Often, the only time the average lifter trains his lower legs is when he aims to build up his chicken legs with endless reps of calf raises.
But here's the thing: Even though calf raises will hit the gastrocnemius—that big calf muscle everyone wants to see—calf raises alone won't necessarily train all the small muscles of your lower legs. Furthermore, “While those exercises can increase strength and size, they do not increase elasticity, which greatly increases the risk of injury,” says strength coach Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S. “If the muscle is too tight, it could cause a tear of the Achilles during an explosive movement like a jump or sprint.”
The more important muscles to focus on are the peroneus longus, which runs along the outside of the calf to the bottom of the foot; the anterior tibialis, which runs along the front of the shin and attaches to the bottom of the foot; and the posterior tibialis, which runs along the inside of the calf and attaches at the bottom of the foot, McCall says. Sure, those muscles might be hard to pronounce, but they're absolutely essential for preventing injury and ensuring good form.
“All three muscles attach at the same point on the bottom of the foot, and during walking or running they work together to create stability in the foot to push off against the ground,” McCall says. “If they aren’t working properly, the foot can overpronate, which can cause a host of problems from plantar fasciitis to knee pain to low-back pain.”
3 exercises to strengthen your anterior tibialis and posterior tibialis:
1. Single-leg balance with reach
This simple exercise is ideal for improving balance and strengthening the muscles along the outside of the lower leg, like the peroneus longus, soleus, and peroneus brevis.
Start by shifting your weight onto your right foot. Pick up your left foot and cross it in front of your right foot, allowing it to hover in the air. Reach above your head with your right arm, and hold for up to five seconds. Rest for a moment before repeating. Do up to 15 reps per side, for up to 3 sets.
2. Lateral lunge to curtsy
With the directional change in these lunges, you work both sides of the lower leg.
Start by standing with your feet together. Step out with your left leg into a lateral lunge, as shown above. Shift your weight back to your right leg, and move your left leg back behind you and into a curtsy lunge. Do up to 15 reps before switching sides; go for up to 3 sets.
3. Agility ladder
The rebounding action combined with rapid direction shifts hit the lower leg from all sides. Do lateral drills, in-and-out drills, the Ickey Shuffle—rest briefly after each pass, doing five minutes’ worth of work, total, focusing on quick motions and staying light on your feet.