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August 27, 2022
Whether you love or hate training them, nothing completes a well-rounded physique like a monster set of calves.
The trouble is, building big calves is a mystery to most people. This leads to a laundry list of excuses for why their calf training is not going according to plan. Maybe it's genetics, muscle fiber distribution, or they are missing a secret training technique unknown to the everyday person.
But, let’s be honest. The truth is, few people take calf training seriously. There are no shortcuts in physiology. Building big calves takes consistency and hard work like any other muscle. You get the results you work for.
If you want to make a change and start taking calf training seriously, you have come to the right place. In this article, we will go over:
The calves comprise two muscles, the gastrocnemius, and the soleus. The main job of the calf muscles is to plantarflex the ankle, essentially pointing your toes down. The calves are activated anytime we walk, run, or jump (hello, plyometrics!).
The gastrocnemius is the muscle on the back of the lower leg, right beneath the knee joint. It has two heads, a medial (inside) and a lateral (outside) head, and crosses the ankle and knee joints.
The soleus muscle is underneath the gastrocnemius and is not as visible. Because you can’t see it, it contributes to the overall calf size more than most people realize. Since the gastrocnemius can’t fully contract when the knee is bent, seated calf exercises are the best exercises to train the soleus.
Anterior tibialis exercises and stretches are often neglected as it is the forgotten muscle. Although not technically part of the calf, it's worth mentioning and training. This muscle runs up the front of the lower leg along the shinbone. Its primary function is to dorsiflex the foot, raising the toes toward the sky.
According to a 2008 CDC report, the average male 20 years old and up has 15.5-inch calves1. This was not conducted in a lifting population, but it gives us a general idea of how big an average calf is.
Now, size alone doesn't tell the whole story. Having big calves is not impressive if the muscle is hidden under a layer of fat. It has long been said that, ideally, calf development should equal the size of your upper arms. In our experience, a one-to-one ratio between the upper arms and calves creates a proportional look. This means that if you're emphasizing an arm workout, you also better be focusing on your calves.
Do us a favor and go measure your arms and calves. How close are they? If your calves are considerably smaller than your arms, it's time to give your calves some extra attention.
The calves are often considered the most challenging muscle group in the body to develop, leading people to blame genetics for whether they're born with big calves or not. Genetics plays a vital role in muscular development, but calves respond to training like any other muscle.
It’s not genetics that holds most people’s calf development back. Its effort. They can't be an afterthought if you want to build big calves. Throwing a couple of lackluster sets of calf raises at the end of your leg workout won't cut it. You need to treat the calves like any other muscle group. This means giving them enough attention in the gym, and then pairing your workouts with foods for muscles for optimal growth.
The two significant errors most people make when training their calves are not using a full range of motion and performing reps too fast. Due to how the muscle and calf joint are set up, calf exercises have a limited range of motion.
Make sure you get the most out of the movements by extending the range of motion as much as possible.
Additionally, because the range of motion is so small, the muscle is not under tension for very much time. To circumvent this issue, slow the rep tempo down, and pause at the top and bottom of the rep. Even if you're training for muscular endurance, you still need to go slow. Make sure you are avoiding these mistakes before giving up on calf training.
One aspect of the calves that are genetic and out of your control is the gastrocnemius insertion point. Some people, unfortunately, have high calf insertions. This means that the gastrocnemius starts higher up on the lower leg, making it appear smaller.
Don't worry. It still responds to training, but you must work harder to make it look as impressive as someone with a low insertion point.
Calf exercises are split between two types of movements – seated and standing variations. Additionally, you can perform them with both legs simultaneously or one leg at a time.
From a programming standpoint, it makes sense to include straight and bent leg calf exercises in your weekly routine. Straight leg calf exercises work the gastrocnemius more, and seated calf exercises work the soleus more.
Below, we will cover the best calf exercises, with plenty of options depending on what equipment you have to work with. Take advantage of multiple implements. Find which one feels the best and gives you the most mind-muscle connection.
Here are the ten best calf exercises you can do. Your leg workout is about to get even more impressive!
The standing calf raise machine is the gold standard for building big calves and one of the best calf machines available. If your gym has one, get familiar with it and spend a lot of time using it.
How to do the Standing Calf Raise Machine:
If your gym doesn’t have a standing calf raise machine, using a smith machine is the next best thing. The most significant advantage to the Smith machine is that the barbell runs along tracks, so it can only go up and down, removing the need for balance.
This is why this version of the calf raise is one of our favorite Smith machine exercises.
How to do the Standing Smith Machine Calf Raise:
The standing dumbbell single-leg calf raise is an exercise that can be done at nearly every gym. You don’t need any special equipment other than a heavy set of dumbbells for this dumbbell calf exercise. The unilateral nature of the exercise makes it an excellent movement to prevent asymmetries.
The one downside to this exercise is grip strength can be a limiting factor. Use gym chalk, lifting straps, or these grip strength exercises to help circumvent this issue. You can also make this move more challenging by elevating the working foot on a block or step. The extra deficit will increase the range of motion for your calf muscles.
How to do the Standing Dumbbell Single Leg Calf Raise:
The donkey calf raise is the most underrated calf exercise on the list and should be included in your workout routine. Although it's not commonly performed in most gyms, it is highly effective.
There is a reason this is Arnold's favorite calf exercise. If your gym doesn't have a donkey calf raise machine, you can use a smith machine or have your training partner sit on your back for added resistance.
How to do the Donkey Calf Raise Machine:
Seated calf raises are the best calf exercise to build the soleus, which is important for lower body strength and an aesthetically pleasing lower leg. This article will introduce you to even more great soleus exercises and stretches to keep that lower leg growth going.
How to do the Seated Calf Raise Machine:
If your gym doesn’t have a seated calf raise machine, a seated dumbbell calf raise is the next best thing. It is an awkward movement at first, but it is effective once you get the hang of it.
How to do the Seated Dumbbell Calf Raise:
The seated single-leg calf raise is another unilateral exercise to ensure both calves grow equally. If you are trying to fix muscle imbalances between your two calves, prioritize single-leg calf work in your program.
How to do the Seated Single Leg Calf Raise:
If you have the leg press in your leg workout, you can do the leg press calf raise right after to save time. By changing your leg press foot placement, you can make this an excellent calf exercise as you can overload the calves with a lot of weight.
How to do the Leg Press Calf Raise:
The jump rope is a classic conditioning exercise, but it is also an excellent calf movement. Jumping rope is a great warm-up exercise that can kill two birds with one stone.
How to do the Jump Rope:
Last but not least, the tibialis raise. It is scarce to see someone doing tibialis exercises in the gym. With that said, having a well-developed tibialis adds to the overall look of the lower leg. Just make sure to emphasize eating the right foods after your workout, so your training efforts aren't wasted.
We like this move using a resistance band, but there are several variations, including using a dumbbell or barbell instead.
How to do the Tibialis Raise:
We love bodyweight leg exercises, and bodyweight calf training is a great place for most people to start. If you have never trained your calves before, jumping right into heavy calf work is unnecessary and potentially counterproductive.
Since working with just your body weight prevents you from going heavy, you must be creative with the programming.
To make bodyweight calf training more challenging, perform high rep sets (15+), a slow tempo (4 seconds up and down), pause (hold for 4 seconds at the top and bottom), and do one leg at a time.
Here are the best bodyweight calf exercises to start with. Program these right, and you'll be building muscle in your lower legs in no time.
The standing calf raise is the bread and butter calf exercise both with weights and without. Once you master the bodyweight version, be sure to add weights or extend your sets or reps to continue progressive overloading.
How to do the Standing Single Leg Calf Raise:
Don't be fooled by this bodyweight calf move: It will have your lower legs burning! Before beginning the exercise, set a weight plate, block, or step about a foot in front of the end of a bench to set yourself up for this move. Consider adding a quick HIIT session to the end of your workout or an extra calorie burn.
How to do the Seated Bodyweight Calf Raise:
Current research indicates training frequency is not a critical factor in building muscle when the number of sets performed is the same2. That said, getting enough high-quality calf training volume in one training session per week is hard for muscle hypertrophy. For this reason, we recommend training your calves twice a week.
Each training session should include a straight leg calf raise, and a seated/knee bent calf raise.
It has been hypothesized that since the calves are primarily made up of slow twitch muscle fibers, they are best trained using high repetitions.
However, that is not supported by the current literature. In fact, research shows both heavy (low rep) and light (high rep) training elicited similar calf muscle growth3.
When figuring out how often to train, aim for ten weekly sets per week for people just starting calf training. As you become more advanced, you can add additional sets as needed to keep seeing progress.
Here is a sample calf workout for you to follow. This would be a great program for an intermediate lifter. If you are just starting out, consider replacing the exercises with bodyweight movements and/or lowering the number of sets.
Depending on when you have time to get the work in, these workouts can be added at the end of a lower or upper body workout.
If you have already given up on calf training, hopefully, this article inspired you to give it another shot. Despite what you may have been told or might believe, you can, in fact, make your calves grow.
And when you add many of these moves on to an at-home leg workout, getting your calf exercises in becomes about as convenient as it gets. It might not be easy or comfortable, but with the proper training, you can avoid being accused of skipping leg day ever again.
Author: Kyle Hunt, Hunt Fitness
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