It’s no secret that building amazing calves is one of the hardest training feats imaginable. Most people just accept their genetics and surrender to the idea that they’ll never have great calves. You know the people we’re talking about: you see them with huge upper bodies and skinny “bird” legs. Or they have “cankles” where the calf runs down into the ankle with zero shape or definition.
If you’ve ever heard, “Are those your legs, or are you just riding a chicken,”‘ then we’re talking to you! All too often, we see people treating their calves like their abs… They either train them almost every day after they’re done training more “important” body parts, or they ignore which muscle group in the calf they’re actually training.
Regardless of how developed or underdeveloped our calves are, we can learn how to speed the muscle growth and improve overall performance. The following is an in-depth review of the anatomy of the lower leg and proper tips for optimizing your calf workouts.
To get a visual, follow this link to a calf anatomy chart:
Calf Anatomy Chart
- The gastrocnemius is the calf muscle that is visible from the outside of the body. It attaches to the heel with the Achilles tendon and originates behind the knee on the femur, crossing two joints. The function of the gastrocnemius is to elevate the heel (known as plantar flexion). This muscle is primarily a type II fiber (fast twitch).
- The soleus is not visible when looking at the body from the outside as it lies underneath the gastrocnemius on the rear of the lower leg. The function of the soleus is exactly the same as the gastrocnemius: to raise the heel. The only difference is that it works in a different position: with the knees bent. This muscle is primarily a type I fiber (slow twitch), and it makes up roughly 60% of the calf.
What trainers are missing when it comes to great calves:
- Improper Training Techniques: do you understand which exercises are stimulating the correct fibers? If your calves aren’t growing, chances are you’re unaware of how to train slow- and fast-twitch muscle groups or you don’t know which exercises isolate the soleus vs. the gastrocnemius.
- Not Moving through the Full Range of Motion (ROM): bouncing up and down while holding at the top won’t work in most cases. Allowing the maximum ROM is crucial for full fiber stimulation and breaking the calf plateau.
- Inflexibility! People with “cankles” suffer from poor flexibility in the ankle joints. The calf cannot grow unless it’s exposed to different terrain variables during walking, running, and training. Flexible ankle joints will force the calves to respond, which will result in greater definition and less chances for injury. Notice how hikers have great leg development? They expose their lower bodies to different terrain like rocks and uneven surfaces forcing the ankles to move more, which in turn stimulates the calves.
- Not Enough Variation: most calf training on machines involves the simple motion of moving up and down with weight directly above the legs or under the feet. Adjusting the variables by moving the location of the weight placement will stimulate different parts of the calf. Wait… Before you adjust your feet like everyone else does, make sure you first try to adjust the angles of motion. (We’ll explain how in a minute.)Here’s an interesting fact to support this theory: magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) indicates that foot position doesn’t change muscle action in the seated calf raise (Tesch, 1999). In other words, moving your feet around (pointed inward, pointed out) doesn’t make much difference to stimulate growth.
- Training Calves on Upper Body Training Days: research indicates that high-intensity elbow flexion (ie. arm curls)decreases blood flow to the calves and may hamper performance (Kagaya, et al., 1996). Training calves and the upper body limits blood circulation—the less blood circulation to the calves, the slower the muscle growth.
- Performing Cardio on Calf Training Days: this is a big mistake if you’re looking to grow your calves! If you do cardio the same day you train calves, the slow twitch fibers in your calves might like it, but you can bet your fast-twitch fibers are depleting, and the cardio will greatly hinder recovery.
As revealed above, the soleus makes up 60% of the calf… so it’s obvious that training the soleus properly would lead to the best gains in calf size and strength. Also explained earlier, it’s a slow-twitch muscle, which means it responds best to slow contractions and higher reps. Based on that, calf exercises working the soleus should be done relatively slowly (for at least 30 seconds) with a full ROM until complete fatigue is achieved (then repeat). We recommend the seated calf raise as one of the best exercises to work the soleus.
The ‘gastroc’ is a type II muscle, meaning it responds well to explosive contractions with low-rep and heavy weight protocol. Still obeying the full ROM rule, use a heavy weight for less than 30-second sets. Ideal gastroc exercises are standing calf raises, leg press calf raises and donkey calf raises.
The mother of all calf exercises that yields the greatest growth, uses ROM, and introduces multiple variables for proper Type I & II stimulation is the standing one-leg calf raise. But there is a twist,to really optimize muscle fiber stimulation and growth. Find a ledge that allows you to lower your heel as far as it’ll stretch while holding a dumbbell on the same side as the working leg (use the other hand for support). With a straight posture, slightly bend your knee 20 degrees and hold at that angle. Hold the weight in front of you for 7 reps (no rest) and then hold the weight to your side for 7 reps (no rest) and then hold the weight directly behind you for a set of 7 reps. Rotating the weight around from the front to the back exposes the lower leg to different variables integral for growth-stimulating development.
Another positive calf stimulating regiment is plyometrics. A series of athletic drills (bounding, jumping, mechanics, etc.) can really force serious recruitment of those fast-twitch fibers of the lower leg. An awesome example of a type II fiber stimulating exercise is high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Short sprints and bursts of speed are great for building the lower legs as well as for burning fat.
Remember the following points…
- Identify what exercises are working either the gastroc or the soleus. Train the soleus slowly with high reps. Train the gastroc with an explosive tempo using heavy weights for low repetitions.
- Practice variations! Incorporate one-legged standing calf raises using multiple locations of weight placement.
- Keep those ankles flexible. Always use maximal ROM!
- Avoid training upper body and cardio on calf training days.
- Be ready to place maximum effort into your calves – maximize your strength before entering the gym with MAXON™ PURE STRENGTH. It supplies necessary creatine and quickly elevates ATP in your muscles for maximum contractions.
Then watch your calves expand and the comments (Hey, Chicken Legs!) turn into compliments!
Here’s a fully rounded program that will be sure to stimulate the growth and shape you desire in your calves.
Standing Calf Raises with light weight 25 reps with 90 seconds rest
Seated Calf Raises with light weight 25 reps with 90 seconds rest
Standing Calf Raises with heavier weight 12 reps with 90 seconds rest
Seated Calf Raises with light heavier weight 12 reps with 90 seconds rest
Standing Calf Raises with heavy weight 4 sets, 8-10 reps with 120 seconds rest
Seated Calf Raises with moderately heavy weight 4 sets, 12-15 reps with 120 seconds rest
Single Leg Calf Raise with Dumbbell 3 sets 8-10 reps (first set with dumbbell held in front, second set with dumbbell to the side, third set with dumbbell held behind you)