Want big calves? There are six rules that’ll help you get them. But first, let’s look at a great exercise that illustrates many of the technique-focused rules below.
Safety Squat Bar Standing Calf Raises
Few gyms seem to have specialized straight-leg calf machines for standing and donkey raises. Thankfully, more gyms now have specialized bars like Safety Squat Bars. We can use one to recreate an effective standing calf raise.
Find (or create) a platform from which you can do calf raises, and set it in a rack.
Use one hand to hold the loaded bar and use your other to hold the rack for balance.
- Press as high as you can onto your toes (the ball of your foot) and pause for 1-2 seconds.
- Control the descent into the deepest stretch you can create and pause for 1-2 seconds.
- Repeat with strict form to failure.
- Do 3-4 sets of varied rep ranges across different training days.
- Perform these and other straight-knee calf raise/press variations as supersets with unrelated body parts 3-4 times a week for 10-16 sets.
Now, let’s get to the rules:
1. Choose the right parents.
Genetics play a big role in calf shape and size. You can’t control this. You’re also not totally screwed if you have poor calf genetics. Next.
2. Gain a lot of weight and walk around for a few years.
What’s universal about people who’ve walked around with a ton of body mass for years? Calves an Olympia bodybuilder would envy. They’re loading, absorbing, and moving more resistance with each step, and it adds up to a lot of calf hypertrophy over the years.
This is, of course, an impractical and ridiculous approach to attempt deliberately. Outside the long-term health implications, we also see disproportionately thick soleus muscles without much differentiation from the gastroc.
This is partly due to a higher body fat percentage obscuring muscle definition, but mostly from the heavy bias toward slow-twitch fiber hypertrophy from high volumes of walking around all day. The slow-twitch dominant soleus will receive a disproportionate training effect. This is also a good reason to bias toward straight leg, gastroc-focused calf training discussed in more detail. Next.
3. Skip the seated calf raise machine.
Cue the roar of resistance for the beloved, yet laziest training tool in the gym. The seated calf raise machine creates the illusion you’re doing something useful, while sitting and squandering 15 minutes.
Do most, if not all, of your calf training with fully straight knees (or close to it). Your calves are compromised of two main muscles. The gastrocnemius (gastroc) is the big meaty muscle at the top of your lower leg. Its origin is just above the knee while the soleus originates just below. The soleus sits on both sides of the Achilles, under the gastroc.
When seated with bent knees, your gastroc isn’t fully stretched, leaving only the soleus in position to work. Great if you want to isolate your soleus but ineffective if you want to emphasize the larger and more visible gastroc. The desired aesthetic of big calves is a prominent gastroc clearly differentiated from the underlying soleus.
When limited on training time, we triage the most efficient and effective exercises. In a perfect world, we could do it all and recover. In practice, we face limitations and therefore tradeoffs.
We are most efficient when we choose calf exercises performed with straight or minimally bent knees. Standing and donkey calf raises, calf presses, and even tip-toe farmers carries (shown below) are better choices.
If time and recovery allows for more direct soleus attention, only then finish them off with seated raises.
4. Be prepared for serious long term consistency.
Much of the myth of hard-to-grow calves is that few people do the training right. Even fewer are willing to smash calves with the kind of training frequency, volume, and long-term consistency needed to make meaningful progress.
Successful lifters have mastered chest, arm, and shoulder training. The majority are pretty good with back. Leg training is notoriously hit or miss, but those who know their leg training have sweeping quads and thick hanging hamstrings.
You can’t claim your calves won’t grow if you don’t train them week-in and week-out like everything else. Commit to at least a year of consistency before you complain about bad genetics.
5. Treat calves like any other muscle you want to grow.
Did you think you’d have world-class calves by doing four unfocused and tired sets of 10 reps at the end of your weekly leg workout? People complain about how they can’t grow calves while doing nowhere close to the amount of work needed to cause them to grow.
Your calves evolved to absorb walking and running half the day to hunt and gather. Four mediocre sets once a week isn’t the answer.
“Bringing up” any lagging body part means making it your priority. Train it early in your workouts. Train it with a variety of load and rep ranges to create a growth stimulus for the fast-twitch-fiber-heavy gastroc and the slow-twitch-heavy soleus.
Increase your weekly calf training volume by increasing your training frequency across the week. Calves recover quickly because they’re designed to be used all day every day. You can hit them multiple times a week.
Just superset sets with other unrelated exercises like rows, presses, lateral raises, or curls. Your localized muscle fatigue won’t interfere with the intensity or volume of the other body part’s training. Do this instead of tacking 15-30 minutes onto the end of your workouts.
6. Control the tempo of your reps.
Few calf training behaviors are as useless as bouncing your way through 20 rapid, shallow calf raises. The burning sensation you feel is your Achilles tendon doing most of the work.
Your Achilles is an elastic tendon so powerful that if you’re ever in the presence of a fully ruptured Achilles, it sounds like a gunshot. If you just rapidly bounce through your reps, your Achilles steals the training volume from your calf muscles.
Focus on a controlled stretch at the bottom of every calf rep. Pause for at least 1-2 seconds (anything more isn’t adding further benefit) to minimize the stretch reflex from your Achilles tendon. Your calf muscles will perform the work to push you out of the stretched position.
Focus on dorsiflexing your ankle as far as possible at the top of each rep. Squeeze out every bit of range your calves can push you through. The combined effect is working your calves through the full range of ankle mobility. You also avoid the tendency to just hover through the easier mid-range with too much load.
Focusing on the paused stretch also emphasizes more range of motion and helps improve ankle mobility. Better ankle mobility helps sustain healthy ankles and knees for the rest of your leg training. Since this prevents you from losing time on injuries, it keeps you on task growing your calves too. No one with a knee injury is showing up to do calf work.