, and glutes the most, the calf muscles also have a significant role in performing squats. The calf muscles are responsible for counterbalancing the movement of the quads and knees.
The gastrocnemius muscle of the calves acts as the main foundation for the balance of the lower body. It plays a significant role in how a person squats and the maximum amount of weight possible to squat. The tightness of the muscle fibers of the calf muscles also affects ankle and knee mobility.
Squatting regularly and with sufficient resistance from weights can increase the muscle mass and size of the lower body. Squats hit multiple parts of the body and burn massive amounts of calories, making them effective in fat loss and muscle gain.
The degree of development of the calf muscles is also related to the body type of the individual. Endomorphs and mesomorphs are the common body types that build muscles quickly while ectomorphs struggle to gain muscle mass.
Developing and Strengthening the Calves
Calf raises are usually used as the training exercise for the calves. It is a light workout exercise that complements heavy squats. Using weights in performing calf raises will increase the overall strength and mobility of the calf muscles. Several variations of the calf raise like the seated calf raise and standing reverse calf raise develops the soleus muscle instead of the gastrocnemius.
However, squats target the calves differently compared with calf raises. While squats do not isolate the calves similar to calf raises, it acts as a supporting muscle when performing the squat movement. It functions as the muscle that controls the overall movement. This leads to a balanced development of the leg muscles where the thigh, glutes, and calves all become bigger.
Adding certain elements to the exercise like using squat shoes or elevation on the heel can significantly alter how the calf muscles are engaged.
Performing squats not only improves the posterior chain of the body as it also targets multiple parts of the upper body, especially the core. However, the effects and role of the calf muscles in performing squats are often underrecognized. While the major leg muscles like hamstrings and glutes are the most targeted muscles during squats, the calf muscles are also engaged as it performs a crucial supportive role during the exercise.