Today we’re going to talk about a topic that I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart (ok, more like a sore spot) for — growing your calf muscles. For many people calves are the least favorite body part to train and most difficult to bring up.
Out of the gate, it’s important to understand that there are two main muscles in your calves: the superficial gastrocnemius (upper part, which bunches when you flex it) and the soleus (bottom part, which is slightly wider). There are a couple of smaller muscles that you’re hitting with standard calf raise movements, but these are the big cahunas that take care of most of the work.
The gastrocnemius is implicated in several lower-body exercises (e.g., squats) because it attaches both above the knee and below the ankle joint. When your knee is bent — think seated calf raises — your gastrocnemius cannot fully stretch / contract, so your soleus is doing all the work. If you want to work both major muscles, straight-legged calf exercises are where the action’s at.
Now that you’re an expert in calf anatomy, here are a couple tips to get you off on the right foot with your calf workouts.
1. Do Quads First.
Remember how I said the gastrocnemius was involved in many lower-body exercises? You’re going to absolutely max out and blow your thigh workout if you try training calves first. Make sure to structure your routine so that your leg presses, squats, leg curls, lunges, etc. come first, then tack the calf work on towards the end before your abs and cardio.
2. Begin With a Difficult Straight-Legged Move.
It’s always best to start your calf workout with a move that engages the greatest amount of muscle. If you start with seated calf raises and tire out the soleus, you’re not going to have a very fun time with your standing calf raises (where, if you remember, both muscles are engaged).
Standing calf raises can be done on a machine, sled, leg press, or hack squat. They’re all pretty comparable, so do whatever feels most comfortable. When it comes to form, make sure your foot, knee, and hip are aligned, and that your feet are spread about hip-width apart with toes pointing forward.
A couple general tips for straight-legged movements:
• Keep your knees unlocked at all times to avoid putting stress on the joints.
• Lower yourself as far as possible to fully stretch the calves and Achilles tendons. To facilitate this, place only the balls of your feet on the platform and leave your heels hanging slightly over the edge.
• Do not bounce when reversing direction!
• Go up as high as you can on your toes and hold that contracted position for one count.
3. Vary Up Your Sets, Reps, and Intensity.
If you’re wondering why calves are so hard to grow, a big contributing factor is that the gastrocnemius and soleus are made up of a higher percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers than other muscle groups. This is very helpful in our daily lives, since it means the calf muscles can withstand a lot of bang up and recover relatively quickly. The downside? The calf muscles are really damn stubborn and growth-resistant.
One way to shock your calf muscles into changing for the better is to consistently shake up your routine. In the beginning, do 4 sets of 8–12 reps. After seeing how your body responds, then you get to experiment. Try banging out a 10-rep set or 20-rep set with lighter weight. Go a bit faster with your reps once you start to feel the burn, or hold your contractions for 3–5 counts instead of one.
Let me know what you think of these tips! If you feel like your legs are on fire and can barely walk after your calf workout, congrats — you’re doing it right.