This calf training guide covers the best calf exercises, training tips and strategies that will force your calves to grow.
The calves can be a stubborn muscle group because of poor genetics and/or bad training.
Unfortunately, you can’t improve bad genetics. But you can learn how to train your calves the right way…
…So even if you can’t build the calves of your dreams, you can at least make them better than they are now.
By the time you finish reading the guide, you will be on the fast track to building more muscular calves.
Read on to discover how to shock your calves into growth!
The Best Calf Exercises
Before I explain the “why” and “how” of calf training, I want to lay out my list of the best calf exercises:
- Standing Calf Raise (if you could only do one, this should be it)
- Seated Calf Raise
- Calf Press
- Donkey Calf Raise
Why Your Calves Suck
So, why are the calves so damn stubborn?
Don’t feel bad if you aren’t one of the genetically gifted few who’ve been gifted with large and aesthetically shaped calves since day 1. If it’s any consolation, you’re far from being the only one.
Truth be told, calves seem to be one of the most troubling muscle groups for a notably high proportion of trainees. But why? Well, mainly because of these two factors:
- Bad Training. One major factor that attributes to sucky calves is bad training. “Bad” can refer to a number of things, including improper technique, poor exercise selection, rep range or amount of weight, and too much or too little volume. Whatever the case may be, it can kill any possibility of size gains if it is not addressed.
- Genetics. The other major factor is genetics. They play a significant role in determining your calf size and shape limitations. So when all is said and done, you may or may not end up with freaky calves like Mike Matarazzo. The point is to manage your expectations.
Got crappy calf genetics? Well, before you start crying and cursing out your ancestors and their non-aesthetically pleasing (yet nonetheless dominant) calf genes, I want you to realize and embrace the fact that the fate of your lower leg muscularity is not sealed.
In fact, it is quite possible to transform those gangly spaghetti calverinos into massive diamond-shaped super-calves, sharp enough to cut through your pants (yes, I’m exaggerating, but you get the point). 😀
Obviously you can’t change your calf genetics, but you most definitely can change how you train them. Luckily for you, the rest of this guide explains exactly how to train the right way so that you can reach your full genetic potential.
Calf Anatomy Guide
Now that you know the basics (the best calf training exercises and why your calves suck), I’ll get into what you’ve been waiting for: how to effectively train.
It’s essential to know how the calves work if we want optimize their training. Therefore, it’s necessary to review the calf anatomy:
- Gastrocnemius Muscle – This muscle, called the “gastroc” for short, makes up the vast majority of the calf size and shape. It’s main action is plantar flexion (i.e. pointing toes down), but it is only active when the knee is straight. Another important point is that it is mostly made up of fast twitch fibers, which respond best to heavy weight and low reps.
- Soleus Muscle -This muscle is small compared to the gastrocnemius. Plus it’s hidden underneath the gastroc, though you can see part of it on the lower inside of the calves. Although its visual impact is small, it does make a noticeable difference to the calves’ aesthetics (in terms of shape) when developed. The soleus isolated when the knee is bent. And unlike the gastroc, it consists mostly of slow twitch fibers, meaning it responds best to lighter weight and higher reps.
Calf Training Tips
Proper form is an absolute must. This is obviously true for all exercises, but is especially true for calf exercises. Even though the exercises listed earlier are not difficult movements to perform, it is easy to unknowingly use cheating form.
The following advice will help you escape the trap of using poor technique:
Don’t Bounce. It’s easy to cheat by bouncing the weight at the bottom of the rep. This is due to the elastic recoil of the Achilles tendon. There’s two quick solutions to this:
- Use weight that you can actually handle. Less is more.
- Pause at the bottom (more on this below, with regard to training tempo)
Use the Right Training Tempo. Using the correct tempo as I outline below, will not only eliminate any bouncing (mentioned above), but it will also enhance the overall effectiveness of the given calf exercise:
- For straight-leg exercises like the standing calf raise or calf press, use the training tempo of 3/1/X/2 (3 seconds down, 1 second squeeze at the top/midpoint, explode (“X”) up, 2 second stretch at the bottom).
- For bent-leg exercises such as seated calf raises, implement a 2/1/2/2 training tempo (2 seconds down, 1 second squeeze at the top/midpoint, 2 seconds up, 2 second stretch at the bottom).
Perform the Full Range of Motion. Utilizing full range of motion for calf exercises is required for effective muscle stimulation, but is often absent from the technique of many trainees. Ensure that your form is correct by:
- Going as high as you can at the top of a rep (increase plantar flexion), and focus on squeezing the calves at the top – you should feel a good burn.
- Extend your heel below parallel at the bottom of the rep, but stop and pause once you feel a mild calf stretch.
Don’t Use Momentum. This mostly refers to straight-leg calf exercises and is unrelated to “bouncing.” It is easy to create a slight forward momentum using the weighted barbell, giving you a (cheating) boost to complete the rep. You also want to avoid cheating by creating momentum using your body. For example, it is common to see trainees very slightly bend their knees and then “jump” into the top of the repetition by using the power of the upper leg – so don’t bend your knees on straight-leg calf exercises.
Good form is essential for all weight lifting exercises, but especially so for calf exercises. Since the range of motion is so small, it only takes a small amount of momentum or bouncing of weights to interfere with a productive calf training workout.
What’s the Best Calf Training Strategy for You?
The rest of this page is dedicated to specific training instructions and advice for calf exercises. If you did not read the above section on anatomy, you may not fully understand each tip.
Use “Straight-Leg” and “Bent-Leg” Standing Calf Exercises. In order to train the entire calf muscle group to the fullest, you must use both straight-leg exercises (e.g., standing calf raises or calf presses) and bent-leg exercises (e.g., seated calf raises).
Recall that seated calf exercises only work the soleus because a bent knee prevents significant involvement of the gastroc. Straight-leg calf exercises allow you to train the entire gastroc, and (to an extent) the soleus.
- If you have limited equipment, then you can still adequately train both major calf muscles with standing calf raises; it only requires a barbell and weights.
Use Heavy Weight and Low Reps for Straight-Leg Calf Exercises. Straight-leg calf exercises focus primarily on the gastroc, which is a fast twitch muscle. And as discussed earlier, fast twitch muscle fibers respond well to heavy weight. Try this protocol:
- Try 5 sets of 5 reps with 3 minutes of rest between sets.
Use Low/Moderate Weight and High Reps for Bent-Leg Calf Exercises. Bent-leg calf exercises target the slow twitch muscle fibers of soleus, which most effective when done with higher repetitions using a moderate load. Try this protocol:
- Try 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps with no more than 90 seconds of rest between sets.
Note: Many of the specifics (number of reps, sets, rest length, and training tempo) above, were adapted from training advice/instructions from Lyle McDonald.
More Calf Training Strategies…
Another option to make your stubborn calves budge is to dedicate more total volume to them. This can mean doing higher reps per set, more total sets, using heavier weight, or some combination of these factors.
But before you try doing more volume, it’s crucial that you can answer “yes” to the following:
- Have You Been Training the Entire Calf? Ensure you’ve been training both the gastroc (using straight-leg exercises) and the soleus (using bent-leg exercises).
- Have You Honestly Critiqued Your Form? You should have already identified and eliminated flawed technique. This requires being objective and separating yourself from your ego.
- Have You Been Training Consistently and Properly? You should perform the training principles outlined in this guide for at least 8 weeks before you trying anything else.
You’re only wasting your time if you just add more volume, but still use improper technique.
My final calf training tip is most appropriate for those who have long workouts; really anyone who wants to get out of the gym faster. Anyway, here’s the tip:
“Superset” calf work with non-related exercises. To clarify, this means you perform your calf exercise sets between sets of an unrelated exercise such as bench press (i.e. bench, no rest, calf raises, rest if needed, repeat).
This an optional time-saving tip that will keeps your workouts efficient and productive.
Now that you’re a basically an expert on calf training, it’s time to start implementing all of this new information. If you take action and apply the knowledge within this page, your calves will have no choice but to grow – even if you have the worst calf genes in the world, you’ll still see improvement.
Good luck in your quest to beastly calves, and don’t forget the importance of proper nutrition and recovery.