Calf muscles can be a stubborn muscle group to grow, which is often the result of either genetics or poor training. Genetics is a tougher problem to tackle, however the right strategy and training tips can make all the difference when it comes to trying to grow your calves – whether your anatomically blessed or not.
Here’s a quick start guide to help you on your way to turning those calves into cows!
Why Can Calf Muscles Be So Difficult To Train?
It’s a problem a lot of strength trainers experience, notably due to two main factors: genetics and poor training technique.
Poor training: THE biggest factor when it comes to not seeing the growth you want when training your calves is poor training. This can encompass a number of things such as bad technique, poor exercise selection, the wrong amount of reps or using too light a weight. Any one of these can seriously undermine any strength and size gains you’re looking to make.
Genetics: Unfortunately, genetics do play a large part in determining the ultimate size and shape of your calves and how big they will grow, but that’s not to say you can’t make significant changes – you just have to manage your expectations.
Calf Anatomy – A Quick Review
In order to optimise how we train the calves, it’s important to do a quick review of their anatomy.
The calves are made up of two muscles that run parallel down the lower leg from just below the knee towards the ankle, as follows:
The Gastrocnemius Muscle: Nicknamed the ‘gastroc’, this muscle makes up the majority of the calf’s size and shape. The gastrocnemius has two heads: the lateral head and the medial head. Its main function is plantar flexion – controlling the angle of the feet and toes (pointing toes down and up, etc), but it only comes into action when the knee is straight. It’s made up mainly of fast twitch fibres which respond well to heavy weights and low reps.
The Soleus Muscle: Much smaller than the gastrocnemius, the soleus lies, almost hidden, under the gastroc. This muscle is isolated when the knee is bent and, conversely to the gastroc, is made up of mainly slow twitch fibres, meaning it responds better to higher reps and lighter weights. Although small, it makes a big difference to the aesthetic of the calf in terms of its overall shape.
The Most Effective Calve Exercises (When Done Right!)
Before we go further, here is my list of the best calve exercises for developing size:
Standing Calf Raise
Seated Calf Raise
Donkey Calf Raise
Note: All of these exercises can be performed using a range of resistance including dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands, weight plates and machines, depending on what you have available to you.
Tips To Grow Your Calves
As with all exercises, good form is imperative, although this rings even truer when it comes to training the calves. The above list of exercises aren’t difficult to perform, but ensuring you execute each move correctly, with good form and without ‘cheating’ the weight up and down, is key to seeing progress.
Here’s some advice on what to do to avoid using poor technique:
1. Use the full range of motion – Using a full range of motion when training calves is a must in order to stimulate the muscles effectively. You can ensure this by going as high as you can at the top of the rep and squeezing the muscles here (you should feel a slight burn), and then extending your heel downwards below your toes at the bottom of the rep – pausing to feel a mild stretch -before repeating.
2. Try not to bounce – It’s all too easy to cheat the weight around by bouncing at the bottom of the rep – the elastic recoil of the Achilles tendon is the culprit here. You can fix this by ensuring you aren’t going too heavy with the weight – you should be able to lift and lower with good, steady form – and by pausing at the bottom of the rep. Don’t pick a weight that’s so heavy you can’t perform at least 5-6 reps with good form. If it is, then go lighter!
3. Avoid using momentum – This refers to using your knees to almost ‘jump’ into the top of the rep by using the power of the upper leg to give you a slight forward momentum and almost giving yourself a cheating boost to complete the rep. It usually applies to straight leg calf exercises. Try keep your leg straight, without locking out completely, to prevent this from happening.
4. Use the correct tempo – If you use the right tempo, you will eliminate bouncing and enhance the effectiveness of the exercise you are performing.
Using the following will help:
- Straight-leg exercises / calf press – use a 3 seconds down, 1 second squeeze at the top (midpoint), explode up and then a 2-second stretch at the bottom
- Bent-leg exercises – use a 2 seconds down, 1 second squeeze at the top (midpoint), 2 seconds up and then a 2-second stretch at the bottom.
Remember, good form is so important. Because the range of motion is small, it only requires a slight amount of momentum or bounce to negatively affect the workout and subsequently any gains you could have made if you’d stuck to good form.
Mixing Things Up Further To Stimulate Growth
As well as using good form, in order to continue to make size and strength gains you should be using a mix of different exercises, weights and reps to ensure you continue to stimulate the calf muscles effectively.
Here are some strategies you can incorporate into your workouts to do just that:
1. Use a combination of straight and bent leg exercises – Use a combination of straight-leg (standing calf raise or calf press for instance) and bent-leg standing calf exercises (such as seated calf raises) to make sure you work both the muscles that make up the calf. Remember that bent knee exercises isolate the soleus more, whereas straight leg exercises target the entire gastroc and, to a point, the soleus.
2. Use a heavy weight and low reps for straight leg exercises – As covered earlier on, straight leg exercises primarily target the gastroc, which is a fast twitch muscle and responds well to heavy weight and therefore lower reps.
- Try doing 3 sets of 6 reps with between 2-3 minutes of rest in between.
3. Use a light/moderate weight and high reps for bent-leg exercises
We know that bent leg exercises target the soleus, which is a slow twitch muscle and is better stimulated with lighter weight and higher reps.
- Try doing 3 sets of between 8-10 reps with around 60-90 seconds rest in between.
If Your Calves Still Remain Stubbornly Opposed To Growth, Add More Volume
Adding volume can mean increasing the amount of reps, increasing the weight, or some combination of the two. But remember, you’re just wasting your time if you’re adding more volume but still using poor technique. Therefore, before increasing volume, make sure you can answer Yes to the following:
1. Are you training the entire calf? – Make sure both the gastroc and soleus muscles are being worked using a combination of bent leg and straight leg exercises
2. Are you using good form? Make sure you’ve identified and corrected poor technique using the tips above. Remember to train within your limits and not with your ego.
3. Are you being consistent with your training? As with all training, progress comes with applying the right techniques and being consistent. Use the principles in this article consistently for at least eight weeks before trying something else.
No Gym? No Problem
If you’re unable to get to the gym, or you have limited equipment, then you can still train both calf muscles effectively using standing and seated calf raises and some dumbbells or a barbell. All other advice still applies, so no excuses!
Putting It All Into Action
Hopefully you now have a much better understanding of your calf muscles, how they work and the most effective way to train them. It’s now time to start putting this all into action and apply what you’ve learnt in order to grow your calves. If you stick to this and stay consistent with your workouts, they will have no choice but to grow.
Do you struggle growing your calves? Has anything worked for you that made the difference between no progress and progress? If so, comment below and share. Likewise, if you’re just starting out and implementing the advice on this page, let everyone know how you get on. Good luck training those calves – I look forward to hearing about the results!