We all have a love/hate relationship with the “G” word: Genetics. When we are genetically gifted in certain areas of our physique we deem ourselves blessed. But, when we confront difficulty and monumental challenges we curse our genetics and all but give up on ourselves in attaining that coveted symmetrical and proportioned body we strive for each and every day. How is it that we excel in building some body parts but not others?
Most trainers’ calves are the subjects in question here. In all of my years training, I have come across maybe only a handful of trainers who were satisfied with their calf size. Most are at there wit’s end regarding trying to pack on reasonable amounts of muscle tissue to their lower legs and have relegated there training to just a few sets at the end of a leg day.
I am hoping this article will shed a little light and hope for those out there still yearning to build some impressive lower legs. You may not be able to build huge, striated bowling balls, but I honestly do believe most anyone can add a significant amount of muscle to their calves and improve the overall proportion of their physique. You DO like to wear shorts in the summer… right?
To pack on a significant amount of muscle on a weak point is a pretty heady task. It will take focus, determination, discipline and attention to detail. To manipulate such a weak area (no matter what body part it is) will take adjustments in frequency, volume and technique. Throwing in a few sets of calf raises at the end of a brutal quad and hamstring workout has not and will not do the trick. What you need is an overhaul in regard to training AND mentality. Having the belief that you can achieve that goal is imperative to your success. Without that belief, you will go nowhere, fast.
Treat the training program and techniques in this article as you would an intense series of bench presses or squats. Full range of motion, stretching and squeezing the muscle and paying close attention to rest periods will set you on the right path to results over a period of time. Have patience, be persistent and let’s get to it!
The musculature of the lower leg is comprised of three main muscle groups. Let’s take a look at each and there functions.
Gastrocnemius: This calf muscle which has two heads (medial and lateral) originates behind the knee on the femur and attaches to the heel with the Achilles tendon. These heads form the famous diamond shape every trainer is looking to build and is mostly targeted when the knees are straight during movements.
Soleus: This muscle lies underneath the Gastrocnemius on the rear of the lower leg. It is mostly activated while the knees are bent.
Tibialis Anterior: This much neglected muscle is found on the front of the lower leg and is responsible for dorsi flexion of the foot (pointing the foot up). The importance of the tibialis anterior is that it aids in the balance of the lower leg regarding strength, muscle mass and injury prevention.
Now that you know a little about anatomy and function, let’s delve into what makes outstanding calves. The movements and routines presented are designed to get the most out of each trip to the gym. Remember to always use good form and not to use too much weight to compromise your safety.
Standing calf raises: This movement is the time-tested standard for building overall calf mass, particularly the gastrocnemius area. To perform this movement, fix your shoulders underneath the pads of the machine and stand with the balls of your feet on the calf block below about shoulder width apart. Stand with straight legs and just a slight bend in the knees to relieve the tension on that joint. The knees should stay in this semi-locked position throughout the motion. Descend by lowering your heels toward the ground slowly. Once you have reached full range of motion and feel a deep stretch in the calves, reverse the motion and come up on the balls of your feet and contract the muscle as much as possible.
Important note: When coming up on the balls of your feet, do not try to flex your toes – let the foot do the movement. Also, DO NOT bounce the weight at the bottom or do a bouncing motion throughout the movement. So many trainers perform calf raises this way and benefit very little from their efforts. Full extension and full contraction at a steady, controlled pace is the way to go for real results.
Quick hit: If your gym does not have a normal selectorized standing calf raise machine there is an alternative. Try doing Smith machine standing calf raises. Affix a calf block under a loaded bar and perform calf raises as described above. No block? Try free weight plates or group exercise steps.
Seated calf raises: Another great standard in any calf program is the seated calf raise targeting the soleus muscle. This movement is great at adding width to the calf when seen from the front and thickness when viewed from the side. Fix your knees, not your thighs, under the pads of the machine and place your feet on the foot platform below at about shoulder width. As with the standing version, utilize a full range of motion – feel the stretch and then flex the calf hard at the top. Again, no bouncing!
Quick hit: If you find yourself in a gym without a seated calf raise machine try rigging one of your own. You can either use a Smith machine or a loaded barbell for this version. Either wrap the bar with a pad or place a thickly folded towel over your thighs for comfort while performing this movement. Place a calf block, step, or weight plates below for the balls of your feet and fix your knees under the free weight or Smith bar. For the Smith machine version, lift the weight and then unhook from the rack (it is also a good idea to set the safety pins just in case). For the free weight version have your partner place the loaded barbell across your thighs and keep your hands on the bar for stability and safety. Perform the movement as stated above.
Leg press calf raises: Another great overall mass builder is the leg press calf raise. Normally performed on a 45 degree angle leg sled, (or machine leg press) these calf raises are convenient to do at most gyms when the traditional machines are not available. The trick to make these a bit different than the other versions we have discussed is to keep as close to a 90 degree angle in your hips. This will stretch out the calves for an unbelievable contraction when done correctly.
Seat yourself in a leg press and place your feet about shoulder width apart with a slight bend in the knees – as discussed with standing calf raises. Lower the weight for a complete stretch and then reverse the weight under control for an intense contraction.
Important note: Many trainers will load up the weight and do partial movements (the biggest mistake in calf training). Make sure the load is challenging, but not too heavy where you find yourself only lifting the weight half way up. Full extension and full contraction is the only way to go on these to make them effective.
Quick hit: Another old-school movement that mimics the leg press version is the donkey calf raise. You may have seen pictures and video footage of Arnold and Franco doing these back in the Golden Era of bodybuilding. All you need for these is a calf block and a brave friend or two. Simply stand on the calf block with the balls of your feet (as in standing calf raises), bend over at the hips about 90 degrees and rest your arms on a bench or Smith machine bar. Your partner will climb onto your back to add resistance while performing the movement - straight legs, full extension, and full contraction.
Single leg calf raises: One of the best calf builders is a little-used gem called the single leg calf raise. It is very hard to find anyone performing these, but if you choose to, you will add strength and balance to your lower leg arsenal. Why? Because many times trainers are not reaching their full potential due to a strength and development imbalance in the lower legs. Once this is corrected, you can move ahead and start adding mass to your calves without compensating for one side or the other.
These can be performed with or without a dumbbell in hand (if you are new to this exercise it is recommended to start without a dumbbell to master the movement). Find a calf block and set one foot up as in the standing calf raise (straight leg, slight bend in the knee, back straight). If you are using a dumbbell, hold the weight on the side of the working leg, hold an upright for stability and perform the movement with strict from (stretch completely and rise all the way up on the ball of your foot for a full contraction). Switch feet and repeat.
Quick hit: If you find yourself performing more reps with one leg than the other (which is extremely common), do a few forced reps with the weak leg. With your non-weight bearing hand, help yourself with a few more reps for the weak leg by pulling up a bit on the upright you are holding onto. The burn will be intense, but you will soon bring balance to that area.
Tibialis raises: A much forgotten (or ignored) exercise in the bodybuilding world is the tibialis raise. Mainly reserved for runners, this movement will not only add mass to the front of the lower leg but will also help strengthen that area by developing balance to the antagonistic (opposite) area to the calf muscles. This, in turn, will enhance the performance and reduce injury to all of the lower leg muscles resulting in a more balanced physique.
Simply place your heels on a calf block and drop your feet for a stretch. Rise up (dorsi flex) on your heels while trying to point your toes to the ceiling above. No weight will be needed for this movement as you may find that this area may be a newly discovered weak point. Try not to rock back and forth – keep the form strict and feel the burn!
1. Perform 1 or 2 warm-up sets of 15-20 reps on the first movement
2. Rest only 45 to 60 seconds in between sets (utilize a watch if needed)
3. Do a different calf workout twice per week
Overall Calf Development
High Rep Blitz!
By: Brad Borland, M.A., CSCS workoutlab.net