Want to know my biggest pet peeve as a clinician and a strength and conditioning specialist?
Doing calf raises to help a rider’s lower leg get “stronger”.
It may be one of the most common things to see in rider’s, that pesky lower leg that just won’t stay where we want it to. Trouble keeping that lower leg stable often leads to us clamping with our heels or knees, leaning or collapsing in our torso to compensate, or developing chronic stiffness in our hips to account for the instability in our leg– leading to low back complaints, knee degeneration, and even unwarranted stiffness and compensations in our horse.
Creating lower leg function is a BIG DEAL for us equestrians, unfortunately our lower leg function has almost nothing to do with how strong our calf muscles are.
Where does appropriate function in our lower leg come from?
(Hint: look at the bigger picture)
I alluded to it above.. our pelvic and hip stability is the starting point for a functional lower leg.
Shocking, I know.
When I’m looking at a client on the ground, anything to do with postural stability is generally going to come from the foot and hip combined. Things like low back pain, knee complaints, hip complaints, and often even things going on in the upper body can be broken down to the root of our ability to control our feet and hips.
As riders- our base of support is predominantly our pelvis. Our seat is where we connect to our horse, and how we communicate to the rest of our function. Inability to stabilize here begets stiffness, and stiffness in our pelvis creates a world of issue.
Glute medius is one of our main pelvis stabilizers. It helps us prevent too much side to side movement at our hips when we are in transit. If it isn’t working then you’ll see a collapse through the rest of the leg.. think a knock-kneed look at the knee, and a fallen arch at the foot. In the saddle you’ll see a stiffness in the posting trot, likely accompanied by a floppy lower leg, a sliding lower leg over fences, and in lateral work the tendency to “claw” up the heel to use our lower aids (vs the appropriate relaxed ankle, whole leg adding pressure through the inner calf approach).
I highly recommend doing a consult with a movement specialist (many offer the initial consult free of charge) to have your gait and posture assessed. What happens on the ground is guaranteed to come out in your equitation! At RideWell we also offer riding analysis via video, and distance video assessments for riders on posture and riding form.
In the mean time, here are 3 “Simple” exercises to help you lock in that lower leg.
1. Kick Back Holds
Think Jane Fonda leg raises, but with a bit more of a punch.
Laying on your side slightly raised onto your elbow with your core locked in, bend your bottom leg for support and straighten your top leg.
Make sure the hips are stacked and then rotate the toes towards the ground. From here, kick the leg up and back (imagine a push off in skating). Raise approx 1-2 ft off the ground into slight extension and HOLD here for 15-20secs feeling the burn in that top side of your hip. If this feels easy, first check that your hips are stacked on top of each other, that you’re kicking back at least 15-30deg into extension as you raise the leg, and your heel is aimed toward the ceiling. If it’s still easy you can add a mini band around your ankles, check out our favourite bands here.
Repeat 4-5 routinely in your day. The more you activate the muscles properly, the more the brain makes it automatic.
2. Side Bridges
Classic hip hinging activation exercise. All these movements also double as releases for the front of the hip (tight hip flexors anyone??).
On your side, supported by your elbow, shoulder, and core activation, pivoting from the knees- use glutes to actively push hips up and forward through a hinge motion. Hold at the top for 5-10seconds, then sit back and down through the hip hinge.
Common mistakes here: slouching into the shoulder (push UP through the ground/elbow and squeeze shoulder blades together), lack of core activation/bracing allowing for the spine to hinge instead of the hips (think of a squat motion at the hips!), lifting up THEN forwards.. try and make this simultaneous, as if your hips are moving up and down a ramp.
Repeat 6-12x for rounds of 3-5. Great used as a warm-up to other activities.
3. Reverse Lunge- As demonstrated on our instagram last week..
Stepping back into a lunge, keeping the knee stacked over the ankle and driving up through the front heel to stand. This will challenge balance, hip, knee, and foot control! See our instagram post for detailed instructions 😉
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