If your athletes walk, jog, run, sprint, cut, change direction, jump, land, or do anything along the lines of locomotion… You should definitely be training the soleus muscle. When it comes to lower body power and explosiveness, the soleus muscle might be the single most important area.
Let’s take a closer look at; what the anatomy and evidence tells us, key benefits of training the soleus muscle, and exercises that you can immediately apply into your training programs to build soleus muscle strength and power. If you need help building a training program. Look no further than a personal training software like TrueCoach.
THE ANATOMY OF THE CALVES
The calf muscles are known as the triceps surae, which consists of the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius typically plays front and center in the lead role as “Batman” while the soleus takes the second act in a supporting role as “Robin”.
From a visual standpoint, the gastrocnemius muscle stands out and pops more to the naked eye, which makes sense based on it being more popularized. The soleus is less visually apparent. Anatomically, the gastrocnemius is also larger in size than the soleus. Basically, the soleus muscle doesn’t get much love.
Let me be clear though: the soleus muscle is just as (if not, more) important than the gastrocnemius muscle. The soleus muscle is a powerhouse known for being capable of producing strong and powerful forces. The key is finding loading strategies that work best at directly loading the soleus muscle in training.
Performing a heel raise with the knees bent and/or in a seated position will predominantly target the soleus since it’s a single-joint muscle by only crossing the ankle joint. The key is that you’ll need roughly 60-65 degrees of knee flexion to bias the soleus muscle. Take advantage of this and load it up.
LOOKING AT THE EVIDENCE
Nobody likes injuries. One of the most common injuries to the lower leg is known as Achilles tendinopathy, which is essentially an umbrella term for when the Achilles tendon is ticked off to some degree.
What’s more interesting is that the research shows that Achilles tendinopathy is often associated with large deficits in plantar flexor torque and endurance, and that the deficits are bilateral in nature and appear to be explained by a greater loss of the soleus force generating capacity rather than the gastrocnemius (O’Neill et al, 2019).
If we dig a bit deeper, it’s easy to understand that this means we should build soleus strength and that Achilles tendon strength will follow. But, more importantly, we must understand why the soleus muscle is so important.
The maximum force-generating capacity of a muscle is proportional to the physiological cross-sectional area (PCSA), which can be approximated from muscle volume and fascicle length (Albracht et al, 2008). A large PCSA allows for a high level of power and force production.
Continuing along those lines of the PCSA and power, Ward and colleagues disassembled 27 muscles from 21 human lower extremities to characterize muscle fiber length and PCSA. These components help to define the excursion and force-generating capacities of a muscle. Based on architectural features, the soleus is one of the strongest muscles in the human body (Ward et al, 2009).
When we take all of this evidence into consideration, the soleus is an extreme example of a muscle with a high PCSA and short fiber length, which makes it suitable for generating high force with small excursion (Lieber et al, 2001).
Sometimes, research can be your friend. Use it to guide training strategies and applications to enhance the health and performance of your athletes.
BENEFITS OF ISOLATED SOLEUS STRENGTH TRAINING
Most strength coaches and personal trainers are afraid to incorporate isolated exercises into their training programs. I’ve never understood this way of thinking especially as it pertains to helping your athletes become, you know, stronger.
If that’s truly the goal, then there shouldn’t be a stone out there that you’re not at least willing to explore and turn over so that your athletes can succeed.
When it comes down to isolated strength training for the soleus muscle, there are truly a host of health and performance benefits.
Basically, add soleus strength training exercises if you want your athletes to…
- Build force-generating capacities (think: power and explosiveness)
- Unlock one of the strongest muscles in the body based on architectural features
- Make improvements in function
- Prevent muscle fatigue
- Create propulsive forces (think: dunking a basketball or spiking a volleyball)
- Reduce the risk of injury in the calf region (i.e., soleus muscle, gastrocnemius muscle and/or Achilles tendon)
- Develop robust lower body strength and durability
IMMEDIATE TRAINING APPLICATION
I’m a big fan of reading, learning, and most importantly, applying. So, that’s what we’ll do here.
Check out these exercises below to start building soleus strength:
- SSB Hatfield Knees Bent Heel Raise
- KB Seated 1-Leg Heel Raise Iso
- KB Seated Elevated Heel Raise
- KB Seated Elevated 1-Leg Heel Raise
- Wall Knees Bent Heel Raise
- Heels-Up 1-Leg Bridge Iso w/ Knee Drive Iso
Now, if you’re looking to build soleus power, check this list out:
- Heels-Up Bridge Iso w/ Pogo Jump
- DB Seated Pogo Jump
- Front Foot Elevated Knees Bent 1-Leg Hop
- Stationary Knees Bent Hop
- Staggered Stance Forward-Reverse Hop
- Split Squat Iso 1-Leg Hop
There are far too many benefits associated with soleus strength and power training to neglect it in your athlete’s programs. The soleus might be the most important muscle in the lower body when it comes down to being powerful and explosive. Start building strength and power in your soleus muscles today!
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