I have a client who wants to reduce the size of her calves, and her doctor suggested doing everything in reverse (e.g., walking, cycling) Can you give me some insight into this theory?
In response to your question, the answer is no. Who knows what the doctor was thinking when he came out with that suggestion? It most certainly was not the finest day in the history of medical science.
There is no real logic behind this theory, given that for a muscle to atrophy (reduce its mass) it must be unloaded for a significant period of time. While walking backward may emphasize different muscle activation patterns, it still has a large weight-bearing element and therefore would not be effective in reducing calf muscle size. It is hard to imagine too many scenarios where muscle atrophy would be desirable, as creating this would lead to a decrease in strength and stability, which is usually viewed as a negative effect of a sedentary lifestyle or bed rest. The benefits of this do not outweigh the detriments, so it is not an option in this case.
On a broader scale, though, it does bring up some things to consider. If your client is overweight, then we know that spot reduction of fat through exercise is not really possible. While general weight loss could lead to a reduction in calf size, it is more likely your client is one of those ladies who have genetically large muscle bulk in the calf region.
The calves are often a problem area for women, and many ladies suffer from muscle bulk there that can become a psychological issue. Examples of this at an extreme degree occur in the Far East, where plastic surgery techniques have even been employed to reduce the size of the muscle in young women. To quote one research study: “Plump and muscular calves embarrass young women and cause a feeling of inferiority in Korea.”
This obsession with a particular body part may belie the increasing amount of social pressure women feel to attain a certain type of body shape, which for many may in fact be near on impossible to achieve through natural means. It is the same kind of pressure that leads to patterns of disordered eating in women and is dangerous to reinforce through specific exercise related outcomes. There is evidence of this in a study published in 2005 that concluded that the lower levels of disordered eating seen in Chinese athletes compared to Japanese was “partly explained by the lack of a socioculturally - and socioeconomically - imposed desire to be thin as well as by the low frequency of dieting during their lifetime.”
So, part of our role as personal trainers is to encourage the removal of limitations in our clients’ performance, knowing as we do this their physique will alter positively to accommodate it (targeting function over form, if you like?). Although we can accept and encourage change in our clients (that is after all the reason they come to us in the first place), we need to help them realize there is not one optimal body shape, and individual differences like muscle bulk in the calf are a commonality shared by many that is perhaps best overcome by an acceptance of self, rather than an unhealthy desire to fit a certain body image.
- Okano et al (2005) Disordered Eating in Japanese and Chinese Female Runners, Rhythmic Gymnasts and Gymnasts. International Journal of Sports Medicine 26:486-491
- Hwang et al (2003) Innervation of calf muscles in relation to calf reduction. Annual of Plastic Surgery 50(5):517-22