I’ve come to appreciate that the crux of coaching is simplifying information. Taking technical information and distilling it into actionable steps is a true display of knowledge. That doesn’t mean that we should shy away from the technical information, however. Today we’re going to get into our first look at two-joint muscles, starting with one of my favorites:
Greetings, my good Gastrocnemius
The gastrocnemius is the more superficial of the calf muscles, and originates at the bottom of the femur, crosses the back of your knee, and attaches to the Achilles tendon. The calves as a whole are a strong plantar flexor, meaning they help point the foot. Since the gastrocnemius crosses the knee as well, it’s also a week flexor of the knee.
The hamstring muscles are the strong flexor of the knee, so they’ll do most of the work when the gastrocnemius isn’t trying to take over. If we’re not in a position for them to play nice, then they’ll both try to get the job done.
The current version of Kick-Ass Conditioning at MFF includes a move called the hamstring bridge hold. The goal of the hamstring bridge hold is to provide proprioceptive context for how our hamstrings serve to support our bent over rows, but if the gastrocnemius is trying to run the show for the hamstrings, that point is moot.
If one is practicing the hamstring bridge hold, a slight change in position can absolutely annihilate the hamstrings, or have us relying on our gastrocnemius for support. If we’re feeling a ton of tension at the top of the calf, that gastrocnemius can be working for the hamstrings. The team work is appreciated, but it won’t serve our purpose.
Here’s a movement guideline: “Position dictates function.” We can change what muscles we’re feeling by changing our joint position. When it comes to the hamstrings working with the gastrocnemius, we’re going to use one of it’s actions to limit it’s ability to do both. Let’s make the gastrocnemius actively insufficient by pulling the foot towards the knee, or dorsiflexing the ankle.
When dorsiflexing, or pulling the foot towards the knee, the gastrocnemius is in a longer position. The length makes it harder to create adequate force to extend the ankle or flex the knee. It’s not in a position to do either, which means we have more time to focus on the hamstrings.
I’m using the hamstring bridge hold as a movement example for the Ninjas at MFF, but we can use the same strategy for many related moves. If the gastrocnemius is working as a flexor of the knee, at times when you’d rather it not, then dorsiflexing the ankle creates length that leads to active insufficiency.
Let’s take a quick look at the ankle position during each of these leg curl variations. I’ll start with my most recent technique demos, a stability ball leg curl that focuses on maintaining posterior pelvic tilt:
Now let’s check out a much older video. There’s definitely some back extension here, which changes what my hamstrings, glutes, and lower back are doing. Look at the ankles though; same angle:
Next, I’ll share a video of a Supine Hip Extended Leg Curl, or SHELC, that uses a pair of ValSlides. I love how many exercises you can use the ValSlides for, and the SHELC is one of my favorites. This flattering angle really shows what’s going on at the ankle:
Finally, I’ll show you a more bad-ass version of a bodyweight glute ham raise that Tony Gentilcore demonstrated when the internet was first invented. Again, check out that ankle position:
I’ll note that when using a proper glute ham raise machine, your calves will get involved, as Greg Robins explains in this terrific technique tutorial:
We started with the gastrocnemius, then chatted a lot about hamstrings. Curious, ain’t it? As Charles Duhigg points out in Smarter Faster Better, “Our ability to learn from information hasn’t necessarily kept pace with its proliferation.” If we remember that the hamstrings and gastrocnemius both have control over our knee joint, then we can apply this information to our exercises.
If you’re practicing an exercise that feels like your calves are taking over for your hamstrings, they probably are. That’s okay, because you know how to change your position to create the sensation that you want. Pull your toes towards your knee, tell your friends you’re creating active insufficiency, and carry on like the badass you are!