Most people can grow a set of impressive thighs with little thought about programming, exercise selection, and other similar details. Do some squats for the quads, a few sets of Romanian deadlifts for the hamstrings, and some donkey kicks for the glutes.
But the calves? Those small and stubborn muscles are a whole other story, and countless people fail to grow them, even after years of consistent training.
So, what’s the deal? Read on because we’ll be going over everything you need to know about training your calves correctly and forcing them to grow.
Let’s dive in.
Calves Anatomy and Biomechanics
Before getting practical with this guide, it’s essential to be on the same page as to what muscles we are trying to develop and their functions.
Our calves are the muscles that make up the posterior of our lower legs, and their primary function is plantar flexion––pointing your toes down, such as during a calf raise. The area consists of two muscles: the gastrocnemius and soleus.
The gastrocnemius is the muscle on top, but the deeper soleus muscle is larger. Both muscles work together to produce plantar flexion and contribute to ankle stability.
Our soleus muscle originates from below the knee and inserts into the Achilles tendon. Similarly, the gastrocnemius inserts into the heel via the same tendon, but it stems from the femur (large thigh bone), just above the knee. As such, the muscle works around two joints: the knee and ankle. Aside from playing a role in plantarflexion, the gastroc contributes to knee flexion, and knee angle influences how well we can train it with calf raises.
Seated calf raises preferentially target the soleus, whereas standing raises develop the gastrocnemius more effectively.
The Five Best Calf-Building Exercises You Can Do
1. Seated Machine Calf Raise
Seated machine calf raises are a classic exercise for developing the lower leg. The objective is to sit on a calf raise machine, place your thighs underneath a pad, and engage your calves repeatedly to extend your knees. As discussed in the previous point, seated calf raises are more suited for emphasizing the soleus, but your gastrocnemius will also work.
2. Standing Machine Calf Raise
Like seated calf raises, the standing machine variation is a movement you perform on a machine. But, instead of sitting down and keeping your knees bent at a 90-degree angle, you extend them fully. Doing so is beneficial for emphasizing the gastrocnemius over the soleus muscle.
3. Donkey Calf Raise
Donkey calf raises are a slightly unorthodox movement and one Arnold Schwarzenegger famously did back in the day. Instead of sitting or standing, you have to bend forward, keep your knees straight and perform calf raises. Back in the day, someone had to hop on your back for extra resistance. Now, you can use a machine for that calf raise variation.
4. Standing Unilateral Calf Raise
Standing unilateral calf raises are a fantastic variation you can do with nothing but a dumbbell, kettlebell, or weight plate for resistance. The objective is to place the ball of one foot on an elevated surface (such as a step), lift yourself in the air, and hold onto something for balance. From the position, perform as many calf raises as possible. Once finished, train your other calf.
Performing unilateral raises is excellent for training both calves evenly, spotting strength imbalances, and resolving them.
5. Leg Press Calf Raises
The leg press calf raise is a variation you perform with your knees straight. But, instead of standing, you have to position yourself inside a leg press machine. Place the balls of your feet at the bottom edge of the footplate, straighten your legs, and perform calf raises by moving the platform forward and back a few inches at a time.
Calf Training: Sets, Reps, Tempo, and More
Let’s break down the best practices for practical calf training:
According to research, we need to do 10 to 20 weekly sets per muscle group for optimal growth. Since our calves are mostly uninvolved in most gym exercises, doing more direct work should lead to more growth.
Most people should start with around ten sets for their calves weekly, see if they are progressing well, and adjust.
Studies suggest that training our muscles two to three times per week is more beneficial for growth than doing so once. That is particularly true for the calves because the muscle group is relatively small and tends to recover quickly after training. So, instead of forcing yourself to do all of your weekly sets in a single session, you should spread the volume across two or three sessions.
3. Exercise Selection
As discussed in the anatomy and biomechanics section of this guide, the calves consist of two muscles: the soleus and gastrocnemius. The best way to train the gastroc is through calf raises with straight knees. In contrast, the soleus benefits more from bent-knee movements. So, picking at least one standing and one seated calf raise is beneficial for developing the area optimally.
4. Rest Periods
Prevailing wisdom suggests rushing through our workouts, never giving our muscles much time to recover. But, according to research, longer rest periods are associated with superior muscle growth. Resting enough between sets allows your muscles to recover better, leading to more total work done per workout.
For most of your calf training, that would mean resting between one and two minutes between sets.
5. Repetition Ranges
According to research, the soleus and gastrocnemius are predominantly made of slow-twitch muscle fibers. As such, these muscles benefit significantly from low-weight, high-rep burnout sets. But, this doesn’t mean you should never use heavier weights in the lower repetition ranges.
As with most muscle groups, we recommend a mixture of lighter and heavier sets, focusing on the proper execution of each calf raise. For example, if you do ten sets for your calves weekly, it can look like this:
- 3 sets – 6 to 10 reps
- 3 sets – 11 to 20 reps
- 4 sets – 21 to 30 reps
Maintaining a steady tempo on each repetition is vital for a good mind-muscle connection. A consistent tempo also allows you to stretch your calves well on the way down and contract them powerfully as you extend your ankles.
Your tempo doesn’t have to be slow, but the lowering and lifting phases should be roughly the same length and at least one second long.
The ‘best practices’ TL;DR:
- Do 10 to 20 weekly sets for calves; start on the low end and progress
- Train your calves two to three times per week
- Perform at least one standing and one seated calf raise variation
- Rest anywhere from one to two minutes between most sets
- Do sets in the 6 to 30 repetition range, maintaining a balance between light and heavy work
The Three Biggest Calf-Training Mistakes Stopping Your Growth
1. Not Training Through a Full Range of Motion
Perhaps the biggest mistake people make when training their calves is not doing so through a full range of motion. In many cases, people extend their ankles well but don’t lower their heels enough, which causes them to miss out on a good stretch. As a result, the calves never receive the best stimulus and struggle to develop.
The error is widespread among people who perform calf raises on a level surface. Doing so prevents them from lowering their heels below toe level even if they want to.
There are two fixes for the mistake:
- Train with loads you can handle effectively. If that means reducing the weight or doing bodyweight calf raises initially, so be it.
- Place the balls of your feet on an elevated surface and have your heels hang in the air.
2. Not Training Your Calves Enough
The second most common mistake limiting your growth is not giving your calves the attention they deserve. Let us ask you something:
How do you go about training your chest? Like most people, you probably train the muscle group once to twice per week, perform at least three movements, and do over ten sets. You start with some bench pressing, move to the incline press, do a few sets of flyes, and possibly even some push-ups.
But why do you expect that your calves will grow optimally from three or four half-hearted sets at the end of leg day? Like any other muscle in the body, the calves need enough work to develop well. So, do at least ten weekly sets, spread across two or three workouts and on two or three exercises.
3. Not Controlling the Eccentric
The third common mistake limiting your growth is not controlling the eccentric portion of each repetition. In other words, you contract your calves to extend your ankles, but you fail to control yourself on the descent. Instead, you simply ‘drop’ to the bottom position, take advantage of the stretch reflex, and almost jump to the top of the calf raise.
A much better approach is to perform repetitions slowly, focusing equally on the concentric and eccentric, adding a slight pause at the top and bottom. Doing so allows you to keep the tension on your calves, causing a better growth stimulus.