Here's what you need to know...
- Generate a nasty calf pump with plantarflexion movements. Rep ranges from 20-50 do the trick, taking 1-2 seconds to lower the weight.
- Increase metabolic stress with dorsiflexion-based accessory movements. Execute reps on these movements until you literally can't complete another rep.
- Force-stretch the fully pumped muscle. Force the stretch for as long as humanly possible to maximize time under tension.
- Do targeted soft tissue work. Do hands-on SMR techniques to create a cascade of blood flow to expedite the healing process.
- Foam roll that tissue. Spend 2-4 minutes on each muscle you want to address after your calf training is over. The quicker you can recover, the more often you can work the calves.
Calves: Not Like Other Muscles
The calves are stubborn. They're an aesthetic and functional sticking point for lifters and create immense levels of frustration when efforts are high and results are sparse. In the worst cases, using loads of volume and frequency to "force the calves to grow" can create some nasty lower leg dysfunction that limits an athlete's ability to perform other lower-body compound movements and conditioning.
The muscular anatomy and fiber composition of the gastroc-soleus complex can't necessarily be trained like any other muscle group. For maximal results, the calves must be targeted with strategic metabolic and tension-based stressors to match both their primary actions and fiber type.
If you want your calves to grow, here's my five-step system that's been battle-tested for ten years. It utilizes metabolic stress-based resistance movements in combination with lower leg accessory exercises, along with forced stretching techniques and soft-tissue work. Get ready for the pump of your life.
Step 1: Get a Nasty Calf Pump
Prioritizing higher-rep sets to maximize metabolic stress is the first step in this sequence. Rep ranges from 20-50 do the trick.
The problem with metabolic-stress based rep ranges is that after 10-15 reps, the execution starts to get sloppy and the movement loses the ability to create muscular tension and recruitment. Sloppy reps means more stress on the tendons, joints, and osteo-junctions, and less direct training stimulus on the target muscles. This is a recipe for developing dysfunction and pain in the lower legs.
The best way to avoid falling into "half-assed rep mode" is to concentrate on the tempo and rhythm of the lower leg contractions on every rep, focusing on the feeling of tension throughout the gastroc-soleus group, as opposed to just moving the weight up and down.
- Take 1-2 seconds to lower the weight.
- Allow a half-second stretch in the bottom position.
- Control the weight on the way up.
- Use a 1-second peak contraction at the top of the movement before starting the next rep.
That sequence keeps you working on every rep. It's extremely hard to cheat rhythm and tempo. That's why it's one of the best tools for forcing ego-driven pretenders to strictly adhere to the programming.
Below are three exercises to train the calves directly using an extended knee joint. This places more emphasis on the two heads of the gastrocs that most lifters are trying to target, instead of the more stability-based soleus that's located underneath the gastrocs.
Choose one of these three exercises. Complete 3-8 sets with a load that allows you do every rep perfectly.
Standing Machine Calf Raise
Standing Dumbbell Calf Raise
Toes Elevated Standing Calf Raise
Step 2: Increase Metabolic Stress With Accessory Movements
The first step had you using a plantarflexion-based resistance movement. Now it's time to train the antagonist movement. The antagonist movements to calf raises are movements from the front and lateral sides of the lower leg, mainly dorsiflexion-based exercises.
One of the most effective and joint-friendly training techniques for this area is banded resistance. This makes creating tension through the tissues much easier due to the use of accommodating resistance, which increases internal-based tension in the targeted muscles. It's also very easy on the joints and tendons, which is always a plus when you're doing an extremely high number of reps.
Below are three options to chose from, two of which focus on the tibialis anterior moving into dorsiflexion directly, and the last training the peroneal group into the oblique plane of ankle motion. Perform reps until you literally can't complete another rep. This usually happens around 30-50 repetitions.
To create a maximal amount of stress through the lower legs in the most efficient way possible, superset a movement from step 1 with a movement from step 2 with little to no rest between the two exercises. Rest 30-45 seconds between rounds and complete 3-8 total sets.
Lying Banded Dorsiflexion
Seated Banded Peroneal Raises
Step 3: Force-Stretch the Pumped Muscle
Now it's time for some fun. Here's where this sequence is going to test what you're made of. The harder you push it on this step, the more you'll grow. Keep that in mind when the pain from these forced stretches make you want to quit.
After you've made it through extended supersets in step 1 and step 2, you should have a massive pump throughout your entire lower leg. Directly after your last superset of calf raises and dorsiflexion-based movements, jump right into forcing your calves into a hard, heavy stretch with an extended knee and terminally dorsiflexed ankle joint. You must literally force your calf to stretch with as much tension and force as you can generate.
Two of the methods to accentuate this stretch are shown in the videos below. The first utilizes a single-leg setup to place more of your bodyweight through one leg at a time. When using this method, alternate between stretches for each side.
The next method is a machine-loaded stretch through both legs at once. Be sure that the setup allows you to reach terminal dorsiflexion at the ankle and your feet are symmetrical in stance.
For each of these forced stretching techniques, you're going to force the stretch for as long as humanly possible to maximize time under tension. Again, setup is huge on these, as a poor setup will leave you vulnerable to injury. The knee always needs to be in perfect alignment with the ankle and hip.
Go through as many rounds as you can tolerate. Usually 2-4 rounds is about all people can take. Many times, forced stretches will span something like 90 seconds on the first round, 60 seconds on the second round, and 30-45 seconds on the last round before the lifter mentally breaks down. You can use those numbers as a starting point.
Forced Single-Leg Bodyweight Calf Stretch
Machine Loaded Forced-Calf Stretch
Step 4: Do Targeted Soft Tissue Work
The first three steps may be all you need for new growth, but like most techniques in strength and hypertrophy training, the novelty factor wears off pretty quick as your body adapts to the training stress.
If you want to get the most out of your calf training, or just love the feeling of muscular and fascial layers micro-tearing under immense amounts of force and stretch, the next step is targeted soft-tissue work. Hands-on SMR (self-myofascial release) techniques involve self-treating targeted areas of tone and tightness to create a cascade of localized blood flow and speed the healing process.
The perfect time to do it is directly post training, or in the case of calf training, immediately after the forced stretches. Go ahead and directly treat the same areas you targeted with hands-on SMR techniques. For instance, if you supersetted standing machine calf raises with lying banded dorsiflexion, use the gastrocnemius and tibialis anterior hands-on SMR techniques.
Below are detailed videos on the execution of hands-on SMR techniques for the gastrocnemius, soleus, peroneals, and tibialis anterior. Keep in mind, practice makes perfect on these. The more time you spend palpating your own tissues and becoming a master of your own body, the better chance you have of one day saying goodbye to your physical therapist for good.
Step 5: Foam Roll That Tissue
The fifth step is general soft tissue work using a foam roller to again address recovery. Spend 2-4 minutes on each muscle you want to address after your calf training is over.
This should be the only part of the process that feels somewhat tolerable, so enjoy the time while it lasts. Since the lower leg muscles are relatively small compared to some of the other musculature of the hips, trunk and shoulders, you can work the entire muscle from origin to insertion in just a few minutes. Here are a few options.
Programming Your Calf Training
While the lower legs represent their own muscle group, it's important to remember that they're highly active in many exercises that you wouldn't necessarily consider calf centric. In fact, as soon as you stand up there's going to be some degree of requisite activation of the soleus and gastroc muscles just to keep you from toppling over on your ass.
What does this mean for programming? While the hypertrophy sequence described above fits best into the tail-end of a leg day or pull-emphasis training day, it can be used at any time on top of basically any training session. It can even be used as a stand-alone training session.
If you have the option, start off by adding this program to your leg day once a week and then do it again on a back or deadlift day a second time in that same week to hit the lower legs hard when they're already active, warmed up, and ready to be put to the test.
Depending on your recovery, this program can be done up to four days a week for a serious growth stimulus. At no point in time should this beat up your knees, Achilles tendons, or ankles, so if you find yourself sore in these non-contractile areas, set your ego aside, clean up your form, monitor your loads, and do these movements properly.
Feel free to mix and match movements from each step of this sequence to keep your programming fresh and exciting. There is absolutely a novelty factor to enhancing muscle growth, so be proactive in your variations and don't wait until you're stale to change things up.