Arnold said it best.
In his autobiography Arnold: Education of a Bodybuilder, he emphasised the important role that calves play in completing the ‘look’ of the lower body. Arnold pointed out that a guy with undeveloped calves will look like he has small legs even if he has monstrous thighs.
He was right. The calves are at the end of the legs, and extra size there creates the illusion that the whole leg is bigger.
Well-developed calves come with the added benefit of improved athleticism. It takes plenty of power in the calves and feet to be able to jump high, sprint, or move explosively. Strongmen and ballet dancers in particular are testament to this fact.
Whether it’s pure athleticism or aesthetic reasons you train for, extra calf training may have huge benefits to offer you.
Calf Training 101
I have always had calves like a flamingo.
In my early days of training I always assumed that heavy squats and some extra sets of calf-raises would be enough to get them to grow. This is the way most guys train calves, but it didn’t work for me – just like it won’t work for anybody without exceptional genetics.
Forcing the calves to grow is no easy feat, but it certainly can be done.
Knowing how to build calf muscles in even the most stubborn set of chicken legs requires a basic understanding of the calves’ unique anatomy.
The calves consist of a lot of muscles, but the two that are most important from an aesthetic perspective are the gastrocnemius and the soleus.
- The gastrocnemius consists of a nearly equal amount of slow and fast twitch muscle fibres (like most muscles in the body), and is engaged when the leg is straight.
- The soleus predominantly consists of slow twitch fibres, and is engaged both when the leg is straight and bent.
Fast twitch fibres are used for explosive movements like jumping or sprinting. Slow twitch fibres, on the other hand, are primarily used for endurance. In the context of your calves, this makes sense since you are using them to walk around all day.
OK. Enough science. Let’s get down to using this knowledge to build a huge set of calves.
How To Build Calf Muscles
Slow twitch fibres respond best to a high training volume and frequency. This means that you need to do a lot of reps, very often, to get your calves to grow.
Lifting a substantial load, such as your entire bodyweight, regularly for a high number of reps provides ample stimulation for the calves. That’s right – no machines or weights are necessary.
Since you’re not using heavy weights, this training can be performed daily, and it’s the frequency that encourages your body to adapt quickly.
When you train calves doesn’t matter, as long as you do it often. One option is to start each workout with calves, or do a set of calves between every set of every exercise you do at each workout.
The Training Plan
Calf-raises are a great exercise, and by using the sneaky bit of anatomical knowledge from above, it’s possible to apply a number of progressions to the calf-raise that will keep you busy for a long time.
The idea isn’t to rush through the progressions. Rather, you should milk each stage for all it’s worth.
- Double leg calf raises off the floor (with a slight bend in the knee)
- Double leg calf raises off the floor (straight legs)
- Single leg calf raises off the floor (with a slight bend in the knee)
- Single leg calf raises off the floor (straight leg)
- Double leg calf raises off a step (with a slight bend in the knee)
- Double leg calf raises off a step (straight legs)
- Single leg calf raises off a step (with a slight bend in the knee)
- Single leg calf raises off a step (straight leg)
Start with 4 sets of 20 reps, and don’t move on until you can perform 4 sets of at least 50 reps.
A Few Notes of Form
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
- You should be barefoot.
- You will find the straight leg variations significantly more difficult than bent leg. Going through both variations ensures you are stimulating the gastrocnemius and the soleus.
- Control the movement – don’t just bounce up and down.
- At the bottom of the movement, be sure to get a good stretch and hold the position for 2-3 seconds.
- Aim to get all the way up on your big toe at the top while flexing your calves hard. Pause again for another 2-3 seconds.
The Bottom Line
There’s no doubt that genetics play a huge role in calf development.
The Austrian Oak himself was desperately ashamed of his calves, and went as far as cutting off all of his trousers off at the knee so he had to suffer the embarrassment of having his calves exposed wherever he went.
But even if you did pick the wrong parents you don’t have to give up on your calves altogether. By combining a little science with a smart training plan, you might find yourself proud to wear shorts again.
Hey, love the blog. I’ve subscribed to newsletter, very excited to keep following you.
Do the standing versions also target the soleus, or only the bent-knee versions? I’m wondering if there would be any downside to forgoing bent-knee for a while by progressing to straight-leg, rather than doing both concurrently – straight-leg on one day, bent-leg on the next.
And do you recommend doing these exercises unsupported, or with external support like a wall?
Thanks for the kind words – glad to have you here!
There’s absolutely no reason you have to do both on the same day. I think your idea is actually really good. Give it a go and let me know how you get on!
Until you find your balance I’d suggest using a wall for support, but you can stop doing that when you find you need more of a challenge.
There’s a bit more info on training your calves in this post, and some other exercise ideas if you’re interested: https://travelstrong.net/bodyweight-exercises/
If you ever have any other questions or suggestions feel free to shoot me an email 🙂
I was thinking about these progressions, and come to think of it, I think your method of progression is actually better than the one I suggested. When the calves get worked outside of isolated movements like Russian leg curls (i.e., movements involving knee flexion), it’s predominantly the gastrocnemius being used. Dedicating time to the bent-knee versions allows you to bring up the underworked soleus and achieve a balance betweeo gastrocnemius and soleus, before you progress to standing raises, which work both.
You, sir, are smarter than me. Thanks for the progression – it’s great! Plus, who needs pattern overload? The beauty of bodyweight training is that new movements are learned to increase the challenge, right? 🙂
I’m not sure I’d agree that I’m smarter than you Paul – it sounds like you know what you’re talking about to me!
I definitely think that people neglect the soleus though as it’s a bit more awkward to train (and isn’t actually visible). But there’s no reason you couldn’t do bent-leg one day and straight-leg the next to achieve some sort of balance.
As great as bodyweight training is, the calves don’t really get worked unless you specifically target them. So training them daily would be great from an aesthetic point-of-view.
Should I do 4 sets of exercise one before I move to the next exercise, or are exercises 1-8 one set- so I would do 20 reps of exercise 1 then 20 reps of exercise 2 and so forth?