If your calves hurt whenever you squat it’s likely this is affecting you both in terms of good technique and the amount of weight lifted.
However, it’s actually more of a common problem than you’d think.
In fact, an extremely high percentage of lifters experience calf pain when they squat.
Does this mean you’re doing something wrong?
Is there a way to fix this?
Allow me to reveal all.
The main reason your calves hurt when you squat is because the muscles are tight. So, working on calf flexibility, both before and after you squat, will help. You should also make sure that you’re not leaning forward or falling back when you squat, as you’ll need to engage your calves more for stability. Your calves will also be stimulated to a greater extent if you lack flexibility in your ankles or hips. You can also specifically train your calves more often to increase strength, and in the meantime have your heels raised when you squat.
Your Calf Muscles Are Tight
The most obvious reason for your pain while squatting is tight calves.
In fact, it’s extremely common for most people to have tight or sore calves a lot of the time.
If you think about it, we spend many hours a day on our feet, so our calves are getting stimulated frequently.
With that being said, there are a multitude of reasons why you may have tight calves.
And unfortunately these can often be quite conflicting.
As an example, if you’re overdoing it in terms of activating the calves you may feel some tightness or soreness.
Then again, if you’re not doing enough to stimulate the calf muscles this can also cause the same issues.
Additionally, having flat feet will also cause you problems with your calves when you squat.
Consider that up to 30% of the population can be affected by flat feet, with 10% of these experiencing regular painful symptoms.
Plus, you may spend time working on your flexibility and mobility, but how much of this do you dedicate to your calves?
So, if your calves hurt when you squat, you may want to consider stretching both the gastrocnemius and the soleus muscles.
And make sure you do this both before and after you squat.
Are You Drifting When You Squat?
Something that happens quite often when you squat is that you drift.
By this I mean you may lean forward or fall back when you squat.
This “drift” can be so slight that you don’t even detect it yourself.
Therefore, you may need to either video yourself or have someone watch you while you squat.
If you lean forward or fall back during squats then you’ll immediately engage your calves more for balance and stability.
So, in effect, you could be putting this additional stress on your calves 30-100 times, depending on your squat workout.
There are a few reasons that drifting may occur.
This could be down to fatigue or simply squatting with more weight that you can handle.
However, the most common reason is due to issues with flexibility and mobility.
You Lack Flexibility in Your Ankles
I would say that the main issue that hinders good squat technique is ankle mobility.
Basically, if you want to hit a perfect deep squat then your knees will have to move forward over your toes.
This will also mean that your shins should be angled forward.
However, if you lack flexibility in the ankles you’ll find it extremely difficult to hit either of these markers.
In fact, the lower you try to squat, the more your calves are activated to compensate for this lack of flexibility in your ankles.
In truth, the flexibility in all your lower body joints play a huge role in good squat technique.
But, your ankles can definitely limit your technique and will force your calves to work harder than they should.
You Lack Hip Mobility
I’ve just mentioned that all the lower body joints play a big role in squatting, and the hips are certainly no different.
If you lack hip mobility you’ll generally find it harder to squat as deep as you should.
Something else that is widespread among lifters (and even non-lifters) is tight hip flexors.
In fact, having tight or weak hip flexors will not only limit your squat, it will also impact on various other exercises.
And the problem doesn’t end there either.
Tight or weak hip flexors can impact on everyday activities, as well as being responsible for many physical, emotional, and mental conditions.
Your hip flexors are that important to your overall health.
You’ll typically find that as you approach the bottom of the squat with poor hip mobility you’ll feel a pinching sensation.
Once again, in order to compensate for this you’ll activate the calves for additional balance and stability.
So, in effect, your calves are working much harder than they should be.
Do You Train Your Calves?
I did touch on this earlier by saying that calf tightness can be caused by both over and under use.
However, when it comes to strength training, I would hazard a guess that the calves are one of the least trained muscles.
However, the rest of us tend to focus more on what we consider the “important muscles”.
The calves are the equivalent of the forearms for the lower body.
But the forearms will get much more stimulation during exercises like deadlifts, rows, and pull ups than the calves will from squatting.
And I’m willing to bet that many of you probably add some forearm-specific training to your routine.
Can you say the same for calves?
If not, it’s probably time for you to start strengthening those baby cows.
Try Elevating Your Heels
A temporary solution to your calf pain is to squat with heels elevated on weight plates.
This will help with various mobility constraints that you may have while squatting.
In fact, placing weight plates under your heels will take a huge amount of stress off the ankle and hip joints.
This means that you’ll find it easier to squat, even with flexibility and mobility problems.
And of course, this will also take the pressure off your calves.
The reason I say that this is only a temporary solution is because I don’t feel you can ignore the various issues that you may have.
You should work on your ankle flexibility.
It makes sense to improve your hip mobility.
Plus, stretching the calves on a regular basis will alleviate any pain that you feel in the meantime.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here’s some frequently asked questions about squats and calves. as well as answers and solutions to these potential issues.
How Much Are Calves Worked During Squats?
Firstly, it’s important to realise that your calves are activated with practically every movement you make that involves your legs.
Whether you sit down, stand up, bend over, reach up, walk, run, cycle, etc. you will be using your calves to some extent.
Therefore, it should be obvious that if you’re squatting with a load across the back of your shoulders (or even without any weight) you’re going to be working your calves.
Furthermore, your calves play an important role in providing ankle support and when using knee flexion, which means that you wouldn’t be able to squat without help from your calves.
So, you shouldn’t expect massive calf growth from squatting alone.
Additionally, I would also say that calf size has a lot to do with genetics.
So, someone who has a family history of fantastic calves is likely to achieve better calf growth from squats than someone who’s family has a history of tiny and weak calves.
In fact, for those of us with “poor calf genetics” (myself included), the calves are often viewed as the hardest muscle to build.
Then again, those with great genetics may never need to train their calves with any exercise other than squats.
However, the fact remains that for the vast majority of us, if we’re looking to blow up our calves we’ll need to do much more than the occasional barbell squat.
In fact, training the calves as a primary muscle is what is required.
Can Weak Calves Affect Squats?
As I’ve mentioned, calves are essential for ankle mobility and knee flexion.
Therefore, the weaker your calves are the more difficult you’ll find it to squat.
And this is not just from a strength perspective, but a mobility one too.
Something else to consider, the main calf muscle, the gastrocnemius, actually extends from the femur (thigh bone) to the achilles tendon.
So, while it’s your hip and knee joints that are doing the majority of the work during squats they require a stable base to “push off” from.
And this is provided by the calves.
This once again proves just how important the role of strong calves are when it comes to squatting.
Not only will weak calves affect your technique (which can lead to injury), you’ll probably find that the weaker your calves are the less weight you’re able to squat.
Do Calves Grow With Reps or Weight?
The calves are made up of slow-twitch muscle fibres, which means that they will react better to higher rep schemes.
This actually makes a lot of sense, as we are constantly “training our calves” on a daily basis.
Therefore, your calves already get a lot of daily volume from standing, sitting, walking, etc.
So, in order to force them to grow you should be training them in the higher rep ranges.
Personally, I feel all calf-training sets should fall somewhere between 15 to 30 reps.
And I myself prefer to train each set for 25-30 reps.
So, when you are training your calves with weights ensure you use a load that allows you to hit the higher rep schemes.
In fact, if you don’t ordinarily train your calves, even an extremely high volume bodyweight calf raises can elicit growth.
A popular method of training calves is to simply perform 100 reps of bodyweight calf raises on a daily basis.
Some choose to do this first thing in the morning every single day, whereas others will get their 100 reps in following a workout.
The aim here is to perform 100 perfect reps, while ensuring that every single rep uses your calves and not momentum or any stabilizing muscles.
Can Weak Glutes Cause Tight Calves?
I’ll be honest and say that “weak glutes” aren’t really a thing.
Basically, the gluteus maximus muscle will be fairly powerful in all individuals.
This is simply because you use your glutes on a daily basis.
However, most people will have overlooked, underactivated, and underdeveloped glute muscles.
This typically comes from poor posture, which can be made worse by sitting for many hours a day.
And of course, in the modern day and age many of us spend many hours a day sitting down, whether at a desk, in front of a computer screen, or behind the wheel of a car.
Unfortunately, this simply makes the glutes more inactive and “weaker”, which will eventually have a knock-on effect on other muscles.
One such muscle group will be the calves, which can feel especially tight when the glutes aren’t firing on all cylinders.
And once more, this can impact the mobility and flexibility of your calves.
So, there is a direct relationship between “weak glutes” and tight calves.
Obviously, when squatting you will specifically train the glutes, although this may not be enough to alleviate tight calves.
Realistically, this requires you train the glutes in all 3 planes of motion, i.e. horizontal, vertical, and rotational.
Key Learning Points
- The most common cause of calf pain during squats is tight calf muscles. This will affect your mobility and flexibility, which in turn can make squatting extremely uncomfortable.
- Poor ankle flexibility or hip mobility will typically see you leaning forward or falling backwards when you squat. This is usually felt in the calves.
- You can overcome poor ankle flexibility while squatting by placing weight plates under your heels. However, this is simply a temporary solution, and your aim should be to improve flexibility.
- While squats will definitely activate the calves this will not be enough calf training for most individuals.
- You should train your calves in higher rep ranges as they are mainly composed on slow-twitch muscle fibres. A good aim is to perform 15-30 reps per set of calf exercises.
- Weak glutes, or rather underdeveloped and inactive glutes can cause lower back and calf pain. This will be especially noticeable in lower-body exercises that activate the glutes, e.g. squats, deadlift, etc.
- Train your glutes across the 3 planes of motion and this should significantly improve your squatting technique, as well as alleviating calf pain.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.