The calf muscle is actually a group of two muscles in the lower leg called the gastrocnemius and soleus; the main function of these muscles is to allow the body to raise the heel and push off with the foot.
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The calf muscles assist the body with plantar flexion, which means increasing the angle between the shin and the top of the foot--this allows the body to raise up on the tip toes or push off strongly when running or jumping.
The gastrocnemius tends to assist most powerfully with plantar flexion when the legs are straight, while the soleus is engaged more in plantar flexion when the knees are bent.
Strong calf muscles can help athletes run faster and jump further or higher because it allows the leg to push off with greater power.
The calf muscles tend to be susceptible to cramps and strains because they are engaged so often in weight-bearing activities.
Stretching the calf muscles and Achilles tendon can help increase flexibility and prevent injury.
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