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June 01, 2022
Let's be honest. Is anybody pleased with their calves? If there is one muscle that people have issues with developing, it's definitely your calf muscles. However, one of the reasons is because a lot of people just don't train them, at least specifically. If that's you, and it's just because you don't know what to do, we're going to give you the 7 best dumbbell exercises to train your calf muscles so you can start. This article will be short and sweet and teach you:
No more #Teamnocalves!
The calves (we're gonna be honest, we're never sure if it's the calf, calf muscles, calves, calves muscles...) are a powerful set of three muscles that are situated on the posterior of the lower leg. Together, their primary function is plantarflexion of the ankle (pointing the toes), making it a crucial muscle in walking, sprinting, jumping, and basically any other activity that requires movement.
The two primary calf muscles are the gastrocnemius and soleus, with the tibialis posterior being the third, and then you have the anterior tibialis on the front side of your lower leg.
Let’s go over each muscle.
The gastrocnemius is the larger muscle of the two and sits on the upper ⅔ of the lower leg (the tendon goes all the way to the heel). In fact, the gastrocnemius comprises two heads, the medial head and the lateral head. When combined, these two heads take up the entire width of the lower leg and can actually be seen from the front of those who have developed calves.
As there are two heads, there are actually two origins, the lateral condyle of the femur (lateral head) and the medial condyle of the femur (medial head). These two heads merge towards the bottom and actually join the soleus in a common tendon (the Achilles tendon) that is inserted into the heel bone.
You may have noticed that the gastrocnemius actually crosses two joints making it a biarticular muscle. Compared to the soleus, the gastrocnemius has more type II muscle fibers as it is responsible for fast, strong movements. This includes things like jumping and sprinting.
The soleus is also a large muscle that runs from below the knee to the heel but sits underneath the gastrocnemius. In fact, some researchers actually consider it to be the same muscle. Regardless, it originates from the fibula and medial border of the tibia and then runs down the leg until it inserts into the heel bone. The soleus is the primary muscle used while walking as it is composed of a high percentage of Type I muscle fibers.
The tibialis posterior muscle is primarily a stabilizer of the lower leg. It also assists in plantarflexion and inversion of the foot and plays a major role in providing support for the medial arch in the foot. In fact, if there is dysfunction in the tibialis posterior muscle, a person can end up with flat feet.
The tibialis anterior muscle is located on the front side of the leg, lateral to the shin bone. Its main responsibility is ankle dorsiflexion, which is when you bend at the ankle raising your toes towards your shin.
Here are the top reasons you want to include the below dumbbell calf movements in your exercise program.
The calves are notorious for being made fun of out of all the body parts. As mentioned, there's a whole #Teamnocalves thing going around. Some of this may be genetics, but everyone is able to grow their calves at least a little bit. Seeing an excellent, developed set of calves can dramatically improve the way one views you. That being said, we have found that most people don't even need "amazing" calves to look much better. We're not saying to cut yourself short, but you're probably able to just throw in some specific calves work and drastically improve your overall aesthetics.
As mentioned, the calves play an integral role in a variety of movements such as walking, running, jumping (vertical and horizontal), and change of direction. In fact, the majority of athletic movements will see an improvement by strengthening the calves. Therefore, if you are an athlete of any sort, you'll definitely want to include some dumbbell calf exercises to improve your performance.
Due to the fact the calves are involved in so many athletic movements, as well as providing support for the entire lower leg, various issues can arise. Either the calf itself can be injured or other parts of the leg due to a weak or fatigued calf muscle. Remember that whenever a muscle gives out, that stress must be compensated by other parts of the body. This can result in issues with the muscle, tendons, ligaments, and even joints.
Here we go with the 7 best calf exercises using dumbbells…
Farmer walks are a popular movement in the world of Strongman and strength training. Its effectiveness in improving total body strength is only shadowed by how simple this movement is. Farmer walks are probably the simplest exercise there is and merely has you pick up two implements and walk. In this manner, it's awesome.
However, we can actually make a simple alteration to target the calves to a higher degree. This is simply done by standing up on your toes as you walk. What this does is puts the calves under constant tension in a stretched state and under load. Easy and effective. We like it.
Donkey calf raises are a bit funky looking and are actually sometimes seen on those "Gym Idiot" videos because most people don't know what they are. They're performed by bending over the waist with your feet on an edge. You then allow your heels to drop below the ledge and then come upwards. Due to the legs being straight, these tend to hit the gastrocnemius to a greater degree.
This exercise is usually performed with a machine or with someone sitting on the other person's back. However, this can be embarrassing for some people. Therefore, you can have someone hold a heavy dumbbell on your very lower back instead. We love this move so much we've also included it in our best calves exercises - whether you use the machine, a person, or a dumbbell, this exercise will get you serious calf gains.
Seated calf raises are a great exercise to train the soleus muscle. As your knees are bent, the soleus will act as the primary movers. While most people think of using a machine for a seated calf raise, you can easily perform them with dumbbells if a machine is not available. You're just going to need a bench, dumbbell (maybe 2), and preferably a thick plate.
Similar to the seated calf raise but from a standing position. However, as your legs are extended, this exercise will train the gastrocnemius to a higher degree. The standing calf raise exercise is basically performed by holding weights and coming up on your toes. However, you may need to hold onto a rail or something for support.
Obviously, the calves are a vital muscle to getting as much vert as possible when jumping. Therefore, adding weight to your jump (plyometrics) is a great way to effectively increase the load. However, most other articles will have you performing full squat jumps. This doesn't make sense as we're not trying to train the quadriceps. Therefore, you'll want to perform just a ¼ squat before you jump, similar to a natural jump.
To be clear, there's nothing wrong with a dumbbell jump squat from a full squat position. It's a great dumbbell leg exercise to increase vertical power. However, when we're trying to isolate the calves, we need to focus on the calves.
Lunges work the entire lower body, including the calves. However, we like walking lunges as you get that little extra plantarflexion when you push off to bring the back leg forward. Plus, you get a really good stretch in the back foot as well. Other than that, walking lunges are incredibly easy to load with dumbbells.
This movement is actually going to train the shin bone, otherwise known as the anterior tibialis muscle. Yes, we know this is a list of calf exercises, but it plays an integral role with the calf and is part of providing support to the lower leg. Further, this is an easy exercise to do and we're going to guess you've likely never done it so it will be a new stimulus. But be warned, as most people haven't trained this muscle much, it can be easy to do too much and wake up with a very uncomfortable case of DOMS.
When training the calves, remember to add a lot of variety as well as loads. Keep in mind that your calves get a ton of low-load work as they're used whenever you walk around. In addition, this is generally what you always see in the gym; low weight and very high reps.
This isn't wrong, but it's not taking the entire calf muscle into account. Remember, there are two primary muscles and two heads within one of those. Therefore, variety is key for optimal growth of the calves. (You'll hear this a lot from us when talking about muscle hypertrophy).
In addition to using lighter loads, be sure to add in some heavier sets, especially for the exercises with straight legs. Remember, these will hit the gastrocnemius, which has more Type II muscle fibers, so theoretically, heavier loads will produce superior results.
Mind you, the entire theory about training for muscle type is not as solid as some may have you believe but it is an interesting concept. Regardless, chances are you never use heavy loads anyway, so it would be a nice change.
In addition, we also recommend using different foot positions. This is purely to hit the muscle from every direction. Remember that the gastrocnemius actually has two heads (medial, lateral), so optimal training would attempt to hit these differently.
Lastly, use slow and controlled reps as well as pausing at the top. Again, keep in mind you use your calves A LOT! Therefore, if they're not growing, you need to apply a new stimulus.
This means you want the muscle to have much longer time under tension, specifically with heavy loads. In addition, don't bounce the weight but rather use controlled movements with a full range of motion. Don’t be the guy on the calf machine doing 30 reps in 30 seconds. Be the guy doing 10 reps of a calf exercise in 30 seconds.
Now you know the 7 best dumbbell calf exercises. If you only have access to dumbbells, there is still no reason to not train your calves in your next workout routine. Remember, they're a muscle just like any other and need to be trained with the various stimuli talked about if you want them to grow optimally and remain strong.
If you do this, you'll definitely see them begin to develop and form. Ideally, you'll get that nice fat horseshoe on the back of your legs one day but in the worst case scenario, you’ll at least be able to wear short shorts to the gym!
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