The word calf seems to be a little dirty word in gyms these days. Seeing someone train them is practically nonexistent. Not only known for their key involvement in performance and functionality, they are also instrumental in giving a physique its overall look of balance and proportion. Nicely built and defined calves give the ENTIRE body a powerful, strong presence. Of course guys are impressed with big arms, but big calves are truly an envious attribute.
What is the self-depreciating, calf-less bodybuilder to do? Give up like most of the, um, country? Or do you draw the line and commit to finding new ways and experimenting with new (or not so new) techniques to build appreciable size and shape onto your lower legs?
I know, you are already thinking of the dreaded “G” word – genetics. However, I truly believe that anyone can build significant calf size with the right kind of consistent training. Let me say that last part again: CONSISTENT training. Not once per month or week as an afterthought, but thoughtful, intentional work to bring those stubborn things up to the rest of your physique.
So stop walking around like a human candy apple, shut up those people pointing and laughing behind your back and let’s do something about your, ahem, condition. The name of the game, as stated before, is consistency. In order to train any body part up to snuff is to hit it hard and frequently.
Frequency will be your new best friend. Calves will take a front seat priority in your arsenal of workouts and finally receive the type of attention they deserve. Calves are a hardened, endurance-natured muscle. We walk, jump and support our weight everyday on our calves – they are used to the work and are masters of recovery. So, why train them once per week when they just brush that workout you did seven days ago off their shoulder so easily?
Look at sprinters, Olympic skaters or anyone else in highly ballistic-type sports. Huge calves and a very high frequency of training – and very few if ever do a traditional calf raise in the gym! Their trick is frequency and a lot of it – sometimes training twice or three times per day, every day.
Now, I am not advocating THAT much frequency, but I am here to stress a switch in your thinking; a paradigm shift for all you cerebral types out there. Calves aren’t chest, back or arms. You’ve trained them that way long enough with what kind of results? Yeah, I thought so. Now it is time to put a little know-how and real, honest effort into them without blindly throwing in a few sets of ballistic bounces on the seated calf machine before heading out the door.
As stated earlier, frequency, I believe, is the key factor lacking in most trainees repertoire of techniques. This, of course, is true if all factors are accounted for such as intensity, form, technique and a proper adherence to rest periods. More on all that later – but first, the obligatory anatomy lesson…
The Obligatory Quick Anatomy Lesson
The musculature of the lower leg is comprised of (to keep things simple) 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 trainee 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.
The Good and the Bad of Form and Technique
Do: On any calf movement perform reps with the fullest range of motion possible. The more the muscle stretches, the more it will contract. Lower your heels as low as they can go without breaking form such as bending the knees or your foot slipping off of the block or machine. Also, leave your ego at the door.
If you find your range of motion is compromised in any way, stretch the area thoroughly each day and start by doing calf raises without weight to introduce more range to the muscle.
Don’t: Bounce the weight, shorten the range of motion, load too much weight (which will automatically shorten the range of motion), use bent-knee momentum or “squat” the weight up.
Also, if you tend to load up the leg press machine with ungodly amounts of weight, you will look ridiculous attempting to calf raise the weight with tiny calves… just sayin’.
Frequency and Progression
By all accounts increasing your frequency to twice per week is a good bet that it will double your frequency. Increasing frequency on this plan will be progressive in nature. The trick is to coax them into recovering more effectively. The calves have the ability to recover quickly, naturally, but loading them abruptly will cause a whole new world of soreness and discomfort.
Another benefit of frequency is one of pure math; the more often you work a muscle, the faster it will become larger and stronger. You will simply have more opportunities to stimulate growth per training period. For example: if you train calves once per week, that is theoretically 52 sessions per year. Twice per week bumps up the stimulation to 104 times per year. You double your chances of protein synthesis, growth factors and tear down and recovery. Now, think of three times per week, four or even five.
Sufficient stimulation at a higher frequency doesn’t require a marathon training session separate only for calves. I am talking a succinct, effective and focused training program easily injected into any day of training. I am not advocating “killing them” every session either. A moderate to low volume (if done properly) will reap great rewards in the long run.
Despite wherever you fall on the frequency spectrum, the volume of sets will remain constant:
- Two sessions per week: 8 sets each day
- Three sessions per week: 5 sets each day
- Four sessions per week: 4 sets each day
- Five sessions per week: 3 sets each day
As you can see the number of sets for all phases only ranges from 15 to 16 per week. However, it is the frequency that changes, which is what this is all about!
Now that you know a little about the whys and hows, let’s delve into what makes outstanding calves.
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 trainees 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.
Note: 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!
Note: 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.
Note: 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.
Note: 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!
Just a quick recap:
-Moderate to low volume
-Form and technique
How To Get Bigger Calves
10 Week Bad Ass Calf Onslaught
Before We Begin:
1. Perform 1 or 2 warm-up sets of 15-20 reps on the first movement.
2. Rest only 30 to 45 seconds in between sets (utilize a watch if needed).
3. Do different calf moves each session.
Clean up your current routine. You will not do any extra work this week, simply work on form and technique and reduce weight if necessary on whatever you are presently doing. Feel the muscle stretch and contract and get that sought-after full range of motion.
Weeks 2 and 3:
Increase frequency to twice per week. Pick two moves and perform four sets each, 10-15 reps with three days in between sessions.
Weeks 4 and 5:
Increase frequency to three times per week. Pick two moves and perform three sets of one and two sets of another, 10-15 reps with one day of rest in between each session.
Weeks 6 and 7:
Increase frequency to four times per week. Pick two moves of two sets each, 10-15 reps with two days on, one off and two days on. (For example: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday).
Weeks 8 and 9:
Increase frequency to five times per week. Pick one move for three sets, 10-15 reps any five days of the week.
Back-off week. Perform two sets each day twice per week, 10 reps – just short of failure. This week is mainly to pump blood into the area and help to play catch-up with recovery.
The other factor to play around with is rep schemes. For the next 10 weeks try either 20 rep sets or 8 rep sets. As long as you are switching up the moves every day, utilizing good form, varying reps and tapping into intensity for these few sets, you will be well on your way to some pretty bad ass calves.