Toe Raise - A Forgotten Exercise for Adding Anterior Calf Thickness
The stars who paved the way to our modern bodybuilding era did not have the same level of information about training and dietary strategies that we currently take for granted. Yet, some of these champions possessed body parts and symmetry superior to many of today's elite champions. Among past athletes, former Mr. Olympia Chris Dickerson had outrageous lower underpinnings. His calves garnered him a wall full of "best legs" trophies during his competitive quest, but the posterior leg was only partly responsible for his overall lower leg triumph. Dickerson's legs were massive, with medial and lateral gastrocnemius muscle bellies that flowed so far to either side of the leg that when viewed from the back you thought that his legs had caused a solar eclipse. What was most remarkable was that his anterior calf muscles stood out so boldly that with each step his entire anterior calf looked as if it would explode from beneath his paper-thin skin.
You may be thinking that if no one really trains the anterior calf anymore, perhaps this muscle really isn't very important. Aside from the obvious advantage provided a bodybuilder whose overall leg development and symmetry are markedly improved by increasing the mass of the anterior leg muscles, the anterior calf muscles also have very important functions in regulating body balance. For example, the tibialis anterior and other smaller muscles on the anterior leg work very hard to prevent you from falling forward during the last few repetitions of your set of barbell squats. Stronger and thicker anterior calf muscles make the balancing less fatigable and improve your overall success in the squat.
Even in standing dumbbell or barbell curls, bent-over rows, standing presses or lateral raises, the anterior calf muscles fire continuously to keep you from losing your balance during the set. Thus, stronger anterior calf muscles can indirectly contribute to the development of your upper body, thighs or back.
Structure and Function
The anterior portion of the lower leg consists of one very large and thick muscle, the tibialis anterior, and two smaller muscles, the extensor hallucis longus, and extensor digitorum longus. Although most of the fibers of the tibialis anterior muscle are attached to the anterior surface of the tibia bone of the lower leg, some fibers arise from the interosseous membrane, which is a strong sheet of connective tissue that runs between the tibia and fibula bones of the leg.
The fibers from the tibialis anterior run the entire length of the leg and insert into middle bones (cuneiform bone) of the foot (the back of the foot, not the bottom or sole) and bone of the medial portion of the foot near the bones of the big toe (first metatarsal bone). This muscle primarily acts to dorsiflex the foot. Dorsiflexion occurs when the foot and toes are brought upward toward your head, but the heel stays in the same position. (If you are seated and raise your foot partly off of the accelerator in your car without moving your heel, you are dorsiflexing the foot).
The extensor digitorum longus muscle is superficial and lies just lateral to the tibialis anterior. It's easily viewed when the toes are dorsiflexed. This muscle begins on the lateral part of the tibia near the knee and from the upper anterior surface of the fibula bone and the interossesous membrane. Similar to the tibialis anterior, the extensor digitorum longus runs the entire length of the anterior lower leg. It attaches to the middle and distal bones of the lateral four toes (i.e., all the bones to the toes, except the great toe). This muscle acts primarily to extend the lateral four toes and dorsiflex the foot.
The extensor hallucis longus muscle is a thin muscle that lies between and deep to the tibialis anterior muscle and the extensor digitorum longus muscle. The hallucis is the great (big) toe and as its name suggests, it's attached to the first bone (distal phalanx) of the great toe and acts to extend this toe. It also assists in dorsiflexion of the foot. This muscle begins on the middle half of the anterior surface of the fibula bone (the smaller and most lateral bone in the lower leg). Some fibers also arise from the interosseous membrane.
The nerve supplying the muscles in the anterior compartment of the leg is very superficial, as it wraps around the head of the fibula just below the knee. It's easily injured from a blow to the lateral side of the knee, and it can be severely compressed when the knees are wrapped too tightly during heavy squats. Injury to the nerve can cause paralysis of the dorsiflexor muscles in the anterior leg, which results in a condition known as "foot drop" in which the foot hangs down during a normal step. With foot drop, one must lift the foot very high so it does not hit the ground during a normal swing step from one leg to the next.
Toe Raises on a Block
A few exercises from the historical roots of bodybuilding have seemingly become extinct, yet each has its own merit. The bodybuilding pioneers had a way of dealing with the dorsiflexors, while also getting in a little aerobic work by attaching iron shoes to their feet and going for a jog on the beach. This is a tough way to improve the anterior leg muscles, but it is quite effective. Another exercise with a little less jarring impact is toe raises on a block This is a lost, almost a secret exercise, that if used correctly, will amplify your overall calf development and particularly, it will highlight all of your anterior poses.
1. Move to a pulley station and place a block that's at least eight inches high about two feet in front of a low pulley. A bench will also suffice. Make sure you have something to hold onto so you don't lose your balance. Attach an ankle strap to the cable and place the strap tightly around your foot (not around the ankle). Step up on the block or place your heels along the edge of the bench. Face the pulley station so the cable comes directly in front of, and below, the foot.
2. The heel of the leg you will exercise first should be on the high block or bench (not your toes, as in the heel raise) and the other foot can be moved so the ball of the foot is on the block to add to your balance. Grab a pole or something stable to prevent from falling forward.
3. Lower your toes toward the floor as far as possible while using your heel as a pivot point. Make sure your heel is placed firmly on the block or bench and that the surfaces provide sufficient friction to prevent slipping during the exercise. If everything is attached properly and tightly, the strap will not slip off your foot, but the resistance of the weights attached to the pulley will pull your foot downward. You should feel a very good stretch along the entire anterior part of your shin region when your foot is in the bottom position. Hold this low position for a count of two or three. If the strap appears as if it might slip off of your foot, try turning around so your back is to the pulley station.
4. Dorsiflex your foot so the toes are raised as high as possible toward your head, but don't let your heel move from its contact spot with the foot block or bench.
5. Hold the top position for two seconds, then lower the toes toward the floor and repeat the movement until the set is completed.
6. When the set is complete, put the weight down, move the strap to the opposite foot repeat the exercise with the other leg.
Be sure the descent of the weight and stretch in the anterior muscles of the leg are both done slowly. Fast or jerky movements can easily result in stretch-induced injury to the tibialis anterior and/or the extensor digitorum longus, and this might result in a painful swelling of these muscles (shin splints). Better results are achieved from moderately slow movements.
Generally, you'll want to attempt to keep your foot quite straight during the dorsiflexion part of the movement. However, it's possible to contract the extensor hallicus longus more strongly by concentrating on lifting the great toe first in the dorsiflexion. Likewise, the extensor digitorum longus muscles can be more strongly activated if you concentrate on lifting the lateral toes first. (The extensor digitorum will likely be the weaker of the two muscles). It's worth considering the fact that these muscles are quite constricted by their surrounding bones and connective tissue. Thus, it would be wise to limit the number of sets to perhaps two or three during the initial stages of training; otherwise, you may get sore "shins" and a mild case of "shin splints." After a few sets, you'll be conscious of a pump in your anterior leg. After a couple of months, your lower pins will take on a new dimension as your tibialis anterior boldly pushes outward and sets the standards for contours your competitors could only dream about.
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