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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
March 08, 2023
Calves are one of those pesky muscle groups that can be tough to train. Some blame small calves on genetics and skip them altogether, while others put in a small effort but don’t take it seriously enough, quickly bouncing their way through a quick set or two of calf exercises.
But no matter your stance on calf training, we can all agree on one thing: No one wants a pair of popsicle-stick calves supporting a muscular set of quads and a massive upper body.
Well-built calves are the finishing touch on an aesthetically pleasing and healthy physique, playing an essential role in daily movement. The standing calf raise is an integral part of the formula that will help you grow the muscles in your lower legs, regardless of your genetics!
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The standing calf raise is an isolation exercise that focuses on targeting the calf muscles and strengthening the ankle joint. Even though both calf muscles (the soleus and gastrocnemius) work, standing primarily targets the gastrocnemius muscle.
You'll begin standing on a plate, the edge of a box, or something similar, raise your heels as high as possible into plantar flexion, and then lower your heels down toward the floor.
A raised surface's extended range of motion allows you to go farther than you would on the floor, enabling your calves and ankle to get stronger at the true bottom portion of the movement.
The standing calf raise has a direct carryover into your athletic performance and ensures your feet can handle the force of your body as it comes in contact with the ground.
These instructions focus on the standing dumbbell calves raise. It is a relatively simple exercise, but a few subtle details make all the difference in building muscle in your calves.
Here’s how to perform calf raises. If you don't have access to a weight plate, find something similar that is raised and will support your body weight.
How to do the Standing Dumbbell Calf Raise:
When comparing the seated calf raise vs standing, which is better will depend on your training goals, what type of calf raise training you have been doing, and your body’s muscle imbalances or injury history. To say one is better than the other would imply that performing calf raises build the calves entirely by itself. This is not the case.
Remember that the gastrocnemius and soleus (more on this shortly) muscles are working during both variations, but they both mainly target one or the other. Seated calf raises mainly focus on the soleus, and standing calves raises on the gastrocnemius.
Many gym goers have fallen prey to performing a couple of sets of standing calf raises, thinking it’s enough to grow the lower legs. If this sounds like you, you’ll want to add in some seated calf raises as well.
Alternatively, if you have only been doing the seated calf raise machine while neglecting the standing calves raise, you’ll want to balance that out by adding some standing reps.
If you’re a brand new gym goer with no athletic background, start with a seated calf raise, as this is the safer of the two versions. On the other hand, athletes looking for serious gains will benefit from strengthening with standing calf raises.
So the answer here? Neither is better. In fact, they complement each other perfectly, meaning you should be doing both. One is only better than the other if you have been neglecting it.
Calves need to be trained to ensure they can perform their functions at a high level.
The two major calf muscles, gastrocnemius and soleus, are hard at work during the standing calf raise. Here's a closer look at the calves muscle group.
This two-headed calf muscle is on the back of your leg and runs from the knee to the ankle. It crosses the knee joint and ankle joint, making it essential for multiple functions.
It works with the hamstrings to perform knee flexion, such as when you are sprinting, picking your leg up, and bending it to bring it forward. It is also the primary plantar flexor of the ankle joint, meaning it works to raise your heel as you stand up as high as you can on your toes.
It is made up mostly of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are important for explosive movements like sprinting, jumping, and plyometric exercises. It is, however, still active during slower movements like walking and standing.
It is the biggest portion of your lower leg, and building it through gastrocnemius exercises will undoubtedly enhance the appearance of your physique.
The soleus, which has two muscle bellies, is located underneath the gastrocnemius, and although it's essential, it is small and flat and will never be extremely visible. However, it does still contribute to the overall size of the calves.
The soleus muscle only crosses the ankle joint, making its primary role, which you'll see in the majority of soleus exercises, plantar flexion of the ankle while the knee is flexed. The gastrocnemius cannot assist in this position, so the soleus takes over.
It is comprised mainly of slow twitch muscle fibers, meaning it’s more suited for endurance movements like walking, where it works to push your foot away from the surface.
It also plays an important role in pumping blood back to your heart.
Looking for something to convince you to start performing the standing calf raise? We'll do better than that and give you 5 good reasons to start doing it!
Your calves are responsible for ankle joint plantar flexion. If your body were a house, the ankle would be your foundation. If it cannot support the load, you're going to have problems.
Strengthening with the calf raise increases the ankle's ability to absorb force during explosive movements like sprinting and jumping. The standing calf raise will build muscular strength and act as a weighted stretch to improve your range of motion.
It also supports your body under heavy loads during movements like a squat, deadlift, or single-leg exercise, such as a walking lunge.
It's common to see people bouncing through their calf raises while standing flat on the floor. This may give you a good burn, but it won’t train the important eccentric portion of the movement in its entire range of motion.
The standing calves raise lets your heels travel deeper than the floor to stretch your calves and Achilles tendon.
If you find your heels coming up during a squat or a lunge, this movement will stretch and strengthen the ankle so it works correctly.
Returning to the house analogy: If the foundation is strong, it can support more weight. This means that you can produce more power and force during movements like a squat, deadlift, or Olympic lifts.
Simply put, strengthening your calves and ankles enables your body to handle more weight.
This also means that when your foot touches the ground, it can absorb the force and propel it forward much faster and explosively.
Faster sprints and higher jumps are just around the corner!
The standing calves raise targets the gastrocnemius, which is the mirror muscle of the calves. Learning to do this exercise correctly will stretch and strengthen this muscle in its full range of motion, leading to muscle hypertrophy and allowing it to grow.
Well-developed calves are a serious calling card for an impressive physique, and this exercise can help you achieve them.
Weak calves can lead to serious gait issues and flat feet. This means that your foot cannot support the body during its movements, and imbalances will occur in other places.
Your hips will start to compensate, and these compensation patterns begin to add up quickly with every step taken throughout your day.
Having an imbalanced hip and ankle will undoubtedly lead to mysterious knee pain down the road.
Using this exercise in a proper calves training program will ensure your body works correctly during your walking and running gait.
Get the most out of the standing calf raise by avoiding these common mistakes.
Here are 4 great variations of the standing calf raise, suitable for all training levels.
The barbell standing calf raise is performed the same way as the dumbbell version, but you place a barbell on your back, allowing for increased load.
Using this version can also strictly be a preference thing, as some prefer how the weight is distributed across the back.
How to do the Barbell Standing Calf Raise:
This bodyweight single-leg standing calf raise variation allows you to train one side at a time to help even out imbalances and place extra emphasis on moving slowly and controlled.
This is a great starting point before you add weight to the equation and is also a great addition to any at home leg workout.
How to do a Bodyweight Single-Leg Standing Calf Raise:
If you have access to a gym, a calf raise machine is excellent for focusing on building the size of your calves.
The added stability this standing calf raise alternative provides takes some of the balancing act out of the equation so you can focus on the pump.
How to do a Machine Standing Calf Raise:
This move is one of our favorite leg press foot placements! This calf press variation isn’t a standing exercise, but it allows your legs to be straight, which has similar effects on the gastrocnemius.
Using the leg press machine is a great option to isolate the calves, since they can still use a heavy load, yet the move requires less balance.
How to do a Leg Press Calf Raise:
Overall, it's important to know that calves can endure more training sessions a week than other muscle groups. Try hitting them 2-4 times weekly in your workout split and increasing or decreasing volume based on your results.
If you are serious about growing these stubborn muscles, make them a priority.
If you are new to training your calves, start with a bodyweight calf raise variation or use a machine to perform the exercise safely. Alternatively, if you have one calf that is severely imbalanced, focus on unilateral variations until the weaker side catches up to the strong side.
Adding weight is a great way to progress this exercise, but calves benefit significantly from increasing time under tension by slowing down the tempo. It also helps build the mind-muscle connection. If you can stay focused throughout a 5-second eccentric and concentric for a set of 12, meaning you take 5 seconds to lower down and another 5 seconds to lift your heels up, you will see serious strength and size gains.
If you still need to see results try adding calves to another day, like your leg workout, or training them more intensely on their own day.
Looking for a great routine to train your calves? We've got you covered! Just make sure to also include an entire leg workout in your weekly training routine.
Unilateral Bodyweight Standing Calf Raise
Dumbbell Standing Calf Raise
Seated Calf Raise
Standing Calf Raise Machine
Squat Hold Calf Raises
Ok, so now you have no excuses to fall back on when it comes to underdeveloped calves. If there is one big takeaway from this article, it's this: Make sure to add the dumbbell standing calf raise, or one of its variations, into your programming!
Not only are well-defined gastrocnemius muscles going to look amazing in shorts, but they're also going to support many day-to-day and athletic movements.
Looking for even more moves to train your calves? Check out these 12 Best Calves Exercises.
Prepare to maximize your gains with our exclusive 12-week hypertrophy training program. Choose between a 4 or 5 day training split and gain 2-12 pounds of muscle over 90 days...
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