Even experienced lifters struggle to build their lower legs, but it IS possible to develop them. You’re already familiar with basic straight-knee calf work, like the standing calf raise. And you’re also well aware of bent-leg, seated calf raises.
That’s a good start. There’s a reason to do both types:
Your calves are made of the gastrocnemius complex and the soleus. Research shows that doing calf raises (ankle plantar flexion) with a straight-knee creates superior gastrocnemius muscle activity, while doing these raises with a bent-knee creates superior soleus muscle activity (1,2,3,4). So it makes sense to do at least one calf exercise in each knee position to maximize your training time and efficiency.
But are you stuck in a rut doing the same two lifts over and over again? Most are.
Luckily, there are other great calf exercises in both categories that you can add to your arsenal. Get more out of your lower leg work by picking at least one calf exercise from the straight-knee category and one from the bent-knee category.
Two Straight-Knee Calf Exercises
These two exercises require you to perform a heel raise in a manner that involves propelling yourself forward as well as upwards on each step. The plantar flexion action is more similar to that of walking and running.
Dumbbell One-Leg Leaning Calf Raise
- Stand facing a wall with your feet hip-width apart while holding a dumbbell in your left hand.
- Place your right hand on the wall at roughly chest height and lean your body forward while keeping your torso, hips, and knees all in a straight line.
- Bend your right knee and step your left leg backward, placing it as far behind you as possible with keeping your heel on the ground and your left foot pointed at the wall. Your left knee, hip, and torso should all form a straight line.
- Lift your right foot off the floor while keeping your right knee bent at around a 90-degree angle.
- While maintaining your body position, lift your left heel as high as you can off of the floor so that you end up on the ball of your foot. Slowly lower yourself until your heel touches the floor to complete the rep.
- Don’t allow your left foot to rotate outwards at any point. Keep it straight and pointed at the wall throughout.
- Don’t bounce. Control the lowering (eccentric) portion of each rep by allowing your heel to touch the floor gently – not to fully rest on the floor – until all reps have been completed. Do all the reps on the same side before switching sides.
Dumbbell Walking Calf Raise
This simply combines a dumbbell farmer’s walk with a calf raise.
- Stand at one end of the room and hold two heavy dumbbells, palms facing your body by your hips.
- Walk to the other end of the room. On each step, as soon as your foot hits the ground, quickly lift your heels as high as you can off the floor, ending up on the balls of your feet.
- Lower yourself down after each step with control until your heel touches the floor to complete the rep. Do the heel raise in a smooth and coordinated action with each step.
Two Bent-Knee Calf Exercises
It’s important to notice that both of these involve positioning your working side foot closer to you. This increases the range of motion demand, making it more productive.
Half-Kneeling Dumbbell Calf Raise
- Using a mat or rolled towel for comfort. Get in a half-kneeling position with your torso straight and both knees bent 90 degrees.
- Move your front foot backwards underneath your same-side thigh as far as you can while keeping your heel on the floor and your foot straight.
- Place the side of a dumbbell, or the bottom of a kettlebell, on top of the knee (not on top of your mid-thigh) of the same foot you just moved toward you.
- Push your toes into the ground and lift your heel as high as you can off the floor, ending up on the ball of your foot.
- Slowly lower your heel until it touches the floor to complete the rep. Don’t bounce. Control the lowering portion by allowing your heel to touch the floor gently.
- Do all the reps on the same side before switching sides.
Seated Dumbbell Calf Raise
- Sit tall on a bench with your feet roughly hip-width apart.
- Move one of your feet backward underneath your same-side thigh as far as you can while keeping your heel on the floor and your foot straight.
- Place one side of the dumbbell, or the bottom of a kettlebell, on top of the knee.
- Push your toes into the ground and lift your heel as high as you can, ending up on the ball of your foot.
- Slowly lower your heel until it touches the floor to complete the rep. As always, no bouncing.
- Hébert-Losier, K., Schneiders, A. G., García, J. A., Sullivan, S. J., & Simoneau, G. G. (2012). Influence of knee flexion angle and age on triceps surae muscle activity during heel raises. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(11), 3124-3133.
- Tamaki, H., Kitada, K., Akamine, T., Sakou, T., & Kurata, H. (1996). Electromyogram patterns during plantarflexions at various angular velocities and knee angles in human triceps surae muscles. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 75(1), 1-6.
- Price, T. B., Kamen, G., Damon, B. M., Knight, C. A., Applegate, B., Gore, J. C., & Signorile, J. F. (2003). Comparison of MRI with EMG to study muscle activity associated with dynamic plantar flexion. Magnetic Resonance Imaging, 21(8), 853-861.
- Signorile, J. E., Applegate, B., Ducque, M., Cole, N., & Zink, A. (2002). Selective recruitment of the triceps surae muscles with changes in knee angle. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 16(3), 433-439.