If only you knew how to get bigger calves, going to the gym on leg day wouldn’t be such a drag!
Certain muscles tend to get tons of attention, regardless of their functional purpose. Calves are muscles that have both qualities: They are vital to athletic performance, and also impressive to look at on someone who’s put effort into building them.
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Those who only know a couple of calf workouts will be surprised to find that there are dozens, and the different types are necessary for working the two main parts of the calf muscle.
After discussing the anatomy of this ever-important muscle group, the focus turns to popular thoughts and assumption on the calves, followed by reliable ways to build them.
How To Grow Your Calves: Guide & Examples
Whichever calf workouts you end up implementing into your fitness routine, the benefits of enhanced mobility and beautiful calves make the effort worthwhile.
Anatomy of the Calves
In the simplest terms, the calf is that tough muscle on the back of your lower leg, in between the knee and foot. The calf muscle is comprised of two parts: The gastrocnemius and the soleus.
The most prominent part of the calf muscle is the gastrocnemius, the large bulge that is easy to see and feel. A diagram on WebMD explains how the gastrocnemius is divided into two heads that form its diamond shape.
Underneath the gastrocnemius is the soleus, a smaller and flatter muscle that plays a major role in stretching and flexing the foot.
What Do Calves Do Exactly?
Although often overlooked in the weight room, the calves are of utmost importance for almost any athletic activities involving mobility. Your ability to increase the angle of the foot to the leg is due to the calf muscles.
This movement is of immense importance in fundamental actions like jumping, walking, and running, as well as advanced actions like kicking, pivoting, and stopping unexpectedly.
The overall action that calves enable for the foot is known as plantar flexion, a term which describes the angular movement range of the foot.
Equipment requiring above movement: Speed Ladders for Agility Training
Why Are They so Hard to Train?
You may have heard about calves being the most difficult muscle to grow, and reasons like neglect, and unchanging workouts may be responsible. Coveted by bodybuilders, big calves are often a key to winning competitions, but are determined by a combination of genetics and specific work outs.
While genetics definitely plays a key role in how big your calves are, the only real takeaway is that the journey to excellent calves will be easier for some people than it is for others.
Ultimately, varying the type and intensity of calf workouts, and eating a diet conducive to muscle growth are your best bets for optimizing the calf muscles.
How Often Should You Work out Calves?
How often to work certain muscles is a topic that a lot of experienced pros will disagree on. On one end, you want to work your muscles enough to make a difference, and too much stagnation is not going to cause them to grow.
On the other, it’s important to allow sufficient recovery time, and not to work them so much that they burn out. For a perspective from a man who has developed huge calves through a tough workout program, Hunter Labrada details the extensive calf workout he does just twice per week.
The Benefits of Bigger Calves
The range of motion enabled by calves is crucial to a variety of activities, especially those requiring mobility. Adding bulk and strength to your calves will enhance your ability to do a wide array of actions, ranging from cycling to climbing.
Bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts often train their calves because they’re one of the most visible muscles on the body, and are highly regarded in the professional bodybuilding community.
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Five Effective Stretches for the Calves
Stretching is an important yet often neglected preparation for athletic activities. The benefits of a good stretching session are plentiful, and include wider range of movement, decreased risk of injury, and prepping the muscle for more challenging actions.
Stretching the calves is especially smart if you’re trying to grow them or use them for athletics in general, because they’re susceptible to cramping and are notoriously difficult to grow, so consistent stretching can help both issues.
These five stretches are aimed at thoroughly stretching out the calf muscles, and will get you ready for a powerful calf workout.
The position for this stretch is sitting down with your legs outstretched, and the only equipment required is a belt, strap, or resistance band.
To execute this stretch, wrap the band around whichever foot you want to stretch first, then push it out, maintaining your leg at full extension while keeping your heel slightly elevated.
It’s recommended to hold the stretch for around 20 seconds, and to increase intensity, you can just pull harder on the strap, pulling your foot towards you.
If you have a fitness band or belt, this is an excellent seated calf stretch that you can feel, and it can be done in very little time. If you don’t have a belt or strap, a secondary version of the peroneal stretch explained by SportsInjuryClinic.net involves sitting in a chair with a foot crossed up on your knee, and manually stretching your foot forward and back with your hands.
Seated Calf Stretch
For an approachable calf stretch that anyone can do without a need for equipment, the seated calf stretch is one of the best. While seating with your legs out, simply extend one leg while bending the other, placing its foot flat on the ground.
Reach as far as possible for your extended leg, and attempt to grab the foot, pulling it towards you. The secondary leg acts as a stabilizer, keeping you grounded and still so you can focus your efforts on the stretch.
Although no extra gear is required, those who can’t quite grab their foot can supplement a belt, strap, or similar fitness tool to complete the stretch.
A cool aspect of the seated calf stretch is that you can easily see your rate of improvement, as you’ll be able to reach farter after consistent practice.
Standing Gastrocnemius Calf Stretch
Requiring only a step, the standing gastrocnemius calf stretch specifically targets the larger of the two parts of the calf muscle, the gastrocnemius. From a standing position, lift one foot up onto a nearby stair of approximately shin height.
Then reach down to grab the front part of your foot and pull it towards you, bending at the other knee as necessary. Even after just holding it for 20-30 seconds each side, it’s easy to feel this stretch in the large part of the calf muscle.
Standing Soleus and Achilles Calf Stretch
A wall or stable bar are useful accessories for the standing soleus and Achilles calf stretch, but it can also be done by maintaining a strong stance. To do the stretch using a wall, put one foot in front of the other with both hands outstretched touching the wall.
With the heels touching the ground, lean forward towards the wall, and hold the stretch for 30 seconds. The experts from VeryWell.com explain how you can boost the intensity of the stretch by moving your rear foot further back.
Mock Sit Stretch
The mock sit stretch is aptly named after the position you drop into for the stretch. Beginning from a basic stance with one foot forward, ideally close to a wall, drop the hips and buttocks as if seated in a chair. Leaning forward from here increases the stretch.
If balancing is difficult, consider using a stable bar, or a solid surface you can grab onto like a flag pole or fence post. Like the other standing calf stretches on the list, this is an effective one to add to your routine before a run, workout, or athletic event.
Five Workouts for Non-Gym Calf Training
Unlike a lot of muscle groups, calves are highly-trainable without the use of free weights or gym equipment. From sprinting to jumping, there are various basic actions that specifically focus on enhancing the calves.
The setting for these calf workouts can be just about anywhere, including a local park, track, or your own home. For those days when you’re skipping the gym, try these exercises to give your calves a good burn.
Rather than jogging or endurance running, sprinting is specifically beneficial for the calf muscles. The key here is to focus on explosiveness and run as fast as you possibly can. Incorporating sprints into your workout routine will do a lot for your calves and ankle strength, and experts recommend sprinting once or twice per week for calf strength.
That said, you can work the calves a lot more depending on your goals, but definitely read the signs that show when your calves have had enough.
Athletes in sports that require a lot of running will see a benefit from sprinting anyway in terms of speed, but other athletes can use sprints because they’re arguably the best way to develop calf muscles.
Be aware that the best time to do sprinting is when you’re still fresh, because sprinting while fatigued can encourage poor movement habits, and increase chances of injury.
A much safer way to get a solid calf workout is by skipping rope. Staying up on the balls of your feet while skipping rope will target the calves, and the very nature of jump rope makes it good for cardio and your core, as well as for the calf muscles.
Since jumping rope is a learned skill that involves full body coordination and rhythm, doing this workout frequently will enhance some key fundamental skills used in various sports.
Ultimately, there are a lot of reasons to add a jump rope to your fitness regimen, and they range from calf enhancement to low-impact cardio.
Single Leg Hops and Calf Raises
While calf raises is very likely the go-to calf workout that everyone knows, isolating the calf raise is a way to instantly put double the resistance on a single calf. For the standard calf raise, stand strait, and while holding onto a stable surface for stability if you prefer, simply push up on the balls of your feet, extending the calf muscles.
Calf raises are usually done with quick, rapid reps in a set, but consider doing them very slowly too, maintaining awareness through the range of movement. Adding a low impact hop on the leg you’re focusing on is an easy way to boost the intensity of the workout.
If you haven’t heard of plyometrics, it’s essentially a term to describe jump training, and is useful for athletes in basketball, volleyball, tae kwon do, and other sports where explosive jumping is a key focus.
The most common plyometrics seen by most people will be box jumps, but there are a wide array of jumping exercises included within the category of plyometrics.
One simple and actionable exercise is the rocket jump, an exercise where you warm up the legs first, then repeatedly jump with full explosive power trying to reach as high as possible with each rep.
It turns out that mountain climbers, the calisthenics exercise that is beloved by high school gym coaches, is also excellent for calf muscles. Mountain climbers are a workout that requires no gear, and the severity of this workout will depend on your body weight, explosiveness, and speed.
For a set of mountain climbers, start a timer at one minute, drop to push up position, and then start jumping on the balls of your feet, alternating from one leg raising to a bent position while the other is extended.
The physical nature of mountain climbers has the ball of the foot landing with each rep, a position that successfully engages the calf muscles.
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Training Calves in the Gym
While the appeal of not needing equipment is real, you can’t argue that the heavier and more intense calf workouts can be done in a gym setting. The main reason for this is simple: Free weights.
The addition of added weights can serve as the potent injection of resistance that kick starts the growth of your calf muscles. Here are five of the most crucial calf workouts that you can do in most gyms.
Standing Calf Raises with Weights
Adding to the quintessential calf workout, the calf raise, are the free weights you’ll find in any gym. As you’d expect, doing calf raises with a dumbbell in each hand, or a barbell held over the head is a much more intense calf workout than with bodyweight alone.
Plus, at least for the dumbbells, balancing and keeping good posture is actually easier since you have a counterbalance on each side. Either way, just about every gym has free weights or a Smith machine that can enhance your calf raises.
Donkey Calf Raises
A variation of calf raises, donkey calf raises involve bending over a bench, table, or the appropriate gym machine, and executing calf raises from that position. A unique trait of this old-school calf workout is you can add weight by having a buddy sit on your back, or more professionally, by attaching a weighted belt to your waist.
A lot of fitness experts strongly believe that donkey calf raises are a more effective calf workout than the more traditional vertical version, so definitely consider adding donkey calf raises to your routine if you haven’t already.
Sitting Calf Raises
The seated calf raises have a specific machine in the weight room, and with the unique function of sitting calf raises, they definitely deserve it. The most valuable aspect of seated calf raises specifically is that they are the best exercise for working the soleus, that small but thick muscle underneath the larger part of the calf.
You may wonder what effect this will have on your calves, and the answer is increased width. Infusing seated calf raises into your routine will work wonders for the underlying heart of your calf muscle, the soleus.
The leg press machine is among the most common machines to see in a gym, and while its main function is not to work the calves, it can easily be used for that purpose. After adding the desired weight to the leg press machine and taking a firm spot in the seat, push the load to the extended position.
From there, push the weight up with your toes, and then return them to the extended legs position, repeating as you would with calf raises.
Obvious advantages of seated calf presses include the ability to easily control a lot of weight without having to balance it, and the fact that the seated position eliminates risk of injury from slipping and falling.
Calves on a Balance Board
If you prefer a good amount of skill and challenge in your workouts, then finding a balance board might open a new world of fun workouts for you. Most notably, the balance board is a great exercise for working the calves, as the constant mix of pressure in one direction, then the other, is a varied challenge that works your gastrocnemius.
Using a stable ledge if you have to for balance, step on the board, centering yourself. From there, stabilize yourself, keeping the core tight, and simply stay on for as long as you want to. The balance board is a non-traditional workout that engages the calves and other leg muscles, while also training your balance.
Final Say on Achieving Bigger Calves
After genetics dealt you the cards you’re stuck with, the rest is 100% up to your decisions. While not all of us might have the calves of Mr. Olympia, we can at least work for calves that are noticeably stronger than they were before.
Whether you have gym access or not, there are enough workouts available to make effective calf exercises part of your fitness routine. Trying all of them is advantageous, because there are two parts of the calves that both require attention, and because varying exercises is the most efficient way to build calves.
Ultimately, a lot of people neglect calf workouts, but it’s best not to, because stronger calves can make us run faster and jump higher, enhancing our overall athleticism.
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- Updated on April 1, 2019 by Ada Lane