Are You Stuck with Small Calves? Nope!
It's probably not your lower legs that suck – it's your training. Most lifters' calf work revolves around doing rapid, shallow reps... if they do anything for calves at all.
Getting them big requires loaded flexion and extension of the ankle. Most people miss this and, as a result, miss an equally important benefit of calf training: strong feet and ankles.
This doesn't just hurt your calf gains though. Squat range of motion is dependent on equal parts hip and ankle mobility. While using a limited range of motion may allow you lift more and boost your ego, it leaves muscle growth and strength gains on the table.
You need great ankle dorsiflexion to allow your knees to move as designed when squatting deep. Otherwise your knees will experience disproportionate stress leading to pain and injury, which will eventually interfere with your leg training.
Just ask the guy who wraps his knees to quarter-rep the leg press but can't handle squats because they hurt his knees. (Don't be that guy.)
Here are some tools to strengthen your feet, improve ankle mobility, grow bigger calves, and bulletproof the entire foundation of your lower-body training.
If you're like most gym bros, you've probably been doing a hell of a job training your Achilles tendons. Yeah, that's what you're hitting with those bouncy, shallow reps.
The Achilles tendons are powerful elastic bands which spring load your ankles through rapid calf raises. Athletes depend on this quality for running and jumping, but when it comes to building massive calves? Sorry, no dice.
If you allow this type of movement to dominate your calf training, you'll reduce its effectiveness. Pausing your end ranges of motion on any calf raise will limit the elastic rebound of the Achilles and force your calf muscle to do more work.
Pause at the top and bottom of the press for at least two seconds. Dorsiflex your ankle (by bringing toes toward shins) and stretch the calf at the bottom as much as you can without pain. Then push as high onto the balls of your feet and toes as possible.
If you want to develop better strength and mobility at the end ranges, spend time controlling the movement into these end ranges under load. Your ankles and feet will grow stronger as you gain more control in these end ranges. This is actually true of squatting, benching, or any other exercise.
Choose a load you're able to control and press with full ankle dorsiflexion or you'll default to bouncing the weight. Apply the same approach to all calf raise variations.
What If My Calves Are Tight?
If your calves are tight and don't allow a deep stretch at the bottom of your press, then alternate between foam rolling them for 10 rolls and static stretching them for 20-30 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times then try flexing your ankles.
The combination of myofascial release and stretching should temporarily relax some neutral tone of your tight calves long enough to train into the restricted range of motion. Loading with control into the otherwise restricted range should improve your ability to access this range in the future.
Vary your rep ranges and train your calves more often. Calves are designed to be walked on all day, so 4 sets of 8-10 reps once a week won't cause muscle growth.
Want massive calves? Get fat for a few years. Obese people develop big calves because they need to shock-absorb their mass and power their steps. So let's apply the same logic to your calf training minus the excess fat.
Grab weights and walk across the gym on your tip toes. Worried about looking silly? Then continue to enjoy your skinny calves. Otherwise take some heavy dumbbells for a walk on your toes.
Do this instead of using the seated calf machine. It's ineffective for calf growth and a lazy way to feel like you're training.
Walk only on your toes with a weight that allows you to maintain full ankle plantar flexion. This strengthens your feet, develops control at ankle end range, and hammers the calves.
One of the best ways to strengthen the feet, calves, and ankles is by doing more single-leg exercises. Single-leg squats, split-squat variations, and single-leg deadlifts force the muscles in the feet and ankles to work harder as you balance on them.
You can turn up the challenge with this simple drill for stronger foot-arch muscles. This exercise is especially valuable to those with fallen arches or flat feet.
Stand on one leg with a kettlebell (easier to pass between hands than dumbbells) in one hand at your side. Slowly pass it in front of your body to the opposing hand while maintaining balance on only one foot.
Slowly bring the kettlebell to pause at the opposing hip, then reverse. Repeat for 4-6 passes for 2-3 sets on each leg. Progressing load matters less than improved control and balance.
Remember, when you don't strengthen and mobilize your feet and ankles, it'll lead to long-term problems:
- A weak foot arch can lead to inward ankle and knee caving.
- Poor ankle dorsiflexion can cause knees to collapse inward.
- Valgus collapse will allow you to gain access to greater squat depth as the tibia ducks inward to bypass restriction at the ankle. This is compounded by poor hip external rotation and a weak glute medius.
A lot of people just think of this as a tool for conditioning or athletic training. But the sled also works for those seeking bigger, stronger physiques, and a better work capacity.
Sled pushing is concentric only, so it doesn't cause vicious soreness. It's a safe way to load and train calves and ankles as they're designed to move. Plus it adds even more quad, glute, and calf volume to your program.
Take natural, deliberate strides as you push a loaded sled across 20-50 meters of turf. Flex your abs and maintain a neutral spine as you extend your hips with each stride. Focus on pushing your feet into the ground to power the sled forward instead of taking exaggerated strides. Load up the sled and do some real work.
Do 3-4 sets of sled work after any workout for some higher-intensity interval anaerobic training. Do this and you'll need to spend less time doing steady state cardio for your body comp goals.