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June 12, 2021
The gastrocnemius, a.k.a. calf muscle, has garnered so much attention in recent years to the point where people are getting calf implants. Yes, we know that might seem a little ridiculous and even extreme so we wanted to tell you there's a better and cheaper way to get those chiseled lower rear legs. Now, maybe you didn’t know the scientific name gastrocnemius or how to pronounce it (*gastro nemeas*) but after reading this article you will know the 28 best exercises you can do to build your calves. We broke it down into calf exercises you can do at home and a few gym based calf exercises. Plus we will give you a few tips to grow your calves and some stretches to help alleviate any calf pain you may experience.
The gastrocnemius is a two headed superficial muscle (you can see it) located on the back of the lower leg. The name Gastrocnemius comes from the Latin word gaster meaning ‘belly’ or ‘stomach’ and knḗmē meaning leg. The name quite literally means stomach of the leg because of how a well-developed calf muscle protrudes out from the leg. The two muscles that form the gastrocnemius are the lateral head and the medial head.
The lateral head starts at the lateral condyle (a rounded bulge at the end of some bones) of the femur while the medial head begins at the medial condyle of the femur. The opposite ends create a common tendon with the soleus muscle. This tendon is the Achilles which inserts onto the posterior surface of the heel bone. Behind the gastrocnemius is the soleus muscle. Some people refer to these three calf muscles as triceps surae or "three-headed muscle of the calf".
The main function of the gastrocnemius muscle along with the soleus muscle is plantar flexion. This gastrocnemius action moves the foot at the ankle joint and flexes the leg at the knee joint. The gastrocnemius is essential for running and jumping as well as other dynamic leg movements. It also supports the action of walking and standing. The reason why the gastrocnemius is mostly involved in the fast movements such as running is because it contains more white muscle fibers (type II fast twitch) compared with the soleus. The soleus muscle is mainly responsible for slower movements or non-moving (standing) because it has more red muscle fibers (type I slow twitch).
Here's a list of the top 20 calves exercises that can be performed at home or outside. No gym equipment is needed for these bodyweight gastrocnemius exercises. Many of these bodyweight calf exercises can actually help to burn some major calories while blasting those calf muscles. When doing these exercises shoot for high reps with each set; we recommend at least 20 reps per set.
Note: Try to start on the balls of your feet and never let your heels touch the floor.
Note: Switch up your foot positioning to target specific head of the gastrocnemius. Point your toes inwards and outwards for equal number of sets.
Note: Try to slowly drop your heels to avoid any bouncing as this targets your Achilles not your calves.
Note: Try to contract your calves for up to 10 seconds for an added burn.
Note: Perform this exercise next to a prop in case you need to support yourself to help with balancing. Make it more difficult by doing this on a elevated platform.
Note: On landing make sure your knees aren't completely locked out.
Note: Perform this exercise on an elevated surface not too high off the ground and use a prop for extra stability if you have balance issues.
Note: Try to complete this exercise without letting your heels touch the floors.
Note: Try to complete this exercise without letting your heels touch the floor.
Note: Try to land softly on the balls of your feet then quickly kick your other leg up without dropping your heel to the floor.
Note: Focus on pushing through the balls of your feet to target your calf muscles.
Note: Focus on pushing through the balls of your feet and limit the amount of time your heels are on the floor at any time.
Related: How Many Calories Do Squats Burn?
Note: Keep your heels from hitting the floor the whole time.
Note: Use caution when jumping, making sure you land directly on the platform.
Note: Use a prop of some kind to help support you if you have balance issues.
Note: Sprint up a hill or incline to work your calf muscles to the max.
Note: This is not a beginner's exercise, make sure you're warmed up thoroughly before starting plyometrics.
Note: Throw on a weighted vest or grab some heavy objects to make it more difficult.
Note: Increase difficulty by trying single leg jump rope or alternating legs.
Note: Try to stay on your toes the whole time without letting your heels touch the floor. Use a higher raised surface to increase the difficulty.
Related: 26 best bodyweight leg exercises
Now that you are familiar with calf exercises that you can do in the comfort of your own home, it's time to cover the best calf exercises you can do in the gym. The advantage to calf workouts in the gym is that you have access to machines and loads of weight that you can use turbo charge your calf muscle building. If you are looking to add a machine to your home gym check out our post of the 7 Best Calf Machines available. As we mentioned previously, if you want to put some size and strength on your calf muscles you should work them with more that just bodyweight.
Note: If your grip gives out from holding the heavy dumbbells try using wrist straps to help you perform this exercise for a longer time.
Note: This exercise targets the soleus muscle rather than the gastrocnemius due to the placement of the knees.
Note: Do this exercise with your toes pointed inward and outward for your other sets. You can also do the donkey calf raise on a machine if your gym has one where you are sitting up straight or bent over with the weight on your lower back.
Note: Perform this exercise with equal sets of various foot positioning, complete with toes pointing inward and outward.
Related: Best Dumbbell Calf Exercises
Note: Complete this exercise with other variations in foot position (toes pointed inward/outward).
Note: Use caution so your toes don’t slip off the press plate. Perform multiple sets with toes pointed inwards, outwards and one leg at a time
Note: Don’t use the handles to prop yourself up. You can increase difficulty by wearing a weighted vest.
Note: Start at a reasonable pace then gradually increase the speed when you’re comfortable.
Yes! You can definitely grow your calves even if you weren’t blessed by genetics. There’s no reason to hate or envy those born with massive calf muscles. Like any other muscle you have the power to transform your calves into some monsters but it takes hard work and dedication. You can’t simply do a few half-assed calf exercises at the end of your workout once a week then call it a day. This simply won’t cut it.
Your calves are worked daily as we stand, walk, run or jump. So, if you want to grow your calves you will have to put in a ton of effort as these muscles are used to being engaged daily. Just to give you an idea of how much exercise calves get, the average American walks between 5,000-7,000 steps daily. And let’s face it, Americans aren’t known for being the most active walkers in the world.
If you’re one of the lucky ones with big developed calves without actually targeting them in your workouts then you don’t have to worry too much about this. One the flip side if you’ve always struggled with having matchstick lower legs then it’s time you put in that work.
However, we should give you the whole story about why it might be hard to build your calves. As mentioned before the calves are comprised of the gastrocnemius muscle and the soleus muscle. The soleus muscle is found behind the gastrocnemius muscle and is comprised of 90% slow twitch muscle fibers. Slow twitch muscle fibers have roughly half the growth potential compared with fast twitch muscle fibers.
Related: Leg stretches using bands
To build bigger calves you must train them as a priority. No more saving them for the end of leg day. Start your workout with calf exercises and work them out up to three times a week. In short, the keys to building bigger calves is more volume, more intensity and heavier weights. You will need to do all these things while moving through a full range of motion.
How long does it take to build calves?
There are a number of variables at play when determining the length of time to see results from any weightlifting program. Your current fitness level, your workout schedule, type of workout, genetics and diet all play a part in your results. Typically, you can start to see minimal results in 4 weeks of consistent hard training. To see noticeable changes in most weightlifting protocols regardless of the muscle it might take up to four months of consistency to see major changes.
Can calf raises make you faster?
Yes, calf raises can help to make you sprint faster. By performing calf raises with good technique, frequency and intensity you will strengthen the contraction of the gastrocnemius which is responsible for the ankle flexion used to thrust your body forward.
Can calf raises make you jump higher?
Yes, calf raises are one way you can improve your vertical. Calf raises can improve your jumping ability but you should combine calf raises with other calf and leg exercises if you really want to fly high. Make sure to do weighted calf raises both standing and seated. The extra load will stimulate more muscle growth.
How many calf raises should I do?
You should do enough calf raises until you feel a good burn. The exact number of calf raises depends on multiple variables including are you doing them with added weights, elevated, single leg etc. There a number of benefits to calf raises so this is definitely an exercise that should be in your repertoire. You can build strength, improve stability and balance with calf raises. As a general rule of thumb, if you're doing bodyweight calf raises you should be doing at least 20 reps per set.
Is it OK to train calves every day?
In short yes you can but it really depends on your training style, volume, exercises to determine if you should be training your calves daily. If you’re going extremely hard and pushing it to the limit, you should only train your calves 2-3 times weekly to give them adequate rest. It’s difficult but entirely possible to over-train your calves which would hinder you progress in building the muscle.
Just like any other muscle the gastrocnemius can be a source of pain. Because these muscles are directly related to any movement of the foot, if you experience calf pain it can be a real bummer. The pain experienced is usually described as sharp, aching or dull pain. A few common causes of gastrocnemius pain might be muscle strain or cramps, Achilles’ tendonitis, or sciatica. Treatment of gastrocnemius pain typically includes the R.I.C.E (Rest Ice Compression and Elevation) and stretching.
Calf Pain from Running
A common occurrence for runners is for their calves to experience pain when they’re running. Sometimes this pain or tightness will dissipate as they continue but other times the pain gets worst as they continue to run. This is a sign of calf strain. Any of the three muscles can become strained in the calf. Gastrocnemius strains are easier to diagnose compared with soleus strains.
If the pain or tightness is felt in the back of your lower leg while doing calf raises or stretching then it’s probably is gastrocnemius. Soleus strain is a tad more difficult to pinpoint. In any case the protocol is similar; reduce the stress to the calf muscles then strengthen your calf muscles to make them more resilient to injury.
1. Downward Dog
Note: Try to do Walking Downward Dogs where you will be pedaling, pressing down on one heel at a time.
2. Calf Rock
Note: Use your arms as a counterbalance by swinging them in the opposite direction to your body.
3. Seated Calf Stretch
Note: Focus on one leg at a time for a more targeted stretch.
4. Standing Soleus Stretch
Note: Perform this stretch close to a wall to press against for extra leverage.
5. Seated Soleus Stretch
6. Calf Wall Stretch
Note: Make sure you do this against a wall that you don’t mind if you leave scuff marks (oops).
7. Heel Drop Stretch
Note: Don’t bounce at the bottom of the stretch.
8. Calf Foam Rolls
If you’ve made it this far, you are well equipped with the knowledge to build impressive calves, don't be surprised if people ask you if you got calf implants. To recap, you need to prioritize your calf muscles if you want to stop hiding them under sweatpants during the summers. Work your calf muscles more often, more angles, with more weight and with more volume. Don't use the lame excuse of genetics, you are in control of your calves' destiny.
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