The oft neglected shin muscles
Published: September 18, 2023
Tibialis anterior…ring a bell?
If it doesn’t and you just so happen to be an avid runner, well, then you might want to read on.
Heck, even if you’re a casual fitness buff and not familiar with this anatomical term, it’s still well worth knowing about.
Okay, the tibialis anterior is commonly known as the shin muscle, and as the name implies it’s situated along the front side of each of the lower legs.
The tib anterior is a long, narrow muscle that helps to connect knee to ankle, and it’s composed of a thick belly with vertically running fibers near the top of the lower leg and a thin, tendinous band near the bottom.
Understanding the significance of this muscle group in the body’s kinetic chain (the concept that bones, tendons, ligaments and muscles work in concert for movement), is something well worth learning about.
With respect to function, the tib anterior contributes to three critical movements: Dorsiflexion (foot flexion upwards towards the knee), ankle inversion (movement of the foot’s sole to the inside and ankle stabilization during foot contacts with the ground.
So because this muscle group helps to control several key foot movements, it’s important to posses strong and supple anterior tib muscles for general ambulation - and it’s even more critical for athletes whose sports focus entails leg actions.
Yet as I discussed in a June 1, 2020 ALN column, “Neglected muscles in workouts,” this rather drab and imperceptible little muscle group is often overlooked.
Shoot, I’d be willing to take it a step further and bet that this obscure muscle is probably the most neglected of the neglected - and that can lead to calamitous consequences.
Indeed, weak and inflexible tib anteriors can lead to shin splints, plantar fasciitis, foot drop and anterior tibialis tendonitis.
Not only that but weak tib anteriors can create a negative impact on your walking, jogging and running gait.
Thus, since they’re so integral to the deceleration phase in the aforementioned activities, they need to be strong in order to reduce the amount of force going through the knee joint.
That’s right, strong tib anteriors help to protect your knees.
Remember that kinetic chain term I mentioned earlier?
Now adding tib anterior exercises to your leg routine is a pretty painless process to implement. And the most recognized and doable exercise to work into your leg routine for this particular muscle group is the toe raise (not to be confused with the heel raise which targets the calfs).
Now there are several different approaches to toe raises.
1. You can simply use your body weight by doing single and/or one-legged standing toe raises.
2. You can perform the standing toe raise with dumbbells and kettlebells.
3. You can do seated toe raises with resistance bands, EZ curl bars, or specially designed tib bars which you can load with weight plates.
Now understand that performing toe raises is just like performing the heel raises except they’re much harder because the tib anterior muscles are much smaller and much weaker than the calfs.
So you’ll want to focus on really good form––as you do with the heel raises––and take each set to that “burning” sensation and/or failure point for each set.
I’d begin with three sets and then work up to four to five sets.
Another great exercise for the anterior tibs, and one that actually involves ambulation, is the heel walk.
For this you simply pull the toes of each foot upwards towards the shins and then proceed to walk on heels only.
Walk to the point to where you begin to experience that burning sensation in the shin muscles, take a couple minutes for a recovery break and then perform the next set(s).
As you can see, despite the tib anteriors being a small and relatively anonymous muscle group, the fact that they’re an antagonist to those powerful calf muscles dictates they play a significant role in the foot’s biomechanics.
Yup, and weak tib anteriors can affect toe lift which can affect gait pattern which can lead to inefficient stride which can lead to wasted energy which can lead to the risk of injury (that kinetic chain thing again).
And this is precisely why you should be familiar with those timid little tibialis anterior muscles.