The Australian Ballet

How to Get Strong Calves

Swan Lake Photo shoot Ally Deacon 24

Photo Ally Deacon

To all those dancers out there who are trying to keep fit at home - and to the rest of us, we've got two words for you: calf rises. More particularly, single-leg calf rises. They're our company's secret weapon for preventing injury and increasing strength in the lower legs.

Why do them?

Dancers put a lot of load on their lower legs during activities such as allegro and pointe work, so when they sustain injuries, it tends to be to the ankle and foot. In 2003, our Artistic Health team conducted some research that connected poor calf endurance to injury, so they introduced single-leg calf rises at the end of barre in morning class. Since then, there's been a drastic reduction in lower-leg injuries, and the days of moonboots, crutches, surgeries and extended time off stage are all but gone.

It's not only dancers who benefit from calf rises. They're good for your proprioception (your awareness of your body in space) and your balance. They strengthen your ankles (a boon for such activities as soccer, football and rollerskating). They work all the little muscles in your foot. And they give you a lovely sculpted line. Best of all, they can be done anywhere you can (lightly) hold on to something about hip-height - the back of a chair works well.

Below is a diagram prepared by our Artistic Health team to make your calf rises safe and effective.

600 x 1000 20200218 224533

How should you do them?

  • Speed – slow: 1 second ascent, 1 second descent
  • Feet parallel – helps to keep the midline of ankle aligned over the second metatarsal
  • Knee neutral – avoid flexing or hyperextending the knee
  • Range of movement – your ankle movement should be pain-free
  • Toes – long and flat to ensure foot intrinsic muscles are active
  • Smooth motion – no jerking or sharp movements, especially at full range
  • Vertical – avoid rocking forward and move body vertically
  • Back of the calf - keep it active throughout
  • Alignment – mid-shin or mid-ankle aligned over mid-foot
  • No stretching your calves afterwards! Tight muscles are often weak, and the tight feeling should resolve once the muscle is stronger. Consider massage or a foam roller to alleviate tension.

When should you do them?

Calf endurance exercises can be done daily or every second day. Dancers do them until they feel a good activation of their calf – i.e. until their muscle is close to that burning feeling. The aim is to gradually build capacity, aiming for 16 - 24 repetitions during class (if you're new to this, start with eight and build up slowly, adding one or two every time). A couple of times per week, we encourage the dancer to attempt a maximum set at the end of the day, with the aim of gradually building to at least 25 repetitions. Although the dancers aim for that calf burn, there should be no pain in the joints of the foot or ankle during the exercise. If pain is experienced, back off, and the next time you do them, try a smaller range of movement.

Where should you do them?

This exercise can be done anywhere, as no equipment is required - you just have to have something to lightly place your hand on to help with balance. We prefer that you do not perform this exercise off a step! Try it with the back of a chair, a balcony railing or a kitchen bench. Happy rising!

Dancing with David McCallister: How to do calf rises

TAB2022 818 22 Digital Dancing with David Asset