MuscleMag - October 2001 / Issue 232
Balancing the Lower Legs, or . . . When Disproportionate Training Leads to Disproportion!
By: Mark "Poppa" Lewis
As any serious bodybuilder knows, complete development is a must. That means all of the muscle structures need to be in balance with one another. Sounds easy enough, doesn't it? The problems arise when we think we are paying equal due to each of our muscle groups, but they somehow don't respond in direct proportion to our efforts. This is where many trainees make one of their biggest mistakes. They train only those body parts that respond well. (Notice that I called these individuals "trainees." In my mind they are not bodybuilders in the true sense. A true bodybuilder will always grant each muscle structure the amount of time and effort necessary to create and maintain proper body balance.)
One of the areas that most people seem to have trouble with is the lower leg, or more specifically, the calf muscles. You've heard it all before: "They just won't grow" or "Calves are stubborn" or "Those muscle fibers are resistant."
Well, you are about to learn how to effectively make your calves look bigger and more shapely by training the fronts of your lower legs. You read it right: Train the front of the lower limb, and make the back portion look better. That's like working your chest to make your back look better. Sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction.
The specific muscle we need to concentrate on is the tibialis anterior.
We'll call them "tibs" for short. When you develop the tibs to their potential, you make the calves look much wider from the front. Also, the lower leg appears to be thicker viewed from the side, greatly adding to the visual effect in poses such as the side chest and the side triceps. Enlargement of this muscle will create a split in the front of your underpins that not only gives the illusion of greater size, but also adds new dimension to lower-leg shape.
Without getting too technical here, the tibialis runs from the outer/upper portion of the tibia, the larger of the two bones in the lower leg, and winds its way down to the foot. From its attachment behind the big toe it serves to help keep the arch in your foot.
If you happen to suffer with shin discomfort from any of your aerobic activities - walking, stair climbing, running, aerobic dance, etc.
tib-training could be a real saving grace for you. We've all heard of "shin splints." The term shin splint is pretty much a catchall expression for any injury to the front of the lower leg. A person can sustain any number of possible injuries in this area from one known as "anterior compartment syndrome" to stress fractures. By far the most common problem known as a shin splint results from a weakness of the tibialis anterior muscles.
During aerobic activities some athletes tend to pronate their feet or turn them in. Excessive pronation exerts an unnatural pull on the origin of the muscle at the tibia, causing it to tear away from the bone. These tears, although probably only microscopic, can be quite painful and debilitating. I can tell you that first hand since I suffered from shin splints during high school track. Our family doctor, not knowing the cause of the problem, gave me pain medication and a pair of crutches and wished me luck. In time the condition just went away. More accurately, the small tears healed during my period of rest and inactivity.
During the time I worked as a university strength and conditioning coach, I came to realize that more females fell prone (no pun intended) to this type of injury than males. Nearly every member of the women's basketball and volleyball teams shared this problem compared to a mere handful of athletes from the corresponding men's teams. My theory is that God, in His infinite wisdom, gave females wider hip and pelvic structures relative to the rest of the body to facilitate the delivery of children. The difference has a profound effect on the mechanics of how a person runs, since in order to run efficiently, he or she must line up the feet under the body in a certain way. This "running alignment" could be contrary to the normal alignment set up by the hip/pelvic structure, thus causing the problem. Any athlete, male or female, could also pronate the feet because of structural problems.
I'm sure you will agree with the old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So what steps can we take to prevent women - as well as some men - from suffering similar stress-syndrome effects? We certainly can't change the bone structure of the affected individuals. The only other course of action is to strengthen the tibs so that they can easily withstand the extra stress.
There are several methods of working the tibs, depending on what equipment you have to work with. We will start with the least efficient exercises and workup to the more effective movements.
Heel walking - This exercise uses no apparatus or resistance at all. It simply involves walking around on your heels with your toes pointing up as high as possible. The method is largely inefficient as it is an isometric type of muscle contraction and builds strength only in a limited range of motion. It can also cause discomfort leading to an overuse syndrome commonly known as "policeman's heel." (That's another condition I can attest to firsthand!)
Toe raises with plate - The next exercise, being a little difficult to execute, is a poor choice when other options are available. While seated with your feet flat on the floor, place a weight such as a 10-pound plate over your toes. By pivoting from the heel, lift the plate with your toes toward the ceiling. The plus of this particular movement is that you can vary the amount of resistance as necessary. The down side is that the plate usually doesn't like to fully cooperate, sliding off the foot and making the exercise a real pain to do.
Leg-curl toe raises - This is another exercise that allows for variable resistance. However, because there is no stable pivot point and your legs are more or less free floating, it is hard to do and therefore not a very good method for hitting the tibs. You will need a leg-curl machine to pull this one off. Sit on the machine, facing the roller pads, and place your toes under them. The object, of course, is to pull the roller pads toward the shins with your toes. Unfortunately that isn't so easy when your heels are not anchored. You wind up using the stronger hip flexors instead.
Standing toe raises This exercise is also a nonapparatus movement, but it works the tibs through their complete range of motion while eliminating the high impact produced by heel walking. You will find it a more controlled movement than toe raises with a plate. Since it uses no equipment, higher repetitions are necessary. Done with good concentration, 25 to 50 reps will produce a burn in the tibs that will leave no doubt in your mind that they have been worked.
To execute the movement, stand with your heels on a block and support your upper body on some type of upright. (Okay, so there is some apparatus involved!) Now point your toes as close to the floor as possible without falling off the block, and then pull them up as though you are trying to touch them to your shins. While doing this exercise, take care to keep the pelvis forward as you pull your toes up. If you allow your rear end to drift back, you will not be fully working the tibs. Instead, lean slightly forward as you pull.
Bent-over toe raises - I like this variation of the standing toe raise. The execution is the same as for the standing version, but the body position is different. In fact, the position looks a lot like the donkey calf raise except that your toes are off the block. Just your heels are on it. Make sure you are properly supported, and don't let that butt travel backward. Lean forward! I know what you are thinking . . . have somebody sit on your butt as you would while doing donkey calf raises. Well, you can try it, but I believe the exercise works just as well without extra resistance. Here again, aim for higher reps and go for the burn.
Cable toe pulls - Now we are getting into some great tib exercises. For this movement you need to use a strap arrangement that connects to a low-pulley cable apparatus. By sitting on the floor and anchoring your heels on a block set back far enough from the machine to allow for a good stretch, just lever your toes back toward your shins. (Where else?) Here we have good stability, full range of motion and variable resistance. Try sets of anywhere from 8 to 30 reps. As far as this strap arrangement is concerned, I had a couple made up special but I must admit I swiped the idea from an advertisement somewhere. So obviously someone sells them or has sold them in the past. If you create your own, be sure to make a supporting strap to go around the back of your heels or the strap will just slip off your toes in the stretch position.
DARD over bench - I believe the letters d-a-r-d stands for dynamic axial rotational device. This is a neat little gizmo invented by Bob Gajda, a true innovator in resistance training. For you younger trainees, Bob won the AAU Mr. America in 1966. His DARD is one of the best tib-builders you'll find. Unfortunately you don't find it in most gyms. It is available through the Health For Life at a very good price, and Health For Life Maximum Calf routines make good use of the device. Both the DARD and the HFL Maximum Calf book are, in my opinion, well worth the money.
To use the DARD, sit on an exercise bench with your legs out straight and your heels off the end of the bench. With the DARD properly positioned on your feet, start from a full stretch and pull the weight up toward your shins. Squeeze at the top before going back down for the stretch. This device meets all the requirements for a good tib workout. You have a pivot point (back of the ankles) for good stability, you can vary the resistance, and you get a full range of motion. Again, anywhere from 8 to 30 reps will make your tibs stand up and take notice.
A variation I like using the DARD is to sit on the floor with my calves resting across the bench so that my heels are just over the edge. Then I sit up and hold on to the bench so that my torso is perpendicular to the floor. This position eliminates any cheating with the hip flexors.
You can also do a DARD type of movement one leg at a time if you have access to iron boots. This exercise doesn't prove to be as effective as the DARD, and is a little difficult to control, but you have to work with whatever you have on hand. Even a rubber strap attached to a bench upright, or a partner and a little imagination are better than nothing.
Lastly, if you are truly blessed, you have a machine at your disposal specifically designed for working the tibs. (Yeah, right!) I've seen only one such machine, and that was in a Gymstone Athletic Equipment catalog. I have tried to contact this company, but they have apparently been swallowed up by the earth! (Hey, Gymstone, if you are still out there, please call me.) Anyway, this "MA 12 Tibia Machine" of theirs is essentially a fancy DARD attached to a frame with an adjustable seat. It is plate loaded and appears to be of good design - nothing too complicated but sure to be very effective. The name "Tibia Machine" seems to me to be a misnomer as it almost implies that using the device works bone rather than muscle.
Another machine for tib-training is made by Wikco Industries, Broken Bow, Nebraska. With two models to choose from, one for single-leg exercise and the other for working both ankles simultaneously, Wikco utilizes hydraulic cylinders for resistance. Not just for tib work (whose action is known as dorsiflexion), both of these machines also work plantar flexion (moving the toes down), eversion (turning the foot outward), and inversion (turning the foot inward). These Wikco products are great for sports-related injury rehabilitation as well as for strengthening the entire ankle joint and surrounding musculature.
I really think it's high time some of the other equipment manufacturers got a jump on this problem. Wikco seems to have the rehab aspect of the market pretty well cornered, but how about some specific designs for the much-neglected tibialis anterior? What do ya say, guys?
Well, that just about covers the topic of tib-training. Remember, a little imagination and innovation can go a long way when it comes to exercise. Put your thinking cap on and you might come up with some tib exercises of your own. Try to fulfill the requirements of stability (a pivot point), full range of motion, and variable resistance. Train the tibs holistically with both high reps and low reps. Whatever method or methods you choose, be sure to train your tibs! It's the only way to balance the lower legs for size, shape and strength. Always train hard, but more important, always train smart!