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4 Calf Exercises That’ll Give You Massive Calves

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We’ve all seen them.

Guys at the gym with barrel chests and bulging biceps, bench pressing half of the gym…

…and then they stand up.

Dress legs, as we like to say. Embarrassing, no doubt, but the problem goes beyond vanity.

You can show off your strong, well-developed quads and hamstrings all you want, but weak calves mean shorter jumps, slower sprints, less stability in your squats and deadlifts, and a higher risk of knee injuries in a whole range of sports.

Why, then, are great calves so rare?

The main culprit is neglect, of course (every day is chest day), but that’s not all. Many people believe that calf exercises are unnecessary if you’re squatting and deadlifting regularly. Well, that’s true if you’ve been genetically blessed with calves that respond to the mere thought of training. If you’re reading this article, though, that’s probably not you. (It’s not me, either.) Us mere mortals are going to have to work a lot harder than that to get the calves we want. And that’s what we’re going to talk about in this article.

We’re going to look at why it’s so hard for many of us to build big calves as well as how to go about it effectively, and I’m also going to you a calf workout routine that will quickly add size and strength downstairs.

  The Anatomy of the Calves

Let’s start with a simple anatomy lesson.

The calves are made up of two powerful muscles:

The gastrocnemius
This is the large (or not so much) muscle you see when you look at your calf

The soleus
This is a deep muscle that lies underneath the gastrocnemius.

Here’s how they look:

calf muscle anatomy

These two muscles work together to manipulate the foot and ankle joint and are involved in knee flexion as well. When it comes to looks, we’re most concerned with the gastrocnemius, but a properly developed soleus is critical as well because it supports the larger gastroc both in function and visual size.

Why Some People Have Great “Calf Genetics” and Others Don’t
Wait…“calf genetics?”

If the broscience alarm just went off in your head, let me explain. There are two primary types of muscle fiber in your body:

Type 1 fibers
These fibers are also known as “slow twitch” fibers, and they have a lower potential for growth and force output but are resistant to fatigue.

Type 2 fibers
These fibers are are also known as “fast twitch” fibers, and they have a much higher potential for growth and force output than Type 1 fibers but fatigue quickly.

For example, one person’s gastroc might be as high as 60% Type 2 fibers while another’s could be as low as 15%. And those sixty-percenters will find it easy to add mass to their calves (and may not even need to bother with calf exercises) while the fifteen-percenters will have to fight tooth-and-nail for every millimeter of progress.

Don’t let that get you down, though. Even the losers of the genetic calf lottery (like me) can build bigger calves. With proper diet and training, anyone can do it. It just takes some of us longer than others.

The 4 Best Calf Exercises:

There are really only two types of exercises that you can do to effectively train your calves.

1. Calf pressing

If you’re pressing your toes against resistance, it’s a calf press.

2. Calf raising

If you’re using your calves to raise and lower your body against gravity, it’s a calf raise. And those break down into seated and standing variations.

Standing presses and raises are done with the legs straight and emphasize the gastrocnemius.

 

 

Seated work is done, well, seated and with the legs bent, which emphasizes the soleus. It’s important to do both standing and seated calf work and to emphasize your standing exercises if you want to get the most out of your calf workouts.

 

The reason for doing both is making sure that your soleus isn’t neglected and the reason for doing more standing than seated work is you want to focus most of your effort on training your gastrocnemius. Full and controlled range of motion is extremely important with calf training as well.

That goes for all exercises, really, but since the calves are often an afterthought thrown in at the end of a workout, they often don’t get the technical attention they require. How many people have you seen with too much weight, bouncing up down an inch or two instead of fully contracting and releasing (stretching) their calves in each rep?

I rest my case.

 

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Don’t be that person. Do slow, controlled, full reps. So, with all that under our belts, let’s look at the best calf exercises. Standing Calf Raise
The standing calf raise is a staple of basically all calf workouts because it’s simple and effective.

It can be done with a barbell…

Or machine…

Seated Calf Raise
The seated calf raise is all you really need for your seated calf work.

It’s usually done on a machine…

But it can be done with a barbell, too…

Calf Press on the Leg Press
The calf press on the leg press is a fantastic variation on the standing calf raise and is one of my favorite exercises for the gastroc.

Donkey Calf Raise


The donkey calf raise was one of Arnold’s favorite calf exercises and for good reason.

Just Doing the Exercises Isn’t Enough…
That’s it for the best calf exercises. Those are all you need to turn your calves into cows. Your goal isn’t to just do these exercises, though–it’s to progress on them. And when we’re talking building muscle, the most productive type of progression is “progressive overload.” This refers to increasing tension levels in the muscles over time and the easiest way to do that is to add weight to the exercise over time. This is why your primary goal as a natural weightlifter is to get stronger. And yes, this applies equally to the large muscle groups like the back and legs and the smaller ones like the biceps and calves.

So…gain strength on the exercises above and eat enough food and you will make gains.

The Ultimate Calf Workouts

If you talk to enough people who’ve built great calves, you’ll learn two things:

1. The calves respond particularly well to a combination of low- and high-rep training.
This could be said of all muscle groups, but I believe periodization is generally better suited to intermediate and advanced weightlifters than beginners.

Not so with the calves, though. It’s the way to go from the start.

There are various theories as to why this is, but my guess is it has to do with the fact that the calves already get a lot of exercise. Like the abs, they’re constantly used day in, day out.

Thus, to really get them to grow, it takes an abnormally large amount of stimulus. Which brings me to my next point…

2. The calves can not only recover from very high-volume training–they require it to grow.
The most common thing I’ve heard from people that had to work for their calves is they had to freaking work for their calves.

You know…multiple workouts per week, every set to failure, lots and lots of reps. You’ve been warned.

This is nothing new, really.

Early on in his career, Arnold Schwarzenegger struggled with scrawny calves, which were detracting from his rankings in international bodybuilding competitions. Never one to shy away from hard work, The Oak adopted a simple course to fix the problem: multiple calf workouts per week and many, many sets.

The long story short?

Arnold Schwarzenegger calves

It worked.

So, with all that in mind, let’s get to the calf workouts…

Calf Workout A

Rest 2 to 3 minutes in between these sets

Standing Calf Raise

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps

Seated Calf Raise

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps

Calf Workout B

Rest 1 to 2 minutes in between these sets

Calf Raise on Leg Press

3 sets of 8 to 10 reps

Donkey Calf Raise or Standing Calf Raise

3 sets of 8 to 10 reps

Calf Workout C

Rest 1 minute in between these sets

Seated Calf Raise

3 sets of 12 to 15 reps

Standing Calf Raise

3 sets of 12 to 15 reps

And here’s how this works:

Rest at least one day in between each workout. I personally do Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. You can rotate through three different foot positions: toes straight and toes slightly in or out (by about an inch). Each position trains your calves slightly differently. Do your calf sets while you rest. Don’t save your calf workout for when you’re exhausted and ready to leave. Instead, do your calf sets while you’re resting in between your other sets in your workout. Don’t forget–full range of motion! At the bottom of a rep, get your heels are as low as they’ll comfortably go so you feel a deep stretch in your calves. And at the top of a rep, make sure you’re up on your tippy-toes with your calves fully contracted. Once you hit the top of your rep range with a given weight, add 10 pounds. For example, if you’re doing a standing calf raise in the 4 to 6 rep range and get 200 pounds for 6 reps, move up to 210 pounds for your next set and work with it until you can raise it for 6 reps, move up, etc.

That’s it!

Start in on these calf workouts and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised how quickly your calves can grow, even if they’ve been extremely stubborn like mine!

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