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Massage Aha!

Professional therapeutic massage therapy in Kansas City, MO by Aaron Harris, BCTMB

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The Gastrocnemius Muscle

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The Gastrocnemius muscle is the most superficial muscle on the back of your calf. This muscle is very strong, because it is involved in many daily activities, such as walking and driving. It also assists in stabilizing the knee when standing.

The Gastrocnemius Muscle
The Gastrocnemius Muscle is the superficial muscle of the back of your calf.

It gets its name from the Greek words for “belly” and “leg.” “Gastrocnemius” literally means “stomach of leg,” which refers to the appearance of the calf when viewing it from the side.

Two Heads

This muscle is made up of two sections of muscle fibers, known as “heads.” There is the lateral head, which lies on the outside edge of the body; the medial head lies on the inside edge of the leg.

Lateral Head of the Gastrocnemius Muscle
The lateral (outside) head of the gastrocnemius.
Medial head of the Gastrocnemius Muscle
The medial (closer to midline) head of the Gastrocnemius.

What Does the Gastrocnemius Muscle Do?

Primarily, it is responsible for flexing the knee and pushing your toes toward the floor, a movement known as plantarflexion. If you think of the process of walking, you can see how this muscle functions in important ways.

When most people take a step, the foot rolls forward and pushes against the floor (plantarflexion), the knee flexes and swings forward, the foot contacts the floor while flexed, then relaxes. These motions engage the gastrocnemius at each point along the way.

The “gastroc” gets a lot of use when you are driving, since plantarflexion is the exact movement that pushes the accelerator and brake toward the floor.

If you tap your foot often, whether absentmindedly, or say, musicians keeping a beat, you are quickly flexing and relaxing the gastroc.

Exercises Involving the Gastrocnemius

Many common “leg day” workouts rely heavily on the gastroc:

  • Standing calf raises
  • Seated calf press
  • Lying leg curls
  • Hamstring raises

Trigger Points

Common Trigger Points in Gastrocnemius
Common trigger point locations in gastrocnemius (marked by X) and the associated pain referral (blue areas).
Trigger points in the Gastrocnemius Muscle
Common trigger point locations in gastrocnemius (marked by X) and the associated pain referral (blue areas).

There are two common trigger points in each head of the gastrocnemius, for a total of four.

The most common of these is found on the medial belly of each head about a third of the way down the calf from the knee. This point refers pain down along the entire calf ending in the instep of the foot. It also can spillover into the back side of the knee.

The next common trigger point is located in the lateral head and it generally refers pain around itself.

Trigger points near the attachment site of the muscle on the end of the femur refer pain directly into the back of the knee. This pain can be quite intense.

Nighttime Calf Cramps

The trigger points located in the bellies of the gastrocnemius are often the cause of those sudden cramps that shoot you straight out of bed at night. These cramps are most often seen in young adults who are undergoing a “growth spurt,” and in athletes who haven’t properly stretched and gone through cooldown routines.

When you experience one of these painful cramps, you can often release the cramp by forcing your heel to the floor. Another common technique to release the nighttime calf cramps is by standing several feet away from a wall, leaning your entire body against it while keeping your leg straight, heel on the floor.

Massage for the Gastrocnemius Muscle

Most modalities of massage include direct manipulation of the gastroc. Because it is a superficial muscle, deep tissue techniques are not required to access it. Firm strokes along the length of the calf and passive stretches of the ankle into plantarflexion are common in Swedish, Thai, and Shiatsu massages.

Trigger point therapy, rapid compression and friction over a trigger point, is very effective at releasing these areas of stuck tissues. These trigger points are often point-tender and must be warmed up sufficiently to reduce pain prior to any advanced release techniques on the muscle.

Conclusion

Driving in crazy stop-and-go Kansas City traffic is something we have all experienced. This repetitive movement causes focused overuse of this muscle. Unless you are actively cramping, you often don’t notice the baseline pain level in your calves.

The gastrocnemius muscle gets a ton of use during your daily life.

This is one of my favorite muscles to work on in a session, because most clients don’t realize how painful their calves are until they are touched. The muscle tends to release easily, so a client can experience a tremendous amount of relief in just one session.

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