Progression in climbing can happen quite quickly, and as you become stronger and more confident, weaknesses are highlighted. This is often finger strength or core, resulting in training rooms becoming overrun by chalked up warriors with internet training plans, or other climbers who avoid the fingerboard sessions and move into technique drills, obsessing over footwork and their ‘Gimme Kraft’ bibles.
A common weakness that is often overlooked is mobility. Men, particularly, will accept the inability to achieve a high foot without ever addressing it. Understanding mobility and its influence in climbing can result in plateaus being broken and technique becoming more fluid. The ability to spot issues and correct them can be a major prevention of injury and a major game changer for your progression as a climber.
Calve tightness is ridiculously common, and most people are unaware of it. An inability to touch your toes is partly due to tight calf muscles. Poor flexion in the ankles, not being able to stand with toes facing forward, sore Achilles tendon, and the lack of power when jumping can all be the result of tight calves.
Tightness in the calves can be caused by running, plyometric movements, excessive sitting, or just a distinctive gait—but can be prevented by simple stretching or fascia rolling. There are two major muscles that make up the calf—the Gastrocnemius and the Soleus—as well as a smaller third muscle—Plantaris.
Tightness in any of these muscles can cause muscle imbalances in the opposing Tibialis muscles or in the Hamstring, which work with the calf muscles to move us around. The Tibialis controls the dorsiflexion of the foot (raising your toes towards your shin). If the opposing calve muscles are tight then there is less chance of raising those toes to get on a high volume or have any strength whilst toe hooking.
Spotting tight calf muscles
An easy way to test if your calves are tight is by standing shoulder width apart with you feet facing forward. Slowly squat until you are hovering just above a seated position. If either of your knees pull inwards whilst lowering (the eccentric phase), this can be an indication of tight calf muscles.
Another more accurate test is as follows:
- Stand 30cm away from a wall; stick a strip of tape to the floor, one end touching the wall the other touching your toe.
- Using a ruler, mark naught on the tape by the wall and then every cm along the tape.
- Starting with your big toe on the highest number, lunge forward trying to touch your knee against the wall.
- If your heel raise’s off the floor before you reach the wall, start again but move your big toe closer to the wall.
- Repeat this until your knee can touch the wall without your heel leaving the floor. Note what number your toe is on.
Any measurement less than 15cm indicates tight calves. You may find that each leg has a different measurement.
How to stretch your calves
Stretching out the calf muscle is pretty straight forward. Each calf muscle should be stretched for 15 seconds three times.
Standing calf stretch:
- Stand facing a wall, tilt your foot upwards and place your toes flat against the wall surface.
- Place your hands flat against the wall and lean forward.
- Hold for 15 seconds and then release. Repeat twice more.
Downward dog calve stretch:
- Start in a push-up position; slowly walk your hands backwards towards your feet.
- Stop in the downward dog position, or for the non-yogi’s out there, once you resemble an A shape.
- Keeping your hands flat on the floor, back straight and core tight, push your heels flat on the floor to feel a calf stretch.
- Progress this by shifting on to one leg and pushing your heel down.
- Hold for 15 seconds then push up onto tip toes then drop back down to repeat.
Plenty of climbers get by without great strength and God knows there is a generation of climbers who have never used technique—but neither of these climbers can climb safely and successfully without mobility. Get stretching or die trying!
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