Some people say that you are either born with great calves, or you are not. I don’t know about you, but I was born with wimpy calves. I remember there was a time when I would deliberately avoid wearing shorts in the summer because it is simply too embarrassing to show my calves – they were like chopsticks! I finally decided to train my calves, and although they were (and still are) incredibly stubborn body parts, they CAN still grow. Here’s how
Other than the different variations of calf raises, your calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) are also worked during squats and deadlifts. This is a reminder that you shouldn’t forget about your major compound movements! Your calves are worked to more of an extent during deadlifts than squats, so if you already have a decent set of wheels, you can just focus on deadlifts.
Standing calf raise
This is probably the most basic exercise for the gastrocnemius, the muscle responsible for the “bulk” in your calves. The key here is full range of motion and really squeezing and stretching the calves at the top and bottom of the movement respectively. Many people hop onto the calf raise machine and start bouncing on their toes – this accomplishes nothing! Don’t be afraid to push yourself; load up the weight! Your calves are very strong (as they need to carry your bodyweight everyday) so if you want to overload them, you need to be using fairly heavy weights: weights that challenge you to complete full range of motion within your rep range but not so heavy that you can no longer feel the contraction in your calves.
- don’t lock your knees. this will place a huge strain on your knees and that is never a good thing.
- if you point your toes inwards, you stress the outer calves a little more; if you point your toes outwards, you stress the inner calves a little more
Seated calf raise
An excellent exercise to target the soleus muscles (the “v-taper” muscles of your calves) as well as the gastrocnemius. Again, you want to go for a full range of motion. Squeeze at the top of the movement and really stretch your calves at the bottom of the movement. Some people don’t get enough stretch and only stay within the upper half of movement so make sure you go for that deep stretch. There are many variations of the standing and seated calf raise. Don’t be afraid to change it up once in a while.
- calf presses on leg press machines
- donkey calf raises – these ones look a little awkward visually but are great for overloading the calves. If there is a donkey calf raise machine in the gym (which is really rare) go for it. If you happen to be brave enough to ask people to hop onto your back, then go for it too.
- smith machine calf raises
- calf raises on hack squat machine (or machine with an angled sled)
- one-legged dumbbell calf raises – grab a dumbbell and stand on a block with one leg. Perform calf raises as you normally would. These ones are a little harder to do because you are limited by the amount of weight you can grip onto. I personally would skip these altogether and just stick to the machines.
Once again, strive for progressive intensity; you want to be either:
- Increasing the amount of weight you are using while using the number of sets, reps and rest period, or
- Increase the number of reps while using the same amount of weight, number of sets and rest period, or
- Decrease the rest period while using the same amount of weight, same number of sets and reps over a period of time.
You can also change up the rep tempo (the time it takes for you to complete certain phases of the movement) from time to time. Sometimes I like to keep the weight moving without pausing in between, and sometimes I like to pause at the top of the movement for a second or two to really flex the calves. You may use a low volume, high intensity approach or a high volume, low intensity approach:
- Low volume, high intensity – you would only perform 4 – 5 sets of 6 – 8 reps. You will use a weight that you will go to failure with on the 8th rep. The negatives should be slow and controlled and the positives should be fast and explosive. Give yourself 2 minute rest.
- High volume, low intensity – you would want to stick to 12 – 15 reps for these sorts of workouts. Rest period should only be around 60 seconds or so. Go for the pump!
If you really want to improve your calves, I suggest working your calves twice a week. I like to stretch them at the end of the workout to really get the blood pumping in the calves. You would alternate between the 2 different approaches that are listed above. Make sure you have plenty of rest in between and that you are consuming excess calories in the form of quality protein and carbohydrates.
Here are some of my favorite techniques to overload the calves:
One-and-a-half rep – I actually learned this technique from watching Jay Cutler’s videos. When Jay does calf raises, he does an extra half rep after each rep. The half rep should be used on the bottom half of the movement. He also tends to pause at the stretch position for a while near the end of his set. Usually when I pause at the bottom I have trouble continuing my set, so save those stretch overload reps at the end.
Drop sets – I occasionally do drop sets on my last set to really pump out the calves. When doing drop sets, you reduce the weight immediately and start working your muscles again.
Rest-pause – After pumping out 10 reps on the calf raise machine, I would hop off the machine for around 15 seconds, then I will hop back on to squeeze out a couple more reps.
21’s – 7 reps in the lower half of the movement, 7 reps in the upper half of the movement, 7 reps full range of motion – 21 reps on total with no rest in between.
With time and dedication, you will eventually throw out those skinny calves and replace them with a pair of meaty, shapely calves!