Some lifters say, "You're either born with great calves or you're not." But that's ridiculous. You have muscle on your body. It's been proven fairly well that if you use these muscles to move weights around, eat some food afterwards, and repeat this for long enough, those muscles will get bigger.
Apparently all muscles do this, except calves. Does that really make sense?
So here's your first tip: Approach your calf training by hitting them each day at the beginning of every workout. By doing this you're basically not giving them an option to do anything but grow. That's how they'll respond.
You can be born with naturally great biceps, pecs, lats, and even calves. Or not. And if not, you can build them. Plenty of lifters find out they have some muscle group that just doesn't seem to respond the way other ones do. Hell, that's usually about half the muscle groups we ever train. But like with any lagging or stubborn muscle group, it won't happen overnight.
Depending on how obsessive a lifter gets about that body part, he can actually bring it up to a point where it's his most developed muscle group. I was the president of Team No-Traps for basically my whole lifting life. And despite deadlifting over 700 pounds, my traps were almost non-existent.
Then one day, like on page three of some Disney story about a farm boy who dreamed of becoming a prince, I decided to attack trap training with a vengeance, and I figured out every possible way I could get them to grow. Now I'm known for my trap development. See? Growing your smallest muscle group isn't impossible.
If your calves are still little it's most likely because:
- You believe the myth that they can't be developed so you don't really try. You accept your thermometer-shaped calves.
- You think calf training is boring. It is... if you don't understand that a big meaty pair of calves basically sets your physique apart from everyone else's.
- You don't really know how to train them properly. Without sounding like an ass, this is most people. And this was me too for a long time.
So let's get started.
The key with calf work is to hold the stretch (toes toward shins) portion of each rep for 5 seconds. Why? The Achilles tendon is the thickest tendon in the body. It's built to handle the weight of your entire body through movement. From casual walking to dynamic and explosive movements like sprinting and jumping, the Achilles tendon has to be able to handle the torque and tension.
Avoid that bouncy rep execution that most gym bruhs use when they train calves. You know what I'm talking about. Don't get on a calf machine and do the thing where you rock your feet up and down.
Sure, the calves might get a bit of a burn if you do this for long enough, but that doesn't mean a whole lot. And the feedback from your crappy calf development should be telling you that.
With bouncy reps, the Achilles tendon is basically saying, "Don't worry gastrocnemius, I got this." So it's important to hold the stretch portion of each rep because it eliminates the stretch reflex, and it makes the gastroc do the great majority of the work during the exercise. We're forcing the Achilles to go, "Hey bruh, it's all you on this one."
Loaded stretching like this does a fine job of getting a stubborn muscle to perk up and grow; it naturally increases the amount of time under tension within a working set.
Now that you're maximizing the lengthening portion of each rep, let's talk about how to maximize the concentric or lifting portion.
Once you transition into the concentric part of the rep, the key there is to maximize the peak contraction. We want to get the calf to get as "short" as possible. Roll your feet foot inwards, toward the big toe.
Think about ballerina calves. They don't spend a lot of time lengthening the calves with a stretch in comparison to how much time they spend with their weight on their big toes (literally). So their calves remain in a maximally shortened position and work from a peak contraction state most of the time. So there's enormous value in maximizing that position in your calf movements.
Once you've rolled onto the big toe, hold that peak contraction for 3 seconds before lowering.
Here's where we basically eliminate the whole, "Training calves is boring" complaint. Back in Arnold's day he believed that you needed to train calves heavy. Like super heavy, with high reps. And I agree... to an extent.
What most people need to do is use a variety of rep ranges and loading to make sure all of their bases are covered. Hell, you could really say that about the development of any muscle group. But one reason people get bored or don't put a lot of consistent effort into their calf training is because they end up reading that "calves need high reps" and that can get boring fast.
Remember, the calves are built for handling endurance and explosive movements, which means they have a mix of slow and fast twitch fibers to get those jobs done.
They also have to handle the tension of dynamic movement by the body through space, so it should make sense that you'd also need to train them using exercises where resistance is provided at different lengths.
Here are the exercises I suggest rotating through to start every single workout you're doing for the day. Do at least ONE of these every time you go to the gym before you do anything else.
1. The Single-Leg Calf Raise
Pick a total amount of reps to aim for using bodyweight only, like 75 or 100. Start by doing as many reps as possible on one leg, then immediately switch to the other leg. Continue in this manner without rest until your total rep goal is reached.
So let's say you do 25 reps to start with on the left leg. You then switch to the right leg and do 25 reps. Then immediately go back to the left leg and continue. Repeat this process until you meet your TOTAL rep goal.
There's another fun way to do these if you have access to stairs. Do a set number of reps with each leg on each step. For example, you have 12 steps on the set of stairs. That's 12 sets in front of you. For each step do a certain amount of reps for each leg. This will vary of course depending on how much you like pain.
For staircases that have a lot of steps, I'd suggest 5 reps. For 10 steps or fewer, go with 8-10 reps. Just have some fun with it.
2. The Seated Dumbbell Calf Raise
If your gym doesn't have a seated calf machine, you probably don't work your soleus. Let's fix that. Find a block or stack a couple of 45's on the floor and sit down on a bench. Grab a dumbbell and prop it up on your leg.
Now do a "muscle round" for the sets and reps. This is how a muscle round works for stimulating muscle growth. You'll do 4 reps, then rest 10 seconds. Do 4 more reps, then rest 10 seconds. Do this a total of 5 times. Then on the 6th time around, do as many as possible. Each time you do reps think of that as a round.
For the seated dumbbell calf raises, this is simple. You do the left leg for 4 reps, then you switch to the right leg and do 4 reps. Back and forth, no rest between the mini-sets. On the 6th mini-set, crank out as many reps as possible. These are money.
3. The Standing Calf Raise
You can do the traditional standing calf raise machine or use a Smith machine. The goal here is to chase some progressive overload, so make sure you're tracking your sets, reps, and loading each week.
Also use an intensity technique called rest/pause. If you've never done rest/pause then get ready for some pain and gains.
After your warm-up sets, do an all-out set with a weight that causes you to fail at around 12-15 reps. Rest 20 seconds and go back at it for maximum reps. Rest 20 seconds and repeat that process one more time. That's your calf work for that particular day. Short and sweet, but very effective.
4. The Calf Press
Find a leg press machine and get ready for an intensity technique that'll set stubborn calves on fire and get them growing.
Start with one calf in the stretched position (toes toward shins), then press the weight up with both feet and hold the contraction for 3 seconds. Then use the other leg to lower the weight by itself and hold the stretch position. And again, use both legs to press the weight back up.
So whenever you lower the weight and hold, only use one leg and alternate between left and right. Once you hit failure, you can extend the set by using both calves during both the lowering and the lifting.
Think calves are there just to be pretty? From a functional standpoint, they also help with stabilizing the knee. That sounds important.
And there's another benefit of training the calves properly – an increase in foot and ankle strength and mobility. Being able to execute a proper squat starts with how well your feet and ankles can move and stabilize for the rest of the kinetic chain.
I can't tell you how many people's squat I've fixed, from an execution standpoint, by focusing on ankle mobility and strength. How'd I do that? Calf work. Charles Poliquin used the same approach (basic calf work) for fixing foot and ankle issues.
I can guarantee you that if you use these exercises and techniques for one year, you'll be amazed at how easily you'll bust the whole, "You're either born with great calves or not" myth. And never once will you have to don a tutu to prove it.