Tip: The Best Calf Exercise Just Got Practical

It's the best hypertrophy exercise for calves, but you've probably never used it because it's, well, awkward. Well, not anymore.

Best Calf Exercise Just Got Practical

If your calves need some new growth, nothing beats the donkey calf raise. The old-school bodybuilders did them with a training partner (or two) on their backs. Then donkey calf raise machines came along. And many people still do them today using a dipping belt.

While those variations are effective, they have a lot of drawbacks. Let's go over the pros and cons first, then I'll show you a new, practically way of doing them.

  1. Highest EMG Activity. Research related to EMG on different calf exercises is scarce. Apparently, funding research for building jacked calves isn't as popular as curing cancer. However, research done by Dr. Tudor Bomba and Lorenzo Cornacchia found that the donkey calf raises elicited the highest EMG activity of the calf exercises they looked at.
  2. It's a Nice Stretch. Donkey calf raises give you a good stretch through your superficial back line (i.e. the tissues that run up your backside). For years, bodybuilders have loved including exercises that provide a nice stretch to the muscle. Call it bro science if you want, but there seems to be something to this.
  3. No Spinal Compression. The downside of standing calf raises is that you have to load your spine to train your calves. Donkey calf raises give your back and CNS a break. It also frees up spinal loading capacity for more important exercises like squats, deadlifts, and loaded carries.
  4. It's Closed Chain. Unlike leg-press calf raises (which puts you in a similar position), donkey calf raises are a closed-chain exercise. This means that when you push the balls of your feet on the calf block, your body moves – not the block. While this isn't a deal breaker for pure aesthetic training, it is a more natural, functional way to train your calves and may lead to better results.
  1. Inaccessible Machines. While there are some donkey calf raise machines out there, chances are your gym doesn't have one.
  2. Awkward! You probably don't want to approach some dude at your gym with a sweaty crotch and ask him to mount you like a horse. Most people would rather skip the donkey calf raises and just wear track pants year round.
  3. Hard to Go Heavy. Even if you find someone willing to mount you, it likely won't be enough weight. That is why the old pictures with Arnold doing donkey calf raises often have several guys or ladies on his back. Hanging weights with a dip belt (another viable option), also gets difficult as you go heavier since the weights bang or press into your shins.

To get all the calf-building benefits without the problems, try angled barbell donkey calf raises. This exercise allows you to go as heavy as you want without partners, a special machine, or shins injuries.

How to Do It

  • Place a barbell on the floor – no Landmine-style device necessary.
  • Place a calf block, step, or bumper plates in front of your barbell. The bar will slide to the optimal distance once you engage the weight.
  • Use other benches, boxes, or other sturdy gym equipment to support your upper body.
  • Load up the bar as desired. Hook the end of the bar to your dip belt.
  • Place a collar on the end of the barbell so your belt chain won't slide off and carefully get into position.
  • Keep your knees extended, but not hyperextended. Come down to a full, comfortable stretch and then up into an intense, full contraction at the top.

Have fun walking funny for couple of days and enjoy bigger calves!

  1. Bompa TO & Cornacchia LJ (1998). Serious strength training. Windsor, ON: Human Kinetics.
Andrew Heming is a strength coach, professor, and former Canadian University U-Sport head strength coach. Andrew helps athletes and skinny hardgainers get bigger, faster, and stronger. Follow Andrew Heming on Facebook