When you think of lower-body strength, you think of the glutes, hamstrings, and quads. Makes sense. That's where we can develop most of our lower-body muscle mass and power. But let's not forget about the calves and Achilles tendon.
Most people don't spend much time building strong and durable calves. Some even neglect them altogether. That's a big mistake since the calves support the glute, hamstring, and quad muscles up the chain.
Here are six strength and power-building exercises you need:
Doing a heel raise in the seated position predominantly targets the soleus, the "less popular" lower leg muscle. The soleus is a single-joint muscle since it only crosses the ankle joint. (The more popular gastrocnemius crosses both the ankle and knee joints.)
The seated position targets the soleus since the knees are bent, which means the gastrocnemius is on relative slack (1). Both of these muscles work hand in hand, so don't skip the soleus.
Here's how to do it without a dedicated machine:
- Sit down on a bench with one heavy kettlebell on the top of each thigh.
- Elevate your toes 3-4 inches off the floor to train the full range of motion.
- Perform each rep with a controlled tempo: 3 seconds up, 3 seconds down. The slower tempo will increase the overall time under tension for strategic soleus strengthening.
Now let's target the big gastrocs. The Safety Squat Bar (SSB) works really well here.
- Place your hands on the sides of the rack (the Hatfield position) for stability.
- Elevate your toes 3-4 inches off the floor to load the entire range of motion.
- Take 5 seconds to lower each rep in a controlled manner to reap the benefits from eccentric training, which leads to substantial strength gains (2).
The trap bar is a great tool for farmers walks. To hit the calves, remain on your tip-toes the entire time. This keeps them in a constant state of tension via an isometric contraction throughout each set.
Isometric exercises are typically performed lightly loaded or with bodyweight only. Nothing wrong with that. However, you need to eventually move on to more challenging progressions.
Load up the trap bar with enough weight to challenge the calves while still being able to dynamically stabilize as you carry.
The Achilles tendon benefits here as well since high-intensity contractions are required for improving tendon structure and function (3).
Pogos are the first step for increasing power and elasticity in your lower-leg muscles. Developing strength alone isn't enough. Power development allows you to show off the strength gains through explosive capabilities.
This version of pogos allows you to master the landing and force absorption technique from each jump, which is often a culprit for calf and Achilles tendon setbacks.
Use the support from the heavy bands to build a rhythm and work in a higher rep range. Accumulate volume instead of focusing on maximum height. Don't worry, that will come later.
Whether you're moving weight in the gym or moving athletically on the playing field, developing jumping and landing skills is never a bad idea. The calves work as shock absorbers during landing so that you can produce more power during jumping (2).
Now drop the band assistance and pick up a pair of dumbbells. This will bump up the challenge as the lower-leg muscles improve in power and force production.
You're still building the capacity of your calves to do work since the action is repetitive with a strong emphasis on maintaining rhythm. Don't go for maximum height; just make sure each jump is extensive.
Extensive jumps help you to get a better feel for the stretch-shortening cycle since that serves as a key factor in your ability to produce force and power.
The goal here is to be as explosive as possible during each jump. Explode up powerfully and spend the least amount of time possible on the ground during each contact.
Keep your body stiff as a board to avoid unnecessary energy dissipation. You want all of your energy going directly into and off of the ground.
Here's where you'll want to go for maximum height. The amount of vertical displacement you can create is entirely dependent on your ability to produce force and power. This is where you can show off the strength and power you've built.
- Zellers J et al. Impact of seated and standing positions on triceps surae muscle activation in unilateral Achilles tendon rupture. Transl Sports Med. 20 Oct 2019.
- Vogt M et al. Eccentric exercise: mechanisms and effects when used as training regime or training adjunct. J Appl Physiol. 01 Jun 2014.
- Oranchuk D et al. Isometric training and long-term adaptations: Effects of muscle length, intensity, and intent: A systematic review. Scand J Med Sci Spor. Apr 2019; 29(4):484-503. doi: 10.1111/sms.13375.