Friends don’t let friends skip leg day, but legs without calves is like peanut butter without jelly. Well built calves form a balanced physique and are pleasing to the eyes (and soul, in my opinion). And let’s be honest, there’s a true gastroc epidemic in our gyms lately.
To properly train calves, we must first understand the muscles that comprise the lower leg. The gastrocnemius is the most visible and, therefore, considered by many as the “calf.” Each gastroc is composed of a medial and lateral head, originating on the femur and attaching to the heel via the Achilles tendon. Due to its composition of mostly fast-twitch muscle fibers, they are responsible for explosive movements as well as bending the knee and flexing the foot. The soleus is a powerful, deeper slow-twitch muscle that’s not visible from the outside. It originates on the fibula and tibia, and attaches to the heel. Its purpose is to flex the foot when the knee is bent as well as play a vital role in stability and endurance activities. The anterior tibialis, while not considered a “calf” muscle because it’s located on the front of the lower leg, adds to the visually well-balanced physique by making the lower leg appear more rounded. It functions as a dorsiflex or and inverter of the foot. This muscle triad performs harmoniously to provide stability during walking, running and jumping.1
If your goal is to achieve gains and hypertrophy in your lower legs, then you must train your calf muscles just like any other muscle. They require your time, attention and proper training techniques. Here are some tips to maximize your efforts:
- Choose a weight that allows you to use your full range of motion,\ in a slow and controlled manner, with a pause at the bottom of the stretch and a 2 to 4-second hold at the top of each contraction. Finish each set with shorter, quicker reps without pauses until failure.
- Train each muscle accordingly.
- Gastrocnemius is best trained with straight leg exercises (e.g., standing calf raises or donkey calf raises)
- Soleus is best trained when the knee is bent (e.g., seated calf raises)
- Anterior tibialis is best trained with activities that raise the foot (e.g., standing toe raises)
- Occasionally incorporate single-leg calf raises to ensure symmetry in both legs.
- Train calves 2 to 3 times a week, at the beginning of your workout.
- End your workout with an explosive finisher to challenge stability.
- Stretch your calves before and after training to increase flexibility and blood flow for a better pump and to facilitate recovery.(2)(3)
Example Calf Workout
- Standing calf raises on Smith machine (stand on step for greater ROM); 4 x10 with pauses followed immediately by quick pulses until fatigue
- Single-leg seated calf raises, 4 x 25 each leg
- Weighted ankle dorsiflexion (sit on bench with dumbbell held between feet or use resistance band) 4 x 15
- Explosive finisher activity: jump rope, burpee broad jump or weighted sled push to maximize burn and fatigue
- “Gastrocnemius & Soleus (Calf),” Muscles Used, accessed August 25, 2015, http://www.musclesused.com/gastrocnemius-soleus-calf-muscles/.
- “SimplyShredded.com.” SimplyShredded.com RSS, accessed August 15, 2015.
- “Building Better Calf Muscles: How the Calf Works and How to Work It.” Breaking Muscle, accessed August 25, 2015, http://breakingmuscle.com/strength-conditioning/building-better-calf-muscles-how-the-calf-works-and-how-to-work-it.