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Backpacking Fitness

Get Knees and Ankles of Steel with These 3 Calf Exercises

Training the calves can reap huge benefits for knee and ankle health. These three calf exercises will help keep your lower body injury-free.

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There are two muscles in your calf, the gastrocnemius and the soleus, that are vital for hiker health. The gastrocnemius is a large superficial calf muscle with two heads that help control how the lower leg rotates and how the knee. It also provides us with plantar flexion, which propels the body forward by pressing the foot into the ground while walking. The soleus muscle is deep to the gastrocnemius, meaning that it lies behind the muscle, farther from the surface of the body. It doesn’t cross the knee joint, but it does provide plantar flexion and helps the lower leg bone move with each step.

Try the exercises below to strengthen both calf muscles by performing three sets of 15 repetitions.

Three-way Calf Raise

By changing the foot position with this exercise, you can focus on the inner or outer head of the gastrocnemius or work them equally. Take a 30 second rest in between each position.

First Position:

This position will work both heads of your calf together.

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and feet pointed straight ahead. Using a wall or countertop for support, raise your heels, coming onto the balls of your feet. With control, lower back down to the start position and repeat.

Second Position:

By pointing your feet outward, the exercise will target your inner calf muscle.

With feet shoulder-width apart, keep your heels in place but point your feet outward at a 45 degree angle. The start position should be heels shoulder-width apart and toes outside of your heels.

Third Position:

Having your toes pointed inward will target the outside portion of your upper calf muscle.

Widen your stance so your feet are outside of your shoulders and point your toes inward at about a 45 degree angle. Here, your toes will be inside of your heel position. As you perform the reps you may need to adjust your heels to keep them in place, they may drift inward during the movement.

Seated Soleus Raise

This exercise will target the soleus. Because your knee is bent during this exercise, the gastrocnemius is largely inactive, leaving the soleus to do the work. Perform this exercise one leg at a time.

Sit on a bench or chair with the knees bent to about 90 degrees and feet flat on the ground. Place a dumbbell, kettlebell, or loaded backpack weighing 25 to 30 pounds on your upper leg near the knee. Using a three-second raise and lower tempo, raise your heel up as high as it will go, and with no pause at the top, slowly lower your heel back to the floor. Each rep should last about six seconds.

Single-Leg Elevated Calf Raise

Performing a single leg calf raise is a great way to challenge each calf muscle without receiving assistance from the other calf. When two-legged exercises are performed, the stronger side will often do more work than the weaker side. By doing a single-leg calf raise, each leg has to work to its fullest extent.

Stand with the ball of your foot on a step so the heel is hanging off the edge. Using the wall or railing for support, slowly lower your heel toward the floor. At the bottom of the lowering phase, press through the ball of your foot to raise your heel as high as possible before lowering down again.

Lee Welton is a physical therapist assistant and personal trainer in Southeast Idaho. He thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018 and has trekked through the Dolomites in Italy. He can typically be found hiking and exploring the trails in Idaho and Wyoming. For more information, videos, and resources from Welton, visit

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