This story originally appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of Pointe.
From the first plié at barre to the last grand jeté of class, your calves are extremely active. But do you devote the same attention to those muscles during your cooldown? According to Michelle Rodriguez, founder and director of Manhattan Physio Group, sitting in a lazy lunge or hanging your heels off a step doesn't cut it. Rodriguez, who has worked with dancers from New York City Ballet to Dance Theatre of Harlem, says a proper calf stretch isn't complicated, but there are several important details to keep in mind. Here are her do's and don'ts for an effective stretch:
Do pay attention to form. To target the gastrocnemius (the round muscle at the top of the calf), stand in a lunge with your hands on the wall, hips square, front leg bent and back leg fully straight with the heel firmly rooted into the ground. Keep the back leg in a slightly toed-in position. “This allows for support of the mid-foot," says Rodriguez, “and keeps it from rolling in so the stretch occurs in the calf."
Don't forget about the soleus. If you trace a line from your Achilles tendon up toward your knee, this is the first muscle you'll encounter. Rodriguez says, “It is important to stretch the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles separately despite them coming together to form your Achilles." To stretch the soleus, start in the same lunge, but move the back foot closer to the wall and bend the back knee. Keep the heel down and back toes angled slightly inward.
Don't rush it. Stay in each position for 30 seconds before switching legs. This is the minimum amount of time it takes for muscle fibers to establish a new length.
Do wait until after dancing. That's when stretching is most beneficial, since the muscles will be warm. “Dancers should stretch their calves three times per day," says Rodriguez. Do so once class, rehearsal or a performance has ended.
Don't use a stair to stretch. Though it may be tempting, don't rely on hanging your heel off a ledge or step. This puts excessive force on the Achilles tendon and causes the tendons and muscles in the toes to work too hard.
Do stretch in a weight-bearing position. As long as you're not injured, Rodriguez says calf stretches are much more effective when done standing as opposed to lying on your back and using a belt or strap.
Don't rely on props, such as a half-wheel rocking device, says Rodriguez. Though it's designed to stretch the calves, it lacks support in the arch and may encourage dancers to hyperextend their knees while stretching.