Hot Hollywood legs demand seated calf raises

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What do Charlize Theron, Gisele Bundchen, Jennifer Aniston, Vanessa Minnillo and Stacy Keibler have in common?  They have made the top 5 (ranked in order) of “Hollywood’s best 10 legs list by In Touch Magazine. In October of 2007, Esquire Magazine also named Charlize Theron the "Sexiest Woman Alive" in large part, to her legs. Do you have to be born with great legs to have great legs like Ms. Theron? Well, it certainly helps if the genetics are good, or if you have caught the eye of a Hollywood producer. In Charlize Theron’s case, she has had extensive ballerina training and thismeans lots of lower leg exercises. But how does the average woman who does not even want to make it to the big screen develop Hollywood legs? Exercise, is the key for developing Hollywood legs, on whatever stock that your Maker has provided you. Although cardio-work will help your lower legs and calves a little, they really do not help provide the direct stimulus that you will need to develop glamorous calf muscle shape. Also, if you wear high heels a lot, your calf muscles are placed in a shortened position, and overtime this will actually shorten the muscle and Achilles tendon and could increase the susceptibility of an injury.

There are two approaches for handling less than optimal calves. In the first, you could throw out anything in your wardrobe that will show more than an ankle of your leg and always wear flat shoes. However, that seems like a rather poor way to deal with a calf development problem. The other is to target exercises to this region, and start a whole new awakening in your lower legs that your peers will envy. Because you walk every day, your calf muscles are already partly trained so they need direct and specific work if they are going to be reshaped. Seated calf raises are a direct way to target the calf muscles, and at the same time achieve a great stretch, thereby offsetting the shortening that may be caused by your shoe selections.

Muscles involved in seated calf raises.
The gastrocnemius muscle forms most of the diamond-like shape of the calf. The upper and middle regions of the medial gastrocnemius create the medial part of the diamond just below the knee. However, the soleus muscle contributes to the lower part of the diamond shape of the lower leg. The gastrocnemius is the most superficial of the lower leg muscles. It has two heads. The lateral head starts above the lateral part of the knee on the tibia bone, while the medial gastrocnemius begins on the medial part of the tibia just above the knee. Both muscles combine and attach on the Achilles tendon, which then attaches to the calcaneus bone (the heel). Although the medial and lateral heads of the gastrocnemius muscles are certainly activated in seated calf raises, this exercise preferentially recruits the deep muscles of the calf.

The most important of the deeper muscles of the lower leg is the soleus muscle. This broad flat muscle mostly lies deep to the two gastrocnemius muscle bellies. However, you are able to see and feel parts of this muscle if you take your hand and press your finger tips into both the medial and lateral sides of the gastrocnemius. It is however, more visible from the lateral and lower side of the leg, just below (towards the heel). It forms an important part of the lower calf structure, whether it is viewed from the front, back or the side. Even though the soleus is a deep muscle, improving its shape will actually dramatically improve the overall shape of your lower leg.

The soleus muscle is horseshoe shaped where it attaches to the tibia and fibula bones of the lower leg. Its’ fibers anchor to the Achilles tendon, which in turn attaches to the calcaneous  bone of the foot. The primary function of the soleus is to plantarflex the ankle joint (which, is the movement of rising on one’s toes and lifting the heels from the floor), but the gastrocnemius also has the same function. Unlike the gastrocnemius, the soleus does not cross over the knee joint, so the soleus will contribute fully to heel raises (plantar flexion) whether the knee is extended or flexed. The advantage of doing the heel raise in the seated position is that the gastrocnemius muscles are largely taken out of the action, leaving the soleus and the other deep muscles of the lower leg to do the lion’s share of work. The soleus has a very good blood supply (unlike the gastrocnemius muscles) and it is almost unfatiguable with moderately light resistances. However, with heavy loads, the blood supply is shut off and the soleus muscle will scream for oxygenated blood.

Three other deep leg muscles also assist the soleus (and gastrocnemius) muscles in seated calf raises. These include the flexor digitorium longus muscle, the tibialis anterior muscle and the peroneus longus muscle.  These are deep flexor muscles of the toes which attach to the tibia and fibula bones and cross the ankle to attach to bones on the foot. You can’t see these muscles, but they do help to provide overall shape to the lower leg.

Seated Calf (Heel) Raise.
1.    Sit on the seat of the seated calf machine with your knees bent to 90 degrees. Position the pad so that it rests on the lowest parts of your thigh just proximal (towards the head) of the patella (knee cap).  Ideally, the weight should be over the knee joint and therefore over the ankle, but the pad on most machines will slide off your knee if it is placed there.

2.    Put the ball of both feet on the raised platform on the seated calf machine. Plantarflex the ankle so that the heels are raised as high as possible. There will usually be a safety bar that you will have to move out of the way once you have the weight stack up and the weight over your toes.

3.    Hold the top position for two seconds then slowly lower the weight. So that the heels move towards the floor. If you have positoned your feet correctly, your heels will not touch the foot bar, but your toes and the balls of your feel will take the comlete loading throughout the exercise. Try to achieve a maximal stretch of the Achilles tendon and soleus and the deeper calf muscles. This stretch is especially important if you have a job where you sit a great deal or you wear high heels a lot. Ensure that the descent and stretch of your calf muscles and Achilles tendon is slow and complete. Fast descents will likely result in injury to the Achilles tendon and insufficient stretches will minimize a very important aspect of this exercise.

4.    Continue immediately into the next repetition until the set is finished. Try to work up to 15-20 repetitions before stopping your set. 

5.    Do not forget to put the safety bar back in place on the last repetition while you are in the top position (your heels are up). You would then lower the weight and the safety bar will take the weight from you. There is nothing worse than trying to reset the bar with your heels in the lowest position, and when your legs are tired. If this happens, you have to do one more repetition than you had planned on to get the weight back up and get the safety bar in place. Work up to do 3 sets of this exercise.

If it is easy to do 20 repetitions, then do not be afraid of adding more resistance to the machine.      

You do not have to ever worry about your calves getting too big or bulky from this exercise: it just won’t happen. However, if the resistance is too low so that you could easily perform 50 or more repetitions, the weight is too light. The point is that although heavy weights are not important in developing the soleus, very light weights will not be very time effective. If your resistance is too low, then the exercise will not maximally activate the soleus, and your lower leg shape will not progress as quickly as it should.  The goal should be to choose a resistance that you can use for a maximum of 15-20 repetitions. Finally, you should never do seated calf raises in a ballistic manner. Better results are achieved from moderately slow movements.

The seated calf raise will tighten, firm and shape the deep muscles of the lower leg but it will take some time. The indirect effects of this exercise for your lower leg will eventually be very evident if you stick with this exercise and occasionally choose other exercises that target other areas of your calf muscle group. Even if you are not concerned about making a  list for “Best Legs” for the movie studios, that should not stop you from achieving your potential. With some consistent effort, you certainly do have what it takes to possess hot Hollywood legs.

Shoshana Pritzker, "Hot Hollywood legs demand seated calf raises"