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Cure for Cowardly Calves


When it comes to training calves, most people leave room on the table in terms of hypertrophy.

I'll be the first to admit that the lower legs seem to be the most "genetically influenced" muscle group in that some individuals don't do squat (pun intended) and have great calves, while others can't seem to develop much of anything no matter what they try.

The guy with really long Achilles tendons, high calves, short muscle bellies, and a higher percentage of slow twitch muscle fibers will have a much more difficult time making his calves into cows than the guy with shorter Achilles tendons, low calves, long muscle bellies, and a higher percentage of fast twitch muscle fibers.

However, with hard work and consistency, I believe that most lifters can override their genetic curse and achieve at least balanced lower leg development. 

If you're a "don't you gimme any of that sciency crap" kind of guy, you can skip the following section, but I think it's important to understand some of the functional anatomy and biomechanics of the lower leg to create the best possible program for growing the calves.


What The Research Tells Us

If you're an American man, you likely take around 7,000 steps daily (Amish men take over 18,000 steps daily, although never in any type of rhythmic sequence that could qualify as dancing). If you think of each stride as a shorter-ROM bodyweight repetition, you can see how acclimated your calves are to low-intensity work. Long story short: If you want the calves to grow you need to make them do what they're not used to doing.

The triceps surae consists of the gastrocnemius, soleus, and plantaris, which share a common tendon called the Achilles tendon.

The plantaris is only around 2-4 inches long and is absent in around 7-10% of individuals, so it's not very important for discussions on hypertrophy.

The differences in function between the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles derive from differences in fiber length, fiber type, and anatomical attachments.

The gastrocnemius originates behind the knee on the femur, crossing two joints, and contains lateral and medial heads. The primary function of the gastrocnemius is to elevate the heel (known as plantar flexion). The gastroc is also a knee flexor. The gastroc is shortened by knee flexion but has improved leverage for ankle function when the knee is extended. The gastroc produces weak knee flexion moment when the knee is extended but the leverage is improved as the knee flexes to 90 degrees. 

The soleus is mono-articular in that it only crosses one joint. Its primary function is also plantar flexion. The soleus only crosses the ankle joint and is mechanically unaffected by knee angle.

For fiber type distribution, one study showed the soleus to be 70% slow twitch and both heads of the gastrocnemius to be 50% slow twitch.(Edgerton et al., 1975) Another study showed the gastroc to be 56% slow twitch.(Khan et al., 1978) Yet another showed the gastroc to be approximately a 51% fast-twitch muscle (Green et al., 1981), while a final study showed that the soleus is made up of approximately 80% slow-twitch muscle. (Gollnick et al., 1974)

 It's possible to recruit more soleus or more gastrocnemius depending on the knee angle. (Signorille et al., 2002; Price et al., 2003; Tamaki et al., 1997; Arampatzis et al. 2006; Cresswell et al., 1995; Kennedy et al., 2001; Miaki et al., 1999) Furthermore, it appears that the gastroc and soleus may adapt differently to exercise based on genetic responses. (Goldfarb et al., 2007) 

There appears to be great genetic variability with fiber type distribution. For example, a study involving world-class shot putters showed that athletes ranged between 13% and 67% slow twitch fibers in the lateral gastrocnemius, with a mean of approximately 38% slow twitch fibers.(Coyle et al., 1978) So it's not wise to assume that you fall in the norm and not one of the extremes in terms of fiber type distribution patterns. 

The medial and lateral heads of gastroc function differently from one another; the medial head works much harder than the lateral head to eccentrically resist knee extension.(Andriacchi et al., 1984) One would assume that the involvement of the lateral and medial heads of the gastroc wouldn't be altered by medial or lateral rotation of the hip, yet magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) research by Dr. Per Tesch indicates that "toes in" activates both heads and "toes out" activates the medial head to a higher degree.

There's also research supporting this notion as inverting the feet has been shown to increase medial gastroc and soleus activity in greater proportion to lateral gastroc and soleus activity.(Campbell et al., 1973)

There are several muscles that produce plantarflexion, namely the gastrocnemius, soleus, plantaris, peroneus longus and brevis, flexor hallucis longus, flexor digitorum longus, and tibialis posterior. There are several muscles that produce knee flexion, namely the hamstrings, gastrocnemius, plantaris, gracilis, sartorius, and popliteus.

 When attempting to flex the knee and plantarflex the ankle simultaneously, gastroc activity increases markedly while soleus activity decreases.(Gravel et al., 1987)

The soleus initiates slow contractions, while the gastroc initiates fast contractions.(Cordo et al., 1982) The lateral gastroc has the fastest twitch, the medial gastroc has the second fastest twitch, and the soleus has the slowest twitch.(Vandervoort et al., 1983)

EMG research by uber-douche Bret Contreras shows that heavy standing calf raises activated more mean gastrocnemius muscle than single-leg standing calf raises, explosive standing calf raises with a lighter load, and standing calf raises with a 10-second isometric pause at the bottom of the movement.

However, barbell squats activated more peak gastrocnemius muscle than any of the calf raise variations. It appears that the calves work very hard to stabilize the knee joint and provide balance during heavy squatting. In other words, just walking the weight out during heavy squats hits the calves pretty hard.


What the Research Doesn't Tell Us

Basically, the research doesn't tell us jack shit for identifying the best methodology for calf growth. It does give us some clues, but at the end of the day we're going to have to go by anecdotal evidence to create the best possible program for lower leg development.


Combined Methods

You always see the "heavy versus high rep argument" for calf growth on internet forums. I've always wondered why lifters seeking maximum calf hypertrophy would limit themselves to just one type of stimulus. Why do one or the other when you can do both?

The fact is there are plenty of lifters who built great calves from just squatting and deadlifting heavy, though this very method has failed many a lifter as well. Similarly, there are lifters who developed great calves from high rep calf training, while others have failed using this exact methodology.

As previously mentioned, there's a huge genetic component to calf development, so if you're genetically cursed below the knees your only option is to combine methods and get strong at a variety of exercises. For our program, we're going to use many different strategies, most of which are described below.


The Legendary Glossary of Terms

lots of sets and reps, drop sets, pause sets, variety, tons of medium and high rep isolation movements

three sessions per week

more reps in a set period of time

heavy compound lower body movements

train the calves via their role as stabilizers

train the calves via their role as knee flexors; very effective and underutilized calf movement

maximize myofibrillar hypertrophy and recruit more HTMU's

maximize sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and cause more occlusion


The Program

The lower leg muscles will be trained three times per week. Each workout will be separated by 48-72 hours.

Week One —

A) Squats 8 x 1 (ramp up the weight)

B) Glute ham raises 5 x 10 (use the machine version and utilize the toe plate)

C) Standing calf raise (heavy) 4 x 6

D) Leg press calf raise (light) 2 x 30

A) Single leg calf raises, 10 minutes EDT

B) Jump rope, 10 minutes

A) Deadlifts, 8 x 1 (ramp up the weight)

B) Glute ham raises, 5 x 10 (use the machine version and utilize the toe plate)

C) Donkey calf raises, 3 x 20 (do one set with hips in neutral, one set with hips externally rotated, and one set with hips internally rotated)

D) Pause rep seated calf raises, 3 x 10 (pause for 3 seconds at top and bottom)

Week Two —

A) Squats, 8 x 1 (ramp up the weight)

B) Glute ham raise, 5 x 10 (use the machine version and utilize the toe plate)

C) Standing calf raise, (heavy) 5 x 5

D) Leg press calf raise, (light) 3 x 20 (do one set with hips in neutral, one set with hips externally rotated, and one set with hips internally rotated)

A) Standing machine calf raise, 1 drop-set from hell. Start with a weight you can do for around 8 reps, then reduce the load by 50% and bust out as many reps as you can, then bust out as many bilateral bodyweight reps as possible.

B) Jump rope, 10 minutes

A) Deadlifts, 8 x 1 (ramp up the weight)

B) Glute ham raises, 5 x 10 (use the machine version and utilize the toe plate)

C) Pause donkey calf raises, 3 x 10 (pause for 3 seconds at top and bottom)

D) Seated calf raises, 2 x 50

Repeat this two-week cycle three times for a total of two months of calf abuse.

After this two-month blast is complete, return to a more sane calf training rotation of once or twice per week, being sure to include a wide variety of exercises and rep ranges but keeping the total volume per session low to allow supercompensation to occur.

You'll likely find your calves continuing to grow during this deloading period, hopefully reaching a level of respectability that allows you to not wear jeans at the beach anymore.


The Wrap-up

Stubborn calves are a tough nut to crack as there's such a huge genetic factor that simply can't be avoided. But even if you did draw the unlucky "calves like a flamingo" card, there's no reason to say "screw it" and quit training them completely. A little science combined with some smart programming — and a ton of effort — and you may find yourself proud to wear shorts again, free of your crippling calf insecurities.

Calf training may not be fun, but hey — at least it's cheaper than therapy.



80's fitness icon Roger Stewart lent his kick-ass lower leg development    to a number of calf training gadgets.

80's fitness icon Roger Stewart lent his kick-ass lower leg development to a number of calf training gadgets.

Dorian Yates' calves are truly legendary.

Dorian Yates' calves are truly legendary.

The Oak didn't arrive in America with a great set of calves. Not    that he let that stop him.

The Oak didn't arrive in America with a great set of calves. Not that he let that stop him.

Newsflash: Chicks can build ridiculous calves, too.

Newsflash: Chicks can build ridiculous calves, too.

Mr. Olympia turned opera singer Chris Dickerson had incredible calves — but    reportedly, so did his twin brother, who didn't weight train.

Mr. Olympia turned opera singer Chris Dickerson had incredible calves — but reportedly, so did his twin brother, who didn't weight train.

About the Author

Bret Contreras

Bret Contreras received his Master's degree from Arizona State University and his Certified Strength and Conditioning Certificate from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Bret trains himself and others out of his kick-ass garage gym and has a popular blog here. Check it out!


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